Fifty years ago, the food in Britain was comically terrible. The Wimpy Bar was the place for a date, fish and chips was the limit of takeaway and if you were lucky you might get a packet of crisps at the pub.
Everything French was better. French bread. French cheese. French wine. French restaurants, bistros, cafés.
Today the positions are reversed. Britain is the land of foodie innovation, with every cuisine in the world represented, deconstructed, reinvented. Reopening after the lockdowns, even after a number of casualties, Britain will return to a cornucopia of diversity and plenty of quality. From gastropubs, diners, dim sum joints, tapas bars, and artisanal sourdough bakeries, to vegan sushi, Asian fusion cafés, Jerusalem falafels, and wines from every corner of the globe, including Surrey.
France, meanwhile, reopened its restaurant terraces this week in an environment of weary culinary sameness, the great gourmet traditions abandoned, every corner of the country dominated by fast-food chains. The French filmmaker Jacques Goldstein calls the country ‘la république de la malbouffe’ — a junk food nation.
The traditional brasseries of France are now often mere theatres pretending to be restaurants. They serve sous-vide pot au feu, supplied from gigantic industrial commissaries, run, inevitably, by an American private equity group. The food is reheated by a kitchen technician on minimum wage. The service is as undistinguished as the food. There are never enough staff because the employment code makes it too expensive to hire more. Good luck finding a restaurant that’s open, given the limited hours and eccentric schedules of many. Show up in my village looking for lunch after 1.30 p.m. and you’ll starve.
The decline of French cuisine has tracked precisely the descent of the country itself during the past 40 inglorious years of economic stagnation.