Has French cooking lost its magic? Certainly not, says Rick Stein; you just have to travel a little further off the beaten path
Like many people, I have a romantic attachment to France that goes back to childhood. I owe my love of food and restaurants to early trips to Brittany, getting off the ferry from Plymouth and driving in spring through fields of artichokes to Le Conquet near Brest. France was the first place where I really began to understand the enormous power of great produce and cooking to change my life, but also I was in love with the country.
Perhaps, though, France, with memories like these, is just a state of mind. I think today we’re living in nostalgic times, because of so much rapid change and a sense that things were better in the past. Of course, we all know deep down that is rarely true; we were all just younger then and things felt better.
Nevertheless the idea that things are not as they once were with food in France prevails, not just in this country, but in other parts of the world influenced by French cooking. These days many people believe that the food in France is just not as good, that the baguettes in the boulangerie are not what they used to be, or that the menus in restaurants are so samey. I see overpriced, over-elaborate food everywhere, absurdly delicate plates of little twists of chives, cubes of tomato, smears and foams.
It’s understandable. The cost of labour is high. Many blame the 35-hour week and the fact that overtime has to be paid for those working longer, but we are both first world countries and we should be paying good wages. Few customers, however, are prepared to pay the price of producing simple French food made au maison. The consequence is that serving what I would call Michelin-style food is almost the only way to proser.
On my show Secret France for the BBC, I was lucky enough to make a trip meandering through the back roads of France. It was partly for nostaligic reasons and partly to answer the question, ‘Is French cuisine still alive and well?’. With a few reservations, I hope you’ll see that yes, indeed it is, but more importantly there’s plenty of evidence that the cooks of the next generation are not standing still.
Extracted from Rick Stein’s Secret France (BBC Books, £26). Photography by James Murphy