Susan Hill’s French notebook: My struggle to avoid local cuisine

Plus: the Champagne conspiracy; overstaffing in action; and the glory of French storms

11 July 2015

9:00 AM

11 July 2015

9:00 AM

An overnight stop on the Ile de Ré taken between the St Malo ferry and the Quercy, where we always spend June, reminds one how closely French history lives entangled with modern life. Sleek hotels, harbours full of private boats, overpriced gift and fashion boutiques are cheek by jowl with ancient monuments and fortifications, in streets of small stone houses so narrow that the ubiquitous bicycles barely get through. Amid the massed tourists here, they still cultivate vines, mine salt and grow potatoes to send over toute la France. The mussels and lobsters remind me of home in north Norfolk and the pretty cottages are freshly painted white with pale grey or soft green shutters. It feels oddly unreal, a film set of an island, and an Atlantic gale buffets the shoreline trees even in June, but many people live here all year round.

Typical of France’s eccentricities and problems all in one are the ten villages on the Ile de Ré with, naturally, ten separate tourist offices, none of which know anything whatsoever about the others. One mile away and it’s not their patch.

Further south, we encountered a perfect example of the overstaffed French public sector. It defied belief. The verges were being cut by a convoy of four huge machines. The first had its setting on high, to shave a little off the top, the second cut a notch down and so on to the last, which finished the job. Today, a municipal hedge-cutter was operating, with required a white van, rotating warning light atop, parked 50 yards away. This had employee number two in it, reading his newspaper. What was a country of small café and bar owners has seen hundreds of them close, because of the punitive taxes on private enterprise. The (English) man who tends the pool here, and is also a small jobbing builder, was paying 50 per cent tax on a modest income and had to work seven days a week to make it. He has shrunk his business and is helping his son build a house. I do not know if money changes hands but if so, it is all within the family. Several higher earners I knew here have left. If 50 per cent tax is bad, 79 per cent sees talent, enterprise and money draining from France, while vast numbers of public sector employees enjoy a 35-hour week and retire at 60. This is socialism in action. No wonder Sarkozy might return to the Elysée Palace.

It is an ill wind, though. The euro is so weak that shopping is cheap again — last fill of my two-litre car at home was £80, the first here, £50. Bottles of our favourite Crémant Brut cost £7 last year, £4.50 now. Talking of fizzy wine, Prosecco has become England’s favourite drink because the Italians saw a gap and jumped in. So why have the French not done the same with equally delicious Crémant? Lack of enterprise? Laziness? No, they want us to buy Champagne. French restaurants won’t sell Crémant for the same reason, so most people drink the house white.

‘Locally sourced’ makes my heart sink not because local is bad but because it fills menus to the exclusion of all else. Here every menu has ‘la cuisine regionale’ which is duck with everything, and then foie gras. As a non-practising vegetarian (I eat some meat, prefer veg) who loathes duck, I dine out on too many cabécou omelettes and salads. If the EU cared about animal welfare it would ban foie gras, the cruellest food on the planet. I would eat a lean steak but French chefs refuse to serve it well-done — it’s against their art or something. This year, though, we have discovered two English-owned restaurants offering lamb cutlets, burgers, pasta — a small blow in the war against duck. Maybe there are no vegetarians here because the markets offer a magnificent selection of vegetables but where they go afterwards is one of the mysteries of French life.

My goodness but they do thunderstorms well here! A lady crossing the road when her umbrella blew inside out, shouted to me over the roar, ‘C’est la tempête, Madam, la tempête!’ It was, too. Trees bent half over, the air was like soup and sulphurous, water flowed like a river. You could not see the other side of the valley through what looked like dense fog but was actually clouds of rain. The pack of hounds kennelled nearby, normally quiet except for five minutes before feeding time, were baying like those of the Baskervilles for almost an hour as the barometer fell. Of course the power went off. It was all very Wagnerian and the previous time I experienced anything like it was last year. In Hove.

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  • Mary_Carter
  • john kruger

    you lost me after “well-done steak”

    • Linguistician

      Some people don’t like raw meat.

  • Man on the Clapham Omnibus

    The view from Roussillon is magnificent, but it sounds – “we have discovered two English-owned restaurants offering lamb cutlets, burgers, pasta” – as though you might prefer Skegness.

  • thomasaikenhead

    What a bizarre and confused rant that seems to lack both reason and logic?

    The state in France has played a major economic role since the days of Cardinal Richlieu and the many centuries since that time have seen France emerge as the major tourist destination in the world.

    The patronising twaddle in this article will not change this fact!

    • Flintshire Ian

      Great food , fantastic climate, wonderful beaches, some of the world’s best wine, but to keep things fair to the rest of the world, God created the French.

  • Michael Hannon

    >>Maybe there are no vegetarians here because the markets offer a magnificent selection of vegetables but where they go afterwards is one of the mysteries of French life.<<

    Indeed it is. They are taken home, boiled to death – then thrown away, I believe.
    France is the only country I know where people order a salad, pick out the bits of meat or whatever, then leave all the salad.
    A strange land/people indeed. I don't know how I've stood for 13 years…

    • Jeffrey Vernon

      The French know what they’re up to. Compared with Americans, French people consume fewer fruit and vegetables, half as much wholewheat bread, twice as much lard, four times as much cheese, and 10 times as much alcohol. They have the lowest rate of heart disease in the world. If only we stopped regarding chlorophyll as food…

  • Flintshire Ian

    In a restaurant near to St Omer we were asked if everything was ok. It was, but we commented that the steaks were well done, rather than a point as ordered, but it didn’t matter. Plates removed immediately. Replacements served…well done. In areas where there are lots of Brits, there is some stereotyping.

  • Man In Black

    Most crémant is really not very good — there are some exceptions though, and maybe you found one ?

    Blame the English maybe, for not importing any Méthode Champenoise, or even just some straightforward pétillant (though that’s gone a bit out of fashion in recent decades)

    Foie Gras is “cruel” only in the imagination — gorging is how ducks and geese eat their food naturally

    I would eat a lean steak but French chefs refuse to serve it well-done

    No they jolly well do NOT — but “bien cuit” does not really mean “well-done” from the English point of view ; it means medium-rare. Ask for “très bien cuit” with some gesticular or other expressions of insistence if possible — and don’t hesitate to send it back for more if it’s not cooked well enough to your taste

    It’s getting it “bleu” that’s the tough one …

    • Mary Ann

      My local supermarket serves a lovely bleu steak according to my husband, I have mine moyen, it comes pink in the middle with perhaps a touch of red, just how I like it. Mind you, in Brittany a third of the population are British so they understand us.

      Mind you the Isle de Re is no way on the route from St Malo to Quercy, which might explain a lot.

      • Man In Black

        ‘Bout half the times I order bleu it arrives saignant — which I don’t really mind at all, as I like it both ways ; then there are the times it arrives bleu, but not hot, as it should be.

        This has been all over France, and my experience is that most chefs don’t know how to do bleu properly, if at all. Admittedly, it takes some skill, and I hardly ever manage it myself LOL

  • RosieGHutcheson

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  • sfin

    Fois Gras is one of life’s supreme pleasures, in my view – and it is only cruel to deluded people who take their knowledge of the animal kingdom from Walt Disney and humanise animals. If it is so cruel, why do the ducks and geese queue up, come feeding time?

    I’m a Paris resident, and it is true that there is a lot of rubbish served in far too many restaurants here. And most of the menus contain the the same Margret de Canard, Onglet de Boeuf, Steak Tartare, Andouillette etc etc (kind of like Chicken in a basket, Scampi and chips and Lasagne on the British pub menus of the 70s)…

    …But there are still plenty of gems to be found, and eating out in Paris is dirt cheap compared to London. Furthermore, the chef will not get on his high horse if you specify exactly how you want something cooked – he/ she will regard it as testament to their skills to give you exactly what you want.

    The French do risk sitting on their culinary reputation, at times, but it’s worth doing a little homework and seeking out those places who still take it seriously – you can have a sublime experience without breaking the bank.

    • france71

      “If it is so cruel, why do the ducks and geese queue up, come feeding time?”….Pavlov’s Dog? for example.

      “eating out in Paris is dirt cheap compared to London”…if you’re a Paris resident (and therefore know the place very well), just as eating out in London is dirt cheap compared to Paris….for the same reasons. Wouldn’t you say?

      • sfin

        I would disagree that there is a pavlovian response in ducks and geese and the birds never show any signs of distress when being force fed. Wild animals tend to gorge themselves in times of plenty to make up for the lean times. The French ducks and geese are living in a perpetual time of plenty!

        I see your second point, and yes I do know Paris today, better than I know London but I would still argue that the ‘average’ menu price for lunch in Paris (roughly £15 for two courses plus a 0.25l carafe of wine) is cheaper than in London – what varies quite a lot, in Paris, is the quality. I appreciate that my use of ‘average’ here is monstrously vague. I should say that I always expect to pay a premium for eating out in London and my expectations are usually met! I am still pleasantly surprised when I receive the bill, here in Paris.

        So an impression, rather than a statement of fact.

  • Jeffrey Vernon

    Travel really does narrow the mind. Susan Hill goes to France only to remind herself how much better they arrange these things in Norfolk.

  • Sean L

    Well done steak, criminal that is.

  • GaryMKingery

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  • Mary Ann

    Sorry, this is not the France I recognise.

  • Malcolm Stevas

    Wine certainly, but currently Scotch offers the best bargain by a long chalk. Glenfiddich? £35 the other day in Morrisons: I bought a bottle three weeks ago in Cora (or Carrefour, forget which) for €20, i.e. £20 less than the UK price…
    I have mixed feelings about the bloated French public sector since in our bit of France – way across at the other end – the services are high to match. Our commune is well equipped and very prompt at dealing with things like floods, even down remote culs-de-sac like ours. And one gets there from the Channel via an autoroute network of high quality, with surfaces consistently much better than our motorways.
    Eating out? It’s a constant source of pleasure and surprise that there are so many small restaurants tucked away in villages or down country roads, with enough custom to keep them going, and generally serving meals which offer much better value than in UK equivalents. Cheaper too.

    • france71

      Hear, hear. I well balanced comment.

  • ChristopherFSalas

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  • mortsnerd

    In complete agreement with the author’s observations upon the state serfdom of the ancien régime French, I am appalled at her total lack of culinary culture and basic joie de vivre. Puerile food restrictions do her no service and bore the rest of us, who enjoy living, to tears.

  • france71

    I’m an Englishman who lives and works in France (indeed not far from St Malo). Having just read the above article, I found it patronising and ill informed. The Spectator is killing itself with a thousand cuts, with articles like these. Please show some editorial spirit.