What should be more French than an outdoor market on a sunny Sunday morning? The air is filled with vital fragrances from the fruits and vegetables piled high in the greengrocers’ creative layouts. A trace of the Atlantic blows off the shellfish on the fishmonger’s bed of ice.
This, you think, is the very essence of France, until read those little signs that tell you the tomatoes (which are really pretty tasteless) come from Moroccan hothouses, the grapes from South Africa, and the kiwis from Chile.
For generations, the French have prided themselves on their distinctiveness. Nothing has stood for France’s sense of exceptionalism more famously than its cooking. Gallic talent, taste and techniques have been exported all over the world. And therein lies part of the problem. From the Thames to Tokyo, non-French cooks have cracked the codes of the best French cuisine. Meanwhile, what was mediocre elsewhere has been imported. (Believe it or not, one restaurant associate with a famous Paris chef serves steak with a sauce that’s indistinguishable from the stuff on a Big Mac.) The result: many tourists—as well as the French themselves—no longer see what’s so special about French cooking.
The decline goes well beyond recent surveys that show growing complaints about mediocre quality and high prices. More and more restaurants-owners say that government tax and economic policies are limiting their profits, and thereby hurting their capacity to invest and hire more staff. They have got stuck in the red tape for which France is infamous—not to mention regulations from Brussels that affect everything from sales taxes to the bacteria in the Brie cheese. Many warn that expanding the European Union to the east will hurt small French farmers, who remain the backbone of traditional cuisine—and, hence French identity: Unfortunately for the French, there are few reassuring answers to these questions.
France’s problem isn’t the lack of creativity, but rather an unfavorable political environmentfor creativity. If you’re choked by bureaucracy and taxes, as so much of France is, “there is not much you can do,” says Raymond Blanc, born in the Jura region of France and chef of the two-star hotel-restaurant Manoir aux Quat’saisons. “I can open a business in England in five days. In France it would take three months.” The manoir aux Quat’saisons, by the way, is in Oxford, Britain, France’s ancient rival. And, when it comes to cooking, a future one as well.