A question of taste

When our conversational French has deserted us, the fact that Eadred and I hail most recently from London has proved to be a useful conversation-filler at many a dinner party. Usually our interlocutor tells us about their most recent visit there, and all we have to do is nod, smile, ask very basic questions, and patronisingly correct their pronunciation of certain key landmarks, Boooking’amme Palass, for example.

During one deployment of this tactic, I asked some fellow guests whether or not they had eaten well in London. The woman looked positively affronted by my question. Beh, non ! she said, raising her eyebrows when she saw that it was not a joke. The food had, apparently, been gras, pas raffiné and, worse-still, sans interêt.

Eadred the Bald and a cheddar cheese ploughmans (plug-mans as it might be pronounced in France)
Eadred the Bald and a cheddar cheese ploughmans (or plug-man)

I gulped. There are many things that I happily waved goodbye to when we left London, but I still sorely miss the food. When we ate out, I enjoyed taking my pick from Indian, Eritrean, Spanish, Vietnamese, or even British cuisine. When we ate in, I enjoyed experimenting with the readily-available ingredients to make delicious meals from all around the world. Lyonnais gastronomy may have a well-deserved global reputation, but pigs’ trotters and quenelles can wear a little thin after their thousandth iteration, and sometimes I yearn for the exuberant range of flavours that I took for granted in the UK.

Back at the dinner party, I decided to probe a little deeper. What had they eaten? Mais nous avons mangé ce qu’il y avait à manger là-bas… Which was?… Poisson frites. Oh. OK. And what else? Ship’er’s pie. And where had these delicacies been consumed? She wasn’t sure, but from her description it sounded suspiciously like a Wetherspoons pub.

I am still raging, months later, about this contemptuous dismissal of the cuisine of an entire nation based on a deliberately perverse selection of its blandest and poorest-quality offerings. Nonetheless, rage though I might, the negative stereotypes of English cooking persist unchecked in my adopted land, apparently being instilled in citizens of the Republic from the very moment of their birth.

I learnt this lesson the hard way. The process began during our first summer here, when our eldest daughter asked me to make gingerbread men for her end-of-year class goûter. What a lovely idea, I thought, and together we baked up a storm, spending ages cutting out the little gingerbread people and giving them tiny faces and the traditional, but anatomically baffling, three dots down the front of their stomachs. Such offerings had always proved irresistible to small hands in the UK.

The men were not a hit. One child picked up one of their number, turned him around, and asked with ill-concealed disdain, c’est quoi ça ? It was a biscuit in the shape of a man, I explained. Her expression did not soften: c’est un truc anglais ? I confirmed that it was indeed an English thing. She shrugged and put the man back, then whispered to something to her neighbour, who shook her head at me in terror as I loomed overhead with my bizarre British offering. A braver classmate bit into a gingerbread girl and started to cry (c’est trop épicé, her mother informed me).

If the suspicion of small children is to be expected, I find the same quality surprising in adults. Each year at Christmas I amuse myself by making mince pies and taking them to French gatherings. I explain that they are an English delicacy but that they have a taste which is particulier. Some people will bravely hazard a nibble, and the look of shock that crosses their faces upon their first bite is entertaining. Many people will simply turn me down with a look of undisguised horror.

mincemeat

An English friend of mine once took a selection of British cheeses to a pot. Hardly anyone could be convinced to even try the mature cheddar that she had taken great pains to procure (many things here in France sell themselves as cheddar, but they mostly appear to be made of plastic, or have been confused with a block of red Leicester). C’est fort, c’est delicieux, she encouraged. Non, merci, they declined, unapologetically, tucking instead into a wodge of insipid camembert.

Whilst my delicacies are a novelty here, I have been surprised to find high levels of awareness of other British specialitiés. On one occasion I was called into the school kitchen where a menu anglais was being prepared. The cook was at a loss as to how to make the something called le pudding, and was, in desperation, having recourse to some native expertise. I had absolutely no idea what she was trying to make: it seemed to be a sort of sponge cake featuring miscellaneous bits of fruit. Not wishing to increase her panic, I told her that she was doing fine and left her to it. That evening we received a recette anglaise in the girls’ school bags giving instructions for a different version of the mysterious le pudding. I have yet to meet a British person who has ever heard of it, but if that is what passes for British food, I can grudgingly concede some degree of misgiving about it.

le-pudding

The same goes for the hypermarché. On my sporadic visits to the British section of the étranger aisle, I am confronted with a wall of jelly, custard, baked beans and Bisto. Mince pies will never stand a chance if this is how we market ourselves abroad…

non-gourmet English supplies
non-gourmet English supplies

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This month, as every month, I have linked up to the Lou Messugo #AllAboutFrance blog linkup, where you will find lots of interesting posts about France.

27 thoughts on “A question of taste

  1. I agree that all French food all the time gets a little boring. Personally I love spicy food–Thai, Mexican, Indian. The one real Thai restaurant (there are others but they are of the bland, Frenchified, heavy sauce, faux-Chinese-with-Thai-label-to-be-different variety) closed; there’s only one Indian restaurant and no Mexican. We threw a Cinco de Mayo party, which greatly worried our French guests, but anticipating their fear of anything relevé, I cooked everything with lots of herbs and spices but no piment. They loved it.

  2. Totally get it. The French think all we eat is McDonald’s back in the USA and the specialty foods aisle has a miserable selection of junky stuff. I feel your pain!

  3. OK I will actually say more because this is something that gets my goat too. I’ve come up against this for nearly 20 years and it drives me potty! London is one of the best places on earth to eat and yet so many (French) visitors insist on going to what they see as “traditional” pubs which are of course bland chains like you mentioned and of course they eat badly. It’s definitely a mind set…la bouffe anglaise is quite simply beurk. Un point c’est tout! And in my local supermarket you can get Fray Bentos pie….who has ever actually bought and eaten one of those…ever? Thanks for linking “as every month” (so loyal!) to #AllAboutFrance

    1. I am glad that it annoys other people too. I had begun to feel that I was living in some parallel universe so convinced are some people that they are right… #AllAboutFrance

  4. It’s not only in France; similar (wrong) negative preconceptions of British food are commonplace here in Luxembourg too. Sure, many of the old-fashioned hotels and bland chain pubs will overcook the vegetables, but personally I love the variety and quality of the food on offer in Britain. And, besides (is this becoming a rant?), trying to eat well at an affordable price with four kids in tow is – in my opinion – more difficult in France than just about any other country we’ve visited.

    Rather topically, I am currently trying to convince my Luxembourgish wife that a week or two in England next spring won’t result in starvation… wish me luck! #AllAboutFrance

    1. It’s funny that it is true of Luxembourg too – do they have particularly good food there?? And good luck in London catering to the requirement for disgusting British food to prove the point that it is all bad… #AllAboutFrance

  5. It’s true that the UK has a reputation for bad food, and not just in France – I’ve heard Americans complain about it too. But like you said, there is quite a variety of really nice and varied eating options there. And I also enjoy the old classics, such as fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, Sunday roast… these can be really tasty if nicely done. I think it is just a case of people finding what they expect to find.

  6. You’re right! I al quite frustrated by the French inability to try anything new. God forbid there’s a bit of spice in something! I also miss the choice for foreign foods. I’ve had to cook them all myself.
    Oh, and the french re-invention of cuisines from other nations. After living 3 years in France I had positively forgotten what an Italian tiramisu tasted like until my recent stay in Florence. I had a Mexican sandwich, against my better judgement, the other day. They used curry sauce. Sigh.

  7. I’m convinced that people in other European countries base their judgement on English food on cuisine from the 1950s! I agree that you can get some amazing food in London – better than any other world city I’ve been to. I loved your story about the gingerbread men – hilarious. #AllAboutFrance

  8. I completely understand your frustration! The number of times I have endured snide remarks about American cuisine… French cuisine is wonderful but they can certainly be snobs about it. Anyone who isn’t aware of the current culinary reputation of London just isn’t paying attention! My favorite thing to do there is eat 🙂

  9. Ah, well I can vouch for good food in London. And wouldn’t be choosing a Wetherspoons to eat in as a place to represent the national food (sorry Wetherspoons, I know you have fans). Thanks for sharing with #PoCoLo x

  10. I can imagine that I wouldn’t last long just eating Lyonnais gastronomy either: the diversity in the UK is also something that I am proud of. I used to get annoyed when my non-English students would predictably tell me how terrible our food is. Italians used to go on about it all the time: English people eat “spaghetti with jam” (I mean, WHO?? I need names); English people don’t drain the water off their pasta; English people think pasta sauce is ketchup, etc etc. All I could think was: you can eat 100 different cuisines in the typical London street… here, not at all. So irritating. And when they are not even prepared to TRY it (as in the case of the English cheeses) – well that’s just ignorant, closed-minded and rude, I’m afraid.

    1. I quite agree. I am also proud of the UK’s culinary diversity. It goes against the “little England” grain. How amusing that someone is feeding Italian schoolchildren bizarre notions, too. I mean: spaghetti and jam! You need to do an inquiry into this one. Thank you for stopping by.

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