New regulations aim to maintain high standards in French restaurants, but lack of innovation is the real problem.
The recent revelation from France's Union of Hotel Industry Professions (UHIP) - that 85 per cent of the country's 150,000 restaurants serve vacuum-packed and frozen food without telling customers - is perhaps one of the factors that has prompted the French government to introduce yet more culinary legislation.
From today, a black and white logo of a saucepan, with a roof as a lid, will be displayed on menus to indicate dishes that are “fait maison”, or home made. In the very specific and yet nearly wholly meaningless (and therefore spectacularly French) wording of the decree, published on Sunday, it will denote "a food product having undergone no significant modification, including being heated, marinated, assembled or a combination of these procedures".
On the surface, it's a praise-worthy move, that ought to highlight restaurants who prize quality over profit margins, and don’t buy in their tartiflette and crème brûlée from food manufacturing conglomerates of which, alongside its quaint bistros and Michelin stars, France has many (Danone, Tereos, and Comigel, to name just a few).
And yet the last thing France needs is yet more rules and symbols to nurture and promote its best cuisine. Already, diners are confronted by an army of stamps and logos that purportly mark quality. Label Rouge denotes free-range eggs and poultry “reared using traditional, free-range production methods”, for example, while AOC – “appellation d’origine contrôlée” (controlled designation of origin) – specifies products, including cheese, meat, lavender and lentils, which have been grown and processed by specific producers in designated geographical areas. The ins and outs of all the various quality stamps are enough to leave even the most passionate foodie scratching his or her head. Indeed, the proof is in le burger when it comes to younger French generations, who seemingly cannot get enough of fast food chains like McDonald’s and Quick (a French version of Maccy D’s). And when the first Parisian Burger King opened last year, locals queued around the block for a taste of the Whopper.
While France has commendably preserved an independent restaurant industry and pockets of excellent regional cuisine, the latter of which has all but fallen by the wayside in Britain, its haughty belief that its classics are better than everyone else’s is the bigger concern. Instead of stifling restaurant owners with another layer of bureaucracy with which they may comply (inspections on restaurants claiming to offer food “fait maison” are to come into force next year), the French government would be better to foster an environment in which diversity and ingenuity in cooking are encouraged. And by ingenuity, I do not mean another pretentious foam and girolle display, presented on a oddly-shaped glass plate, but simply the adoption of a wider range of ingredients and cooking styles. In London, there's something on offer from virtually every corner in the world, a fact perfectly demonstrated recently when a Twitter user - Matt Thomlinson - successfully ate cuisine from each of the 32 nations taking part in the World Cup.
Inspecting a restaurant menu in London is a delight: do I go for aubergine with za’atar, a modern Sunday roast – maybe roast meat with braised shallots and watercress – or suckling pig with piquillo peppers? In Paris, it’s a bore: you know there will be the same tired offering of magret de canard, steak frites, and limp salmon with overcooked green beans nigh on everywhere you go.
Broadly speaking, cooking from France’s naturalised immigrants – from the Magreb and Sub-Saharan Africa, for example – is sidelined. Middle-class Parisians will deign to eat a couscous or a tagine, but this seems ever only to be in specifically Moroccan, Algerian or Tunisian restaurants. Foreign cooking methods and ingredients are not incorporated into the thick cookery bibles of what is considered “French”.
This gastronomic sense of superiority – conscious or unconscious – along with a love of regulation, is not limited to food. The Académie française, for example, is an ancient panel of ancient academics (the average age of its members, known as the “Immortels” is supposedly 78) who dictate the “correct” form of the French language. The list goes on: the interminable workplace regulation that means companies are too scared to hire employees on permanent contracts; the schooling system that teaches one rigid way of writing an essay, with teachers fuming at the ears if pupils attempt to write using any other structure than their specified intro-three key points-conclusion method.
The French do not need another food quality label. They need to loosen up and listen to new ways of preparing and using all the good ingredients nurtured in their much-vaunted terroirs. Then, good, fresh ingredients will prevail, and maybe restauranteurs will feel less pressed to run to the nearest vacuum-packed or pre-packaged ingredients in a vain bid to recreate the classics.
THE TELEGRAPH, LONDON