It is a cliché often heard in France: “French food is the best in the world but British food…”
The only way to conclude this sentence is with a grimace – people do not eat well on the other side of the Channel and that is a fact. Sometimes American food gets it in the neck too.
Everyone will nod in confirmation and someone will invariably offer The Worst Meal I Ate in a London Pub.
Someone else will disparage steak and kidney pudding, and there is always a laugh at the idea of eating mint sauce with meat.
The mocking of UK/US cuisine ends with a joke: there is no English equivalent of bon appétit for a reason. The US “enjoy your meal” does not quite do it. The best translation, it might be suggested, is “good luck”.
Stereotype rooted in snobbery or insecurity
Whenever someone tells me that British food is inedible, I counter that they never tasted my mother’s cooking.
She lived in Yorkshire all her life and every meal she prepared would have knocked spots off anything served in even a Michelin-starred restaurant.
We are faced here with a cultural stereotype.
All generalisations fall flat in the face of exceptions and the maintenance of them is due to snobbery, or perhaps insecurity.
I suspect the French need to reassure themselves about one of the few things they think they can do better than any other nationality.
Depends where and what you eat
Precision always helps to modify or dispel a stereotype. What people who denigrate UK/US food usually mean is:
1. Public food in those countries is not so hot (sometimes literally);
2. Consumers there are not as discerning as French people;
3. The above points were true 30 years ago, when they last visited the UK/US.
Of course, there are differences between the countries, but then there are differences between the regions of France itself. Some are more blessed with variety and tradition than others.
The truth is that French food can be good but it can also be terrible. Ditto British and American cuisine.
It depends where you eat and what you eat. You can choose examples to suit your prejudice.
Food is a no-go area of conversation
There are differences in national culinary traditions but sticking too closely to the tenet that French cooking beats the rest is the equivalent of package holidaymakers going to the Costa del Sol and expecting chips for breakfast.
I mention all this because it is a shame there should be no-go areas of conversations between nationalities because a prevailing assumption prevents an honest exchange.
I am sure we are all guilty of doing this to some extent and it is a reminder to me not to stick with judgements about French culture that I made on a school trip to Paris as a teenager.
Where Britain outstrips France
If I could get a debate going, I would insist that Britain can sometimes outstrip France when it comes to palatability.
- tea (always too weak in France)
- conditioned, hand-pumped beers
- Marmite (even if it was invented by a German)
- bitter orange marmalade
- flavoured crisps (the French cannot get the chemicals right)
- traditional apple varieties
- ploughman’s lunch (when it is made comme il faut)
- wholemeal bread
- award-winning anglicised curries
- proper seaside fish and chips
- rhubarb (with its own dénomination d’origine)
- crackers for cheese
- West Country cream teas
- Home Counties wines that are improving rapidly in quality
- and an explosion of inventive vegetarian and vegan dishes
I am sure American readers have their own examples to add.
If the French baguette is to be recognised as Intangible World Heritage, so too, I believe, should all the items on the list above.