Food: Britain vs. France
It’s something we do every day. We do it with our family and friends, we do it on the move, we do it whilst we talk and whilst we check Facebook and whilst we finish our homework. We do it to survive, and we do it for fun. Apparently, in fact, we spend about five years of our lives doing it, so it’s no wonder we’re so obsessed.
Not only do we eat, but we are surrounded by advertisements for food, food programmes on the TV, food blogs, celebrity cookery books, famous chefs, and food in the media generally being stuffed down our throats (as it were). Food is important to us humans, it would seem.
Now, I come from Glasgow; a city more known for its fried Mars bars than fine dining. I have recently moved to France, and not just France, but Lyon: a city renowned for its gastronomic culture. I have found myself, suddenly, in the epicentre of the epicentre of the gastronomic world. And it makes me wonder. Where did Britain go wrong?
It is a problem endemic in Europe, and getting worse. In a world where MacDonald's lurks on every street corner and there are increasing demands on our time, people all over Europe are falling into a Fast Food Trap, grabbing a quick sandwich for lunch and opening a tin of something microwaveable for dinner. This is a tragedy when you consider how important food is, and how surrounded by it we are Britain is, sadly, leading the rest of Europe down this greasy path of convenience food. The French, though, perhaps still retain some cultural pride in what they put in their mouths - or so they’d have you believe. So let’s compare the two.
OK. Time to stick up for Britain. I have some national pride, and I’m not going down without a fight. We have some pretty tasty traditional food too, you know. The classic British Sunday Lunch, for example. Steaming hot roasted vegetables, smothered in butter; sizzling hot roast potatoes with their crunchy outsides and mushy middles; fat, puffed up golden Yorkshire puddings; slow-roasted juicy beef; and, of course, lashings of thick, strong gravy. You just can’t beat it.
Maybe the problem is in our ingredients then; after all, there’s nothing particularly exciting in a good old roast Sunday lunch. Across the channel, and you’re suddenly in a world of frogs' legs and snails and brains and tongues and things which (to us Brits) sound like they belong in a witch’s cauldron, not on a plate. But compare all this to something like good old haggis (Scotland’s national dish). For those who don’t know what it is, you should probably try it before you read this. Basically, it’s the heart and lungs and entrails of a sheep, all minced up with some spices and stuffed into the poor sheep’s stomach, and usually served with mashed potato and turnip. Take my word for it, it’s delicious. And not all that far removed from a French butcher’s shop, no matter how queasy those might make me feel. So the answer, it seems, does not lie in the type of ingredients themselves: we're perfectly used to those.
The problem, rather, is what we do with those ingredients. More and more, British people - and most of the Western world - bung everything in the microwave and zap it. How often does a British person actually sit down to a good roast dinner or “haggis, neeps and tatties”? Rarely. As a rule, however when I sit down to a meal in France, it might not always be haute cuisine but there is at least some thought and preparation put into it: usually centred around some sort of meat, cooked lightly to taste (not incinerated). This is complemented by some veg, probably done in a bit of butter and garlic, and maybe a creamy potato gratin, all pulled together with some light sauce or other. Compare to the British staple of steak, chips, peas (if we're lucky) and gravy: the French version sounds infinitely better, but is effectively the same thing. The difference is that where they take ten minutes to chop up the potatoes and add some cream to make a gratin, we bung some chips in the microwave. We wouldn’t want to be pretentious or posh, now, would we? But it isn’t really posh at all: it takes barely any more time, is a much more pleasant experience, and doesn’t even have to be more expensive. But God forbid we put in any effort.
This is a trend that can be seen in every aspect of our respective food habits. The French are very proud of their food. Taking two hours for lunch is a matter of course, because taking time to prepare and eat is still considered extremely important, even if the rest of the world is resorting to grabbing burgers on the move. Open-air markets are flourishing, and the French still make the effort to buy their vegetables fresh from the grocer’s, their bread fresh from the baker’s, and their meat fresh from the butcher’s. Eating well is a French tradition, and pride in this means that French people tend to take time to prepare simple but tasty dishes using fresh ingredients... as opposed to the British habit of bunging it all in the trolley at the supermarket and then whacking it all in the microwave.
The point is this. If the French can do it, so can we. We have everything it takes to be a proud culinary nation; goodness knows we see enough of it on the telly! Hopefully, with a little encouragement and a little change in attitude, Britain can start to learn from our neighbours, and see food as something important and pleasurable once again - and not just as an irritating necessity for survival.
After all, if we’re going to spend five years of our lives doing something, we may as well do it properly.