By the time you read this, I should be pedalling my way through France profonde, scooping up its finest crêpes, clafoutis and cassoulet for my next book. I rather doubt, as I huff my way down côtes and up montagnes, that many French authors will be similarly engaged tracking down the meilleur oysters in East Anglia, or the sweetest tablet in Troon. Despite a thousand years of rivalry on battle and football field, there’s one area in which we’ve long been happy to acknowledge French superiority: the kitchen.
We enjoyed, or endured, a pretty similar diet up until the end of the Middle Ages, when French cuisine evolved its plethora of sauces and fancy preparations… and British cooks carried on roasting large pieces of meat. The vast joint in Hogarth’s magnificently xenophobic painting O the Roast Beef of Old England is no mere metaphor: the artist was a member of the Sublime Society of Beef Steaks, whose meetings featured rare meat and bloody anti-French songs.
In fact, for all the mockery of “les rosbifs”, our meat earns a grudging respect. Alexandre Dumas, père praised it as “infinitely more flavourful” than the French equivalent: “to verify this, every time I go to England I eat it with renewed pleasure”. But that’s where French appreciation of British cooking ends. Voltaire described England as a nation “of 42 religions and only two sauces”, while Jacques Chirac is said to have had Gerhard Schröder and Vladimir Putin in stitches when he quipped: “One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad.”
Yet, as we prepare to embark on a new chapter in our shifting relationship, it seems that the more adventurous among our French friends are plucking up the courage to give the second-worst food in Europe (after Finland – Chirac again) a try.
It may have shuttered its clothing stores, but M&S Food’s 18 French locations are doing a roaring trade in ready meals, scones and crumpets, while Pret a Manger, the British chain with the fancy French name, has 23 outlets for its roquette écrevisse on malted brown. Chief executive Clive Schlee wrote of the differences between the two markets in 2015, observing that the French tended to treat lunch as far more of an occasion than their British counterparts: “The average Pret lunch in Paris consists of 2.9 dishes per person, significantly ahead of the more modest London total of 2.1 dishes. If the British do choose an accompaniment to their sandwich or salad, it is usually a packet of crisps. With the Parisians, it’s a side salad, a pudding or preferably both.”
But even the biggest fans of Pret and M&S would concede that they’re hardly the crème de la crème of our cuisine. Enter L’Entente, a British brasserie in the 2nd arrondissement, run by London-transplant Oliver Woodhead who, after 20 years in France, “being told British food is terrible, when I know it’s not”, took matters into his own hands. “I didn’t want the restaurant to become a cliché” he told France 24 – which means fishcakes with sorrel sauce, not fish and chips, followed by lemon posset or a chunk of Paxton & Whitfield Stilton. Cheese and smoked salmon are the only ingredients he imports from the UK.
In the six months since opening, François Hollande, a man not noted for his welcoming attitude towards British exports, has posed for pictures in the kitchen, and L’Entente has been warmly reviewed in the notoriously fierce French press. Timely, perhaps: as L’Express put it, it’s “the place to be” to drown your sorrows over Brexit.
This article appears in the 30 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, God isn’t dead