Why the French still beat us hands-down for good food
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Opinion: Our food has improved over the past few years. But as Andy Newman discovers, the French are still way, way ahead of us...
Although I am a Francophile, I am not one of those people who believes that everything French is good and everything British is bad. We have much to teach our Gallic cousins about queueing, website design, road signs and pop music, to name but a few things. But when it comes to food and drink, it is our turn to sit up and learn, because they simply do it better than we do.
Last week I was in Montpellier, a beautiful city of around 250,000 people, making it about one and a half times the size of Norwich. It is situated in the south of France, capital of Languedoc, a region which has a justifiably growing reputation for its wines – no longer the wine lake of Europe, this region offers arguably better-value bottles than anywhere else in France.
Throughout July and August, each Friday evening the city is celebrating its food and drink culture with a weekly festival, and last week I was there. A boisterous and fun event, it offered a mixture of wine, a nighttime market, live music – and street food.
Now, clearly Montpellier has some advantages over Norwich in putting on an event like this. First, the climate pretty much guarantees that an outdoor festival will be conducted in glorious heat, even late into the night. They didn't feel the need to post notices of the 'if wet, in the town hall' variety.
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The second huge bonus of being in Languedoc is the long roster of winemakers who can be called upon to come and show their wares. Two dozen are invited every Friday evening; you buy a glass and tokens (much as at the Norwich Beer Festival), and exchange these tokens for tastings.
If you were so minded, you could work your way through more than 100 wines between 6pm and 11.30pm. Mindful of the EDP Editor's chivvying that every article in this paper should be properly researched, I did my best on your behalf. I hope you appreciate my efforts.
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With all this liquid research, I felt the need to eat something to soak it up, and it was here that the biggest contrast with the British way of doing things was most evident. While our street food has certainly improved over recent years, I wish every food festival and 'Eat Out' event director could have been in Montpellier last week to see how it should be done.
The choice was breathtaking. There must have been nearly 100 stalls, selling every kind of food you could imagine. I ate razor clams which had been cooked on a griddle in front of my eyes; I nibbled on acorn-fed Iberico ham; I enjoyed a refreshing mango sorbet which was also made while I waited. I could have tasted Creole food, Thai, north African, Middle Eastern.
The thing that tied all this together was a willingness to wait while the food was made there and then. There was a sense that this was one giant restaurant with many chefs, and the people attending the festival were taking the food seriously, not just grabbing it as fuel to eat as quickly as possible. Most of the stalls had provided tables and chairs so that you could sit down and concentrate on your food.
The sheer variety of what was on offer, coupled with the attitude both of the stall holders and their customers, made our own efforts at street food seem a bit inadequate. Good though some of our local favourites might be – I love pizzas from our own Proper Pizza Company, for example – we just don't seem to be able to create the same buzz about street food as I witnessed last week.
Perhaps it's the climate; eating outside is always done with one eye on the weather in this country. But actually, I think it's more fundamental than that: it's that we as consumers are largely unwilling to focus our attention on what we are eating. And that's why the French, who are obsessive about what they put in their mouths, will always be ahead of us in this field.
One final thought: I was astonished to see a fish and chip stall as part of the Montpellier festival last week. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it wasn't doing much trade; given the cosmopolitan nature of the fare on offer at other stalls, I can't think that this was down to traditional French chauvinism. But it did seem like another nail in the coffin of our gastronomic reputation on the other side of the Channel.