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Friday, 13 February, 1998, 16:46 GMT
Bon Appetit - The final course
Kevin Connolly - Bon Appetit, Part 4
BBC correspondent Kevin Connolly reports from Paris and, not surprisingly, loves French cuisine. However, there are some aspects of French cooking which make an Englishman's eyebrows rise. So one day, after a good meal, Kevin sat back and wrote down his impressions of the French love affair with food. BBC News is publishing online the four parts of his report, and now Kevin is approaching "The final course":

I've done some terrible things in my time as a journalist.

Nothing so glamorous as hounding public figures or as squalid as probing into private grief, of course. Rather, innumerable offences against taste and style, committed long ago, which still sometimes have me waking up cringing in the night.

There were the lumbering attempts at headline humour. Hence the banner "Snow, snow, thick, thick snow" over a story about members of a ballroom dancing team injured in a bus crash in a blizzard.

And there were the grotesque attempts to turn global tragedy into local news by ingenious presentation of fact. Thus the mid-air explosion of a jumbo jet off the coast of Ireland with appalling loss of life became a disaster narrowly averted for the circulation area of my English home counties newspaper, over which the aircraft was due to fly.

Take a plate of prawns, add some pepper and garlic...
But at least I've never been a food, wine or restaurant critic.

I can just about see the appeal of wine-writing, where you suck up great mouthfuls of a Chilean white and then claim to detect in it the unmistakable notes of an English churchyard in autumn, with perhaps just a hint of a vicar cycling past on a bike with a squeaky wheel.

The Moldavia experience

But until I moved to France the only time it ever occurred to me that a meal in a restaurant had been worth writing about was after a dinner on one cold winter's evening in a hotel in the Soviet Republic of Moldavia in 1991.

It was a tense time, during which the world watched to see whether there was enough nerve in the republics to spark a rebellion or enough nerve in the Kremlin to put one down.

The uncertainty - and the sub-zero temperatures - were enough to ensure that I was the only guest at my hotel in the capital Kishinev, which had been built to hold around 800 people.

I had already received a stern lesson in human nature in the hotel barbershop, a place so old-fashioned, the blades of cut-throat razors were kept sterile in the fizzing flame of a Bunsen burner.

The hairdresser waited till she'd trimmed all the hair on the left-hand side of my head.

"How much did I say this was going to cost?" she said suddenly.
"Five hundred I replied.
"Oh, I'd forgotten: the official price went up to a thousand this afternoon. Shall I carry on?"

The choice

I was still smarting from the weakness of that negotiating position when I entered the hotel restaurant with both sides of my head neatly trimmed. I had two hours in which to eat before the phone call which would allow me to tell my bosses in London that nothing was happening was due to come through - after a 48 hour wait.

The restaurant was one of the largest rooms I'd ever been in, the size of the hangars where wide-bodied jets are repaired. Empty tables stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction. At one of them a fat, grumpy-looking man in a crimplene dinner suit sat carefully separating two-ply squares of kitchen roll into separate sheets to make the serviettes go twice as far.

"We're full," he said.
Patiently I pointed out that I knew I was the hotel's only customer.
"We're booked out with an American group."
The American group, I reminded him, had remained in America.

Grudgingly, he rose to his feet and led me towards a tiny table covered with dirty plates where two members of staff had been eating beside the swing doors that led to the kitchen. They had stubbed out their cigarettes in the remains of their fried eggs.

"It's all I've got left," he said.

An 18-page menu was produced.

"Why don't you just tell me what's actually available tonight?" I said.
"Everything's available."
"Okay. I'll have the goose."
"Everything except the goose."
"The turkey, then."
"And the turkey."

Eventually, inevitably, I ended up with the classic Soviet restaurant meal - a lump of vaguely defined and vaguely flavoured meat served with half-cooked, shallow-fried chips. On the side came a closely packed lump of pickled vegetables that looked like the bit of the inside of a human lung which anti-smoking campaigners show you to make you give up.

And the music played on¿

I was picking at this and washing it down with a mixture of vodka and the funny but familiar soft drink that tasted like carbonated turnip juice when suddenly the empty room was plunged into complete darkness. Thousands of knives, forks and glasses began to resonate to a rising timpani roll.

What had appeared to be a real wall at one end of the room turned out instead to be a kind of giant roller-blind that shot up into the ceiling to reveal a huge stage on which two ballet dancers sat, covered in goose bumps.

Behind them was ranged a complete symphony-sized orchestra, some of whose members, looking rather annoyed, were dressed in outdoor coats and hats. They, it turned out later, were musicians who'd been planning to head home when it looked like another night without guests in the restaurant.

They had been hastily summoned back when I showed up and had kept their coats on in the continuing hope of making an early escape, then caught on stage when the curtain went up.

The show, a history of Soviet Moldavia in dance, began.

Now, whatever its virtues, ballet is an imperfect instrument for historical narrative. A lot of mutual plucking at the forearms might have denoted a plague of boils or something. And then there seems to have been a period some time in the late Middle Ages when Moldavians went through a phase of running round in circles looking worried and trailing sheets of chiffon behind them.

Anyway, after 20 minutes or so of this I consulted my luminous watch. Time for my phone call. Noiselessly, I thought, I rose to my feet and began to thread my way through the tables.

I was halfway to the door in the total darkness of the huge room when a quiet passage in the music was suddenly interrupted by a shout of anger. The performance ground to a halt and the lights came back on to reveal your correspondent halfway across the room, looking rather foolish, while the theatre director, descending from the stage, came as close to actually dancing with rage as anyone I've ever seen.

It was the only kind of moment to remember that Soviet restaurants were capable of delivering. The director's indignation was so embarrassing and his threats so blood-curdling that it's certainly stuck in my mind to this day.

To keep the peace I agreed to stay to the end of the performance and was rewarded with the news that Soviet telecommunications had had an even worse evening than Moldavian ballet. When I got back to my room my call had been delayed and wasn't connected for another fourteen hours.

French restaurant
The real thing
Vive la France?

So I came from Russia to France with a sense of anticipation I had not felt since my mum and dad finally got rid of our black and white telly in the 60s and the world went into colour. Here surely was a country where restaurants would prove to be memorable not merely for operatic rows conducted with directors of ballet companies.

All I will say is that disappointment was slow in coming.

At first, of course, there was the irritation of having phone callers to the office in Paris reminiscing about restaurants they had eaten in on holiday here 20 years ago.

"Are you sure you don't know the place? A little restaurant with red and white table cloths. Does very nice steak and chips with red wine."

Politely you point out this describes most of the restaurants in France.

"I remember the waiter was rather rude."

And that of course describes nearly all of the restaurants in France.

But it also reminds you of the main problem with eating in modern Paris, summed up by the melancholy fact that more than seventy percent of the respondents in one French survey described steak and chips as their favourite meal.

Meet the French

How did the nation, which claims to have invented everything from the boiled egg to the timbale of sole stuffed with lobster soufflé and served with truffle jus, come to this?

Le hamburger
Part of the answer, I think, lies in the growing gap between real modern France and the parallel France of the imagination in which many French men and women over the age of 25 choose to live.

Real France is a country in which the number of cafes, bars, restaurants and bistros shrank from around 200,000 in 1960 to something around a quarter of that number last year.

A country in which there are now 500 McDonald's restaurants and God knows how many French copies of American fast food joints which serve the kind of food you will get in hell if you were a restaurant snob in this life.

France is a country in which families eat frozen pizzas bought in supermarkets, drink diet colas and snack on microwave popcorn.

Just like us, in fact.

French street market
The French market experience
The half-remembered, half-imagined France to which the French nostalgically cling was a country not just of wonderful markets rich in fresh fruits and fish, meats and vegetables. It was also a land of simple, inexpensive eating places where classics like onion soup, pot au feu and boeuf bourguignon were produced daily to high standards at low prices.

Within 500 yards of my office in Paris I am spoiled for choice between burgers, steaks, sandwiches and salads in little flip-top polystyrene trays. There are Italian, Indian, Chinese and Japanese restaurants. There are several burger bars, the same sort of thing you'd find in any other big, modern city.

French food - is it all history?

There are, however, very few restaurants serving classical French food. Now this is partly because the large lunch in the French manner, with aperitif, wine and cognac followed by the four o'clock return to the office, is now about as fashionable as the hula hoop.

Fresh fish
Looks nice, but who has the time to prepare a three course dinner?
Faced with the same working pressures as the rest of the Western world, the French have reacted in more or less the same way - the snack at the desk washed down with a soft drink has replaced the habits of other, more leisurely, ages.

More damagingly, perhaps, the ordinary French restaurant has lost something of its lustre for the visitor too. This is due in part to a lack of flexibility. Arrive at even the most expensive eating places in Paris and tell them you are a vegetarian and you will be treated as though you had announced you were Threep from the planet Zargon asking for spare fuel rods to get your spaceship home.

But it is also because the modern French reputation for culinary excellence was re-established in the post-war years and then enhanced in the 60s and 70s. They were periods in which visitors from Birmingham, Bavaria or Butte, Montana, would have grown up with instant coffee and white pepper, to whom vegetables were fresh if they came out of a recently opened tin.

Against those benchmarks, French food was excellent and the lofty disdain with which it was often served enhanced the mystique.

But even then it was predictable: A piece of meat or fish was roasted, baked, boiled or poached with a touch of fat. The resulting juices were mixed with a touch of alcohol, drowned in cream, boiled up and then poured back over whatever it was. In France, not that much has changed.

Everywhere else, it has.

Nowadays visitors from Birmingham - or those other places beginning with "B" - can compare whatever they eat in Paris with something similar from French restaurants where they live, or even with cheap and perfectly credible copies from local supermarkets. They are almost certain to be familiar with culinary influences from the Middle East, Africa and Asia, against which the French have, by and large, insulated their own cooking.

They are also likely to be better, or at least more adventurous, cooks themselves than were their predecessors of 25 years ago. The result is that foreign visitors in general now have rather higher standards against which to measure routine French restaurants and are, accordingly, less likely to be impressed by them.

On the trail of the master chef

The great restaurants of France though, the gilded handful that get all the stars, rosettes and rows of crossed knives and forks in guidebooks, they still hope to impress. There is even one in Monte Carlo which sticks to the splendid practice of posting a menu outside which has no prices on it, conveying the essential piece of information that if you stop to consider what it costs to eat there, you don't belong inside.

Modern French food
But even in this arrogant, rather precious world, all is not well.

Last year one of only 20 restaurants in France to boast three Michelin rosettes went bust, an unprecedented business failure which made national headline news. The problem: the limited number of people in the depressed industrial city of St Etienne prepared to help France spend its way out of recession by parting with 300 or 400 pounds for one dinner.

The eternal verity that the three secrets of success in the catering business are location, location and location is not entirely true for the three-star restaurant in modern France. Tourism, tourism and tourism would be closer to the mark.

When I went with a small television team to investigate what seemed like the promising signs of a looming crisis to one of the grandest of three-star restaurants in the country, I was mildly surprised to find it offering souvenir recipe books in Japanese and selection boxes of wine endorsed with the name of the celebrated chef, Bernard L'Oiseau.

A bit of a clue that the clientele in this restaurant just off the motorway half-way between Paris and Lyons is not wholly composed of discerning local gourmets.

The kitchen was so clean it looked as if the army of chefs had been given instructions to keep it in such a state that if the police burst in you could plausibly deny that food had ever been cooked or even kept there.

The specialities - chicken with hot foie gras and truffly mashed potatoes and white fish balanced in a puddle of red wine butter - are prepared with dazzling speed and precision and rigorously tested to make sure they meet the master's standards.

Here and there an experienced hand tweaks a wayward vegetable to make sure everything remains just right. The emphasis was not, though, on innovation or on the search for new recipes and techniques, more on the search for perfection of ingredients that would raise established dishes to new heights of purity and perfection. There was more along the same lines, but I was eating when one of the chefs explained it to me - so that is all I can remember.

From the purely selfish point of view of the television journalist too, it made stunning theatre, with the flames of a thousand candles reflected back as fluttering shafts of light from silver vases and gold serving domes.

The final course

It was the next day though, when we returned as guests for breakfast, that the real meaning of this kind of French restaurant was brought home to me. We were served scrambled eggs made in what we were told is the correct manner, that is, to pass three cooked beaten eggs through a sieve with three raw beaten eggs to produce a vivid yellow soup.

I found it stomach-churningly unpleasant but was reluctant to leave it, out of politeness. In the end I simply had to.

When the waiter returned he asked, austerely, what had been wrong with it.
I replied that I simply hadn't found it to be very nice.

He stiffened visibly and delivered, unknowingly, an unbeatable description of a certain, very French, way of doing things.

"It isn't meant to be nice," he sniffed, "it's meant to be perfect."


Kevin Connolly: Bon Appetit - The final course
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