There are some things in life I’ve always taken as inviolable truths: that it’s better to be a northerner than a southerner; that England will never win a football competition in my lifetime; and that French food is reliably better than pretty much anything else.
I’m not talking here about haute cuisine; there’s something about even the humblest restaurant in France that usually guarantees you a plate of comforting, wholesome and utterly edible nosh. The kind of food that has you dreaming mistily of stone-flagged farmhouse kitchens and worn oak tables, scattered in baguette crumbs.
Well, this cosy assumption was rudely shattered this summer. We were on holiday in Charente, not far from Cognac, and during a family outing to a small town we asked advice on where to go and get some lunch. Everyone was very definite: La Grande Merde (not its real name!) was the place to go.
After an hour’s pleasant wandering round we were hungry and sat down with dreams of confit de canard, steack frites et al.
Following my usual rule of thumb, I ordered the day’s fish ‘special’, reasoning that this is usually where the best value and homeliest food is to be found.
What I got was a grey lumpy poisson of indeterminate origin that had been poached to death (and then some) in what appeared to be a stock composed of equal parts onion, leek and gravel.
This was bad, but it got worse. Le poisson gris was accompanied by a small mountain of spaghetti (no sauce) and a miserable liquid splotch of green beans that had probably started boiling around the time of the French Revolution.
I kid you not, I haven’t seen vegetables treated with such masochistic suspicion since my grandmother shuffled off this mortal coil 25 years ago. I’m pretty tolerant of food – especially when I’m hungry. Forget Cordon Bleu, this was Cordon Bleuch, and I literally couldn’t eat any of it.
As a dish it wasn’t just technically inept in its execution, it was gastronomically illiterate in its conception. I mean, who the hell thought ‘fish lumps, gravel, spaghetti and boiled green beans was a good idea? The Chilean miners would have turned their noses up at that.
OK, it was August, so maybe the chef was away. But a simple fish fillet with some salad and a basket of bread would have been fine – and my seven-year old could have made that. This was genuine honest to goodness food crime. The kind of breathtakingly awful dish that you want to photograph and send to a ‘name and shame’ website. Oh, and it cost me 15 Euros.
Now, I’ve had a few poor meals in Britain over the last ten years and an awful lot that were OK but overpriced. But I can’t remember the last time I actually had a meal that was inedible. And this, don’t forget, was a restaurant that had been recommended – and seemed to be doing a decent trade.
Could it be that my cosy assumption of French gastronomic superiority is as past its sell-by-date as was the suppurating pile of cellulose on my plate? That British food standards have spent two decades quietly creeping up on the inside while those in France stagnate? That yer average Frenchman really isn’t that clued up on what constitutes good, bad and downright filthy food any more?
Or perhaps he is and is voting with his pieds – which explains the rise of MacDonalds.
Either way, this sorry episode saw the instant evaporation of one of my three cherished ‘inviolable truths’.
Thank God it’s still better to be a northerner than a southerner. I can’t see that ever changing.