Fat Man in a White Hat

A welcome reminder that French cuisine still rules.

Like brawn, or certain kinds of stinky cheese, Bill Buford is an acquired taste. On screen, the New Yorker writer and former editor of Granta sounds a little like Clive James. Admittedly, he is American, not Australian. But he, too, likes to repeat words and phrases for mesmeric effect, and there is something raspily nasal about his delivery that makes you wonder whether he might not be in need of Sudafed. However, he is altogether more manic than James, his arms waving about the place like the blades on a state-of-the-art food processor. Enthusiasm is his thing.

The BBC, ever keen to please, has styled its latest foodie acquisition as a Fat Man in a White Hat (16 March, 9pm, BBC4), which does not really do it for me. At most, he is a moderately podgy man in a short-sleeved shirt. But he is certainly friendly. Even in repose, his face carries the ghost of a smile. I suppose the fat man thing is mostly designed to distract from the somewhat intimidating nature of his adventures - for Nigella, Delia or Hugh he most certainly is not. Yes, we are in France, mes amis, touring its most serious kitchens. So if lemon-raspberry plate trifle, chicken Basque and barbecued lettuce are your thing, do look away now.

Some years ago, Buford started getting interested in food. I mean, really interested. He took a sabbatical from his day job and wrote a book called Heat about Babbo, an Italian restaurant in New York, where he worked for free in order to learn the ways of its celebrated chef, Mario Batali. He also visited some of the kitchens in Italy where Batali had his most formative experiences.

Peasant food in the bag, he then headed for France, land of the sauce. Basically, he was going to pull the same stunt again, only this time he would use an awful lot more butter. Unfortunately, in his TV series, he gives us none of this background. Viewers unaware of his history will be confused. They will think: "Who on earth is this antic, bearded American?"

Watch him carefully, and it's clear that he already has cooking skills. But when he speaks to the camera, he hams it up, pretending to be worse than a novice, telling us only that he hopes to make himself "viable". This is annoying. Though it's not quite as annoying as how he pronounces "Lyons", his new, temporary home (he calls it "Le-own", as in Sierra Leone).

Oh, well. Fat Man in a White Hat is still a cut above most TV food shows: less phoney, more serious. I love Lyons, where giant bowls of pork scratchings come as standard on bouchon tables, and where Buford has managed to get a foot in the door of the finer establishments. At La Pyramide, which first opened in Vienne, north of the city, in 1922, he watched as its chef, Patrick Henriroux, prepared its most celebrated dish: poulet de Bresse au foie gras et truffe noire. Oh, my God. Writing these words makes me feel weak with desire.

Take one fine Bresse chicken. Accept no other bird. Shove at least a dozen shavings of black truffle beneath its skin, and one hefty slab of foie gras up its backside. Wrap in a pig's bladder that has been carefully washed in cognac, and gently poach. Et voilà!

Buford put a slice in his mouth and fell momentarily silent, which, given his garrulous nature, tells you all you need to know. Assuming that you've remembered to remove chicken from bladder before carving, this is heaven on a plate, and I don't care how many sandals you throw at me for saying so.

French cooking, Buford says, is "the only real cooking there is", and you know what he means even as you remember all the tortellini he made in Heat. Seeing these French chefs at work, even with their American visitor loitering unhelpfully at their elbow, induced in me a cultural envy so powerful that I felt like taking all my Jane Grigson books down to Oxfam and returning defeatedly to frozen fish fingers.

The simple truth is that compared to, say, the great Paul Bocuse, even the most talked-about and accomplished British chef will only ever play Alain de Botton to the Frenchman's Jean-Paul Sartre.