Having lived in France for five years, the number of times I’ve heard my home cuisine insulted by a French person is too many to count. It seems to be wired into their DNA: French food is the best in the world (“mais bien sur!”) and British fare isn’t fit for an animal to eat. Tell a Frenchman there is no English expression for “Bon appétit” and he will almost unfailingly reply, “They just say ‘Bonne chance!’” (Good luck) to the hoots of laughter of any fellow countrymen listening.
“They just say, ‘Bonne chance!’”
Well, “Enough!” I cry! I have done my best to undo French stereotypes by earnestly reporting to friends and family in the UK that French women do shave their armpits and no, no-one smells of garlic or onions – Parisians do wear a lot of striped tops though, that one is true. So now it’s time for the French to admit how much they really like British grub, because they do.
A couple of years ago, when Marks & Spencer opened on the Champs Elysées, there was a queue to enter for the first three weeks. These people were not queuing for the Per Una collection. They wanted scones, cheddar cheese and pork sausages, and guess what? Most of them were French. They love our pies, sandwiches, bread and Victoria sponges; they just don’t like to admit it…
… Or do they?
Following hot on the heels of the New York burger craze in Paris, it’s the humble British fish & chips that is taking the French capital by storm. Chic restaurants all over town are offering a “Very British” (pronounced “Verrry Briteesh”) fish & chips on their menu. Some even go so far as to offer mushy peas on the side.
French magazine “A Nous” dedicated a whole feature to the British culinary craze this month, calling it the “Royal baby effect.” In it they listed no less than five popular Paris restaurants who have added fish & chips to their daily menu. And I could name at least five more!
The last few months have seen the advent of a fish & chips truck, the Daily Wagon, and the opening of the very first fish & chip shop in Paris, The Sunken Chip, based in the trendy Canal Saint Martin area. Whilst it’s definitely more of a fish & chips restaurant than genuine chippy – the French aren’t quite prepared for that yet – the grub certainly gets top marks for authenticity, thanks to its British chefs. Fat chunky chips, crispy battered haddock and mushy peas with mint are served in a cardboard dish with disposable wooden knives and forks. Jars of pickled eggs line the back wall and bottles of Sarson’s vinegar sit ready for liberal dousing on every table.
And just who is enjoying salt n vinegar chips and pickled eggs? When I was there the tables were full and there was a steady flow of take-away customers. In all I counted two English people, including me, the rest were French.
So ok, the French are definitely pro-batter, but what about the rest of our fine British cooking? Has anything else made it across the Channel? Of course it has. The latest trend in new Paris cafés is small New York style coffee shops that serve, amongst other baked goods, fresh scones with jam.
Fusion food and British-inspired dishes are also becoming more common place in the French capital. Le Bal Café in the 18th is a perfect example of an Anglo-French blend. Run by two chefs, one English, the other French-Irish, the menu is British based and includes Welsh rarebit, kippers on toast, scones and porridge. I went for brunch and once again found the restaurant bursting with Parisians all chowing down on fry-ups and bacon pie.
It looks to me like it’s time to stop the British food bashing. No-one’s saying that our national gastronomy is better than that of France (quelle idée!) but it’s not all baked beans on toast in Blighty, we do have some culinary tricks up our sleeves.
The next time one of my Gallic friends has something “witty” to say about my home cuisine, I shall force them to eat their words – along with their steak and kidney pie.
*Stay tuned for my review of Le Bal Café, coming soon…