‘Beer louts with unhealthy diets’: why British cooking still hasn’t won over the French

‘Beer louts with unhealthy diets’: why British cooking still hasn’t won over the French

British cooking is finally starting to be recognised around the world. But try telling the French that. For them, la cuisine Britannique – c’est nul.

Figures revealed by VisitBritain at the Tourism Alliance’s insights conference last week showed just how far the UK has to go. An annual survey by Anholt-Ipsos of 60,000 people in 20 countries, which asked for their views on 60 nations, included a new question about food.

Overall, the UK was ranked a respectable 18th out of 60 on average, except by the French who placed Britain 60th – dead last.

Oh, and indeed, la-la. The UK is suffering from a reputational hangover, according to Michel Roux Jr, the English-French owner of Le Gavroche, which closed in January after 56 years. “It’s deep-rooted and its origins go back a long way to when food in this country was absolute pants and it was just boiled meats, vegetables boiled to death and cranberry jelly and mint sauce and all those horror stories,” said Roux, who also presents Five Star Kitchen on Channel 4.

Some French people talk about having an ironic plate of fish and chips when they visit London. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

“Historically, [the stereotype] still lingers, but the younger generation, the ones that have travelled to the UK, they know that isn’t true.” His father, Albert Roux, opened a British restaurant in Paris, Bertie’s, serving roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. “People were queuing – it was very successful,” Roux said. “I honestly believe now that London rubs shoulders with any other gastronomic city in the world. It’s certainly no longer the laughing stock – I think the French are just poking a stick at us.”

London has become the destination de choix for Paris’s superstar chefs. Jean-François Piège opened Mimosa at the Langham last week, joining Yannick Alléno’s Pavyllon, Anne-Sophie Pic’s La Dame de Pic London, Claude Bosi at Bibendum and Alain Ducasse, arguably the doyen of French cuisine, who has a three Michelin-starred restaurant at the Dorchester.

If the Michelin Guide is a yardstick, the UK is gastronomically respectable with 187 restaurants getting at least one star, compared with 269 in Spain and 228 in the United States. And defenders of British food are quick to point to the diversity of dishes available here. “The cosmopolitan British food scene is something you just don’t get in France,” said Tatty Macleod, a comedian whose British parents raised her in France. “Where I grew up in Brittany, there was no diversity of cuisine whatsoever – everything was galettes, crêpes or French food restaurants.

Yannick Alléno, a French superstar chef, also runs Pavyllon in London. Photograph: Paul Cooper/Rex Features

“The idea that there is such a thing as British cuisine just wouldn’t resonate with any French people. Can you imagine if someone tried to organise a culinary tour of the UK, and they tried to sell it to a French market? I can guarantee you’re not making a single sale in France. English food to them is essentially fish and chips.”

Not only fish and chips though. In the bible of Auguste Escoffier, the 19th century “king of chefs and chef of kings”, cuire à l’anglaise – to cook in the English style – is a terme culinaire for boiling in salted water.

“I came through the French kitchen system, which was quite brutal for someone British at that time,” said Michael Greenwold, who opened Paris’s first chippie, The Sunken Chip, in 2013. “They’d tell you to go and get some English stock from somewhere, and the joke was it was just water.”

Greenwold, who has returned to Britain and is now a hospitality consultant at the Russell Partnership Collection, said there was more openness to the UK among younger, liberal Parisians. After the 2012 London Olympics, French people adopted “So British” as a Cool Britannia-type slogan to refer to the UK’s music, fashion and culture, and Greenwold noticed that Parisians going to London would talk about having an ironic plate of fish and chips. “One of the reasons we did the Sunken Chip was that, while there was the traditional bashing of British food, it’s more like the British and the Germans – an ongoing joke. But the younger generation loves Britain.”

French food lacks diversity, says Tatty Macleod, who was raised in France by British parents. Photograph: Rachel Sherlock

French restaurants have always had a strong appetite for British ingredients, such as Scottish langoustines and turbot, he added. “They just thought we didn’t know what to do with it.”

Perhaps it is the British approach to food that is alien – what Greenwold describes as the absence of a cucina povera, a healthy modern English peasant food tradition, or what Tatty Macleod calls “Greggs, pasties and deep-fried Mars bars”.

“We just have a completely different approach to eating,” Macleod said. “The concept of the sandwich, eating on the go – they don’t have that in France. Every French business has a cantine [canteen] or a ticket resto [a gold-plated luncheon voucher].” French people spend more on food, prioritise it, and don’t understand why the British don’t – “they think of Brits as beer louts with unhealthy diets”.

Appalling English food is a regular joke in Les Grandes Vacances, a 1967 film known in English as The Exchange Student, and perhaps UK tourism has to overcome similar real-life childhood scars. “We came to the UK on an exchange trip when I was 14, and there were these two boys, Pierre and Maxime, who complained about what their host family gave them for lunch,” Macleod said. “It was a cheddar cheese and Branston pickle sandwich and a packet of crisps. And the teachers gathered round the lunchbox, peeling back this white, processed bread and saying ‘what is this brown stuff?’ and smelling it and saying ‘these poor boys, they can’t eat this’.”

There are some French people keen to help their compatriots move on from old stereotypes. Sarah Lachhab and Aurélie Bellacicco have published two books on British cuisine, Écosse: avoine, haggis et cranachan and Angleterre: tea, piccalilli, pasty, and have gamely tried to point out that deep-fried Mars bars are a joke. Yet one interview shows they have a lot to do. Tell me, one interviewer at Konbini, a media company, asked them: “Jelly – is that really a thing in England, or simply a myth?”

Related Articles