Bored appétit! Has everybody had their fill of French food?
The Lonely Planet Ultimate Eatlist seems to suggest so
How and what and where we eat has gone through a seismic change in the past couple of decades. Where once a plate of paella or lasagne would have been seen as quite the sophisticated statement, such dishes are now boringly mainstream.
If we needed any proof as to how adventurous we have become, along comes the just-released Lonely Planet Ultimate Eatlist, a compilation of the world’s top 500 eating experiences chosen by writers, chefs, bloggers and Lonely Planet staff. Their aim was to create a directory not just of the world’s great dishes, but to evaluate them in terms of the whole gastronomic experience, taking into account not just taste, but cultural importance and location.Top of the list is enjoying pintxós (the Basque version of tapas) in San Sebastián, Spain. The rest of the top 10 is a brisk global buffet of laksa, sushi, dim sum, bibimbap, with a bit of Texas brisket thrown in for the outdoorsy sorts, and smørrebrød in Copenhagen.
This list obviously reflects the adventurous, backpacking, city-hopping and road-tripping vibe of many Lonely Planet devotees, but – quelle horreur – France doesn’t even make the top 10. There’s no Perigord truffle grated over softly scrambled eggs, a bowl of bouillabaisse on a sunny day in Marseille, nor a cassoulet on a cool Languedocien evening. Yes, a slightly random “cheese in France” is thrown in at Number 14, but it feels like their heart isn’t really in it.Something bad has happened to French food in the past 20 years. There was a time when you could pull up in almost any French village and enjoy a simple and delicious three course meal and a pichet of local wine without spending a fortune. Such places are now increasingly rare treasures, seldom discovered without the aid of a guide book or personal recommendation.
Even then, depressingly often I’ve shown up at recommended places with high hopes only to be met with blobs and dabs and foams which leave the inevitably rectangular plates looking like a Rorschach tests for despair. The decline in French restaurants was such that in 2015, the government had to introduce a law requiring food made in the restaurant from scratch to carry a fait maison label. And then there are the ubiquitous oven chips – or frites – with everything, not just the moûles, even in places that should really know better…So it has been hard to keep the faith. I went to a cookery class a year or so ago and when one of my young classmates asked what kind of food I liked to cook at home, my vive la France! reply left him looking at me with a combination of bewilderment and pity. I might as well have confessed to a penchant for fricassée of heron.But – ever the optimist – I believe that change is in the air for French food. In the French village I visit each summer, one of the most popular restaurants has no square plates, no stiff linen napkins, no blobs or foams. It may be nestled against the walls of an 11th century church, but its tables are Formica, the chairs mismatched, and its chirpy waiters tattooed and lushly bearded.
It’s always busy and lively and fun – in contrast to the much more formal place across the square, which is where I would choose to eat if I ever wanted to see where joy goes to die. No, here, the Formica groans under big platters of local charcuterie and cheese, slowly braised casseroles, quickly grilled fish. In short, proper French food.
With their onglet, souris d’agneau, jambon persille, tarte au citron and mousse au chocolat, restaurants like this remind us of why we fell in love with French food in the first place, and why in a gastro list coming to you soon we could be going back for more.
- © The Daily Telegraph