French cuisine is fucking awful, isn’t it? Not French food so much: I know people who’ve eaten some and enjoyed it. But cuisine, the artistry and craftsmanship of cooking, is pretty much dead in France. Ignorant, thick-headed, ritualistic, closed to new innovations, and just plain bad. Like Parisian architecture and the French language under the direction of the Académie française, French cuisine has its calendar firmly stuck in the 1920s; unlike the architecture and the language, the context in which its cuisine is situated has aged less like a fine wine and more like a dead fish.
One good indicator of a virtuoso performance is that it improves under formal—and often arbitrary—constraints: music benefits from scales and rhythm, and can be even more impressive labouring under variations or simply with defined scales or chords; design benefits from a sense of form and colour, and similarly can reach greater heights with good understanding of alignment, line and colour theory. It’s therefore no surprise that French chefs are almost entirely incapable of grasping the concept of vegetarian food. It changes cooking from meat-and-another-bloody-sauce into something they have to think about. Not think particularly hard, mind you: I can’t say being a vegetarian requires me to be particularly bright. Just thinking at all seems beyond French chefs.
On the way back from Paris a few days ago, I’d been booked a “leisure select” ticket on the Eurostar by our admin staff. Absolutely lovely of them, and even lovelier of them to remember that I was a vegetarian. I didn’t expect the former at all, and was astonished at the latter: presumably our admin staff always think of me as the awkward bugger whenever they order sandwich platters for clients, so it stuck in their heads.
I was even more surprised the French staff member who ticked me off a list as I got on the train even confirmed: “Vegetarian?” I’d forgotten they even had the word in their vocabulary. After a week of almost resolutely bad food in a city which somehow still prides itself on its cooking I had high hopes. I sat down and, half an hour later, menus were handed out. They had two options: turkey, or a cheese platter with figs and jam. Ah, cheese! That staple of unimaginative vegetarian cooking. Not to worry, though, as I do rather like cheese, and they were special cheeses.
The cheese platter did indeed end up on my table, for all of ten seconds. One smiling woman deposited it there; another—the one who had welcomed me onto the train—looked horrified at it, muttered “vegetarian” again a couple of times and then told me that I couldn’t have cheese because I’d already reserved the vegetarian option. Read through that again. Protests fell on deaf ears, because once someone’s been turned stupid about food, they’ll persist in whatever wrongheaded notions they have about vegetarians and vegans. I’d booked (or at least had booked for me) a vegetarian meal, and she was damned if she’d let me have cheese.
The platter was swept away, and replaced with their “vegetarian option”. Here’s what a French chef thinks vegetarians eat:
- Undercooked lentils and tomatoes
- A single cherry tomato
I hate aubergine. I really fucking hate aubergine. But here’s what, from a comparison with other people’s trays, I worked out a French chef thinks a vegetarian cannot eat:
- Any spices, even pepper
- Chocolate pudding
- Bottled water
I’d like to assume the last two were merely a stupid mistake, but once you’re thick enough to conflate veganism and vegetarianism even when food is your job, it’s hard to give you any benefit of the doubt. You might be enough of an idiot to lump coeliac disease and even freeganism in with everything else. A lovely “vegetarian” meal on the Eurostar, then, where you get to sniff some of France’s finest cheeses before having them replaced with something you’d be lucky to get a pig to eat.
It was more or less as bad at the conference. The food was served from a dedicated cafeteria at the university, one entire wall of which was taken up by a meat grill. At the front was a sign saying something like “remember, vegetarians: you can just order the vegetables that go with the meat on their own if you like!” Thanks a fucking bunch for being so obliging, French chefs. You mean we don’t have to choke down your undercooked beef? Ambassador, you are spoiling us!
Most food I encountered was the usual unimaginative French experience, with one major exception. On the evening of the last full day we went out to Place de la Contrescarpe, indeed took it over with conference visitors. In one corner of the Place is a couple of fantastic cafés: both of them middle-eastern. Île de Crete pretends to be Greek, much as the Iraqi restaurant in Oxford said it was Kurdish. But no matter: the food was tasty, vegetarian-friendly, and was subtly fused with traditional French baguettery and saucery in the way that diaspora cuisine always manages to incorporate the local trends and become something slightly different from the original menu. Assimilative multiculturalism is shown to work by every tiny restaurant run by immigrants, from Eynsham’s finest occasionally including cabbage in their curries to a falafel panini-baguette by a fountain in Paris’ 5e arrondissement.
I should have realised, really, after my experience in Barcelona, where the best cooking I’d had in Spain was available at a Moroccan restaurant, that you should head for middle- or far-eastern restaurants as quickly as possible if you want something vegetarian that doesn’t demonstrate the chef’s weakness in the head. France might snub the Turks; Spanish locals calls Moroccan immigrants “Moros”: if that’s culinary jealousy, they should spend their energy raising their game instead.