French cuisine is back on the menu

French dining has come in for some curdling criticism of late but, as Fiachra Gibbons reports, good French food is making its comeback


You may have heard that French cuisine is dead and that, if you want to eat interesting food nowadays, you should go to Copenhagen, Catalonia or indeed London.

Some say the culinary centre of the world has shifted from Paris, never to return, leaving its prissy Michelin-starred establishments to sink into a bouillabaisse of their own arrogance and pretension.

Articles appear with such monotonous regularity announcing the death of French food and wine that the French themselves might be apt to believe them, if they weren’t eating and drinking so well. Better in fact than they have in decades.

Food outside France has incontestably got better. But critics, particularly Anglo-Saxon ones, have had so much fun chronicling France’s fall from on high that they failed to notice the corpse is back on its feet running rings around them.

Even those who made their names administering the last rites to French gastronomy, such as Michael Steinberger, the American author of Au Revoir To All That: Food, Wine and the End of France, now concede there’s a renaissance going on.

In fact, the revival has been going on for ten years, observers argue, gathering speed while gadfly gastronauts were busy pronouncing Scandinavia the epicurean epicentre of the world on the basis of smoked eggs, dehydrated carrots and pickled cucumbers.

You can find great bistros everywhere in France now, which is not the case in Spain or elsewhere

Meanwhile the pillars of French gastronomy – bread and cheese, wine and restaurants – have been rethought by a new generation of cooks, bakers, and radical organic wine and cheese-makers. These quiet revolutionaries may have gone largely unacknowledged abroad, but they are proving it is once again possible to eat better, more interestingly and cheaper in France than almost anywhere.

Not that the crisis wasn’t real. More than 100,000 cafés have closed since the 1970s and only one in ten cheeses now eaten in France is unpasteurised. The most French of all cheeses – Camembert – has fallen so foul of French food conglomerates that only six producers now remain who make Camembert with lait cru. And only one uses Normandy cows.

Seven out of ten restaurants admit to using pre-prepared or frozen ingredients or sauces – the superstar chef Alain Ducasse claims more like nine out of ten “cheat”. The outcry over factory-made pot au feu forced French deputies to legislate this year, with pressure growing on restaurants to prove they prepare food from scratch.

“Let’s be frank, Paris had become dull,” says François Simon, France’s most influential restaurant critic. “Gastronomy had become too elitist and too expensive – as uninteresting for the chefs as for the public. Everyone was doing more or less the same thing at the top and hiding behind tradition in the middle. Why experiment with some exotic sauce when you can do a perfectly good blanquette?”

When Alexandre Cammas, founder of Le Fooding, the guide that has become the chief cheerleader of the new wave of funky cooking in France, set out in 2000 to “look for the kind of exciting new restaurants we had eaten in in London and New York, he couldn’t find any. They were great one-off or classic places, but that’s all. It wasn’t until 2003 that things began to happen…”

Innovative Cooking

What happened were les bistrots gourmands, a wave of small, highly individual restaurants serving innovative cooking at affordable prices. Young chefs, such as Yves Camdeborde of Le Comptoir du Relais and Inaki Aizpitarte, who now runs The Chateaubriand, set up shop in the less chichi quartiers of Paris and pared back the fripperies so they could serve spectacular food at brasserie prices.

“Other talented young cooks bored with regimented life in the temples of haute gastronomie followed suit,” says food critic Mr Simon. “The public could not get enough and still can’t. What isn’t there to like. This is wonderful, satisfying food that’s affordable and fun. And it is not just a Paris phenomenon. You can find great bistros everywhere in France now, which is not the case in Spain or elsewhere.”

Ironically, France’s long economic crisis has actually helped it rediscover its mojo by keeping prices down and forcing young chefs to look elsewhere for excitement and opportunity. “This generation is so much more well travelled and open to the world than any previous one,” says Mr Cammas. Many also come from higher up the social scale than their predecessors, who ended up in catering school because they couldn’t cut it academically. “They cook from passion – and it shows,” he says.

What unites them, Mr Simon and Mr Cammas agree, is a desire to escape the old bourgeois strictures of the Michelin Guide. Which is maybe why foreigners have been so slow to pick up on the bistro revolution even as it spreads to New York, London and Tokyo.

“When people say the French can no longer cook on the basis of Paris having fewer three-star Michelin restaurants, I want to scream,” says Mr Cammas. “Don’t they see the whole point of the bistro movement is to be under the Michelin radar? The reason all these Brits, Americans and Japanese chefs are opening here is because they want to be part of it.”

At the same time, a still more radical revolution has been taking place in French wine, often in the unlikeliest of places. There’s a joke about Beaujolais, the wine that suffered most from the marketing excesses of the 1980s, that has a waiter asking a customer if he’d like a glass. “Non, merci,” the customer says, “I prefer wine.”

Vin Naturel

He had clearly never tasted Karim Vionnet’s Beaujolais. Vionnet makes what is called vin naturel, natural wine, using methods that go beyond organic, so only the yeasts found on the grape itself and little or no sulphites are used. It doesn’t make for an easy life, but the results can be spectacular, so spectacular that hundreds of winemakers like him across France have abandoned mainstream methods.  And like bistrots gourmands, the vin naturel bug is spreading far beyond France.

Vin naturel is not just a reaction to the chemistry-set new world wines with their buckets of hangover-inducing sulphur, but to wine snobbery itself. Vionnet’s wine sells for a little more than €10 a bottle. You can even buy it in a box.

Celebrated cheesemonger Laurent Dubois also believes the best things in life don’t have to be ruinously expensive. “Cheese is the most affordable of gourmet pleasures. When you find a great cheese you don’t ask how much,” he says, “You ask how much can you give me.”

Mr Dubois is not so much a fromager as an alchemist, a skill that comes with three generations of 70-hour weeks; holidays and Sunday afternoons spent scouring the farmyards of France for cheeses and cheese-makers with the potential to be showstoppers. Knowing what flavours will come out in the delicate process of affinage in his cellars is his particular magic.

He regrets the passing of small, mixed farms that would make three kilos of butter and cheese for the Saturday market, but says artisanal cheese-making has radically improved in the last 20 years, fanned by a kind of cheese fundamentalism in the face of the threat of standardisation from the conglomerates and the EU. “The hypermarkets effectively killed the cremerie – yoghurt, butter and crème fraîche – but good cheese has resisted by becoming more individual and complex,” he says.

But everything in France begins and ends with bread. And the best baguette in the French capital, the one President François Hollande eats every morning at the Elysée Palace, comes from a working-class corner of the 14th arrondissement.

Antonio Teixeira, the son of Spanish and Portuguese immigrants, works from 3am to 7pm making his sourdough baguette tradition as crusty, flavoursome and fresh as bread can be. He’s just 24, but his passion and rigour are breathtaking, all for €1.10 a baguette.

He believes in blood, sweat and traditional techniques, but also in experimentation. “I’ve been working on my sourdough recipe for ten years, since I was 14,” he says. Young bakers like him from the city’s poorer quartiers have beaten the starry boulangers to the best bread title for five years running now and it’s not by accident.

Those who say French food is finished need to wake up and smell les baguettes… As for the coffee, there’s work to be done yet.