Why can’t we be more like the French when it comes to our approach to food? - David Behrens

Everyone who holidays in France despairs at returning to what passes for the national diet back home. They have boulangeries and patisseries; we have Greggs. Doesn’t that tell you everything?

And while I’m as partial as the next person to the occasional steak bake, those limp and lukewarm pillows of pulp for which the French language has no words other than Mon Dieu, they’re a sorry sight next to the succulent meats and cheeses that overflow from the baguettes at every continental café.

Catering comes naturally to the French in a way it never has to us. George Orwell wrote in 1945 that if you wanted a good meal in Britain you had to go into someone’s home because you’d never find a restaurant that served one. Eating out didn’t become a social convention here until French chefs came over and made it one.

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Even today, when we dine out on anything other than fish and chips it’s generally at a restaurant whose menu has been imported from the United States or the Indian subcontinent. Our national diet is Kentucky Fried Chicken and chicken tikka masala – a non-indigenous dish created by some enterprising restaurateur who thought traditional Indian food would be palatable to the British only if served with gravy.

A Greggs shop in Hillsborough, Sheffield. PIC: Dave Higgens/PA WireA Greggs shop in Hillsborough, Sheffield. PIC: Dave Higgens/PA Wire
A Greggs shop in Hillsborough, Sheffield. PIC: Dave Higgens/PA Wire

It’s not just restaurants where our differing attitudes to eating is apparent; even the smallest side-street supermarket in France has abundant produce fresh from the field, still in leaf and stacked appealingly in straw baskets – not shrink-wrapped for fear of catching something from it.

Here in Britain, an increasing number of corner shops no longer sell fruit and veg at all, leading to the phenomenon of ‘food deserts’ where residents have little access to healthy produce because the nearest big supermarket is a bus ride away.

In Bradford it’s said that nearly a quarter of the population lives like this and the number rises to almost two-thirds among families on low incomes.

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The effects on health are self-evident. Well over one adult Briton in four is classed as obese, compared to less than one in 10 in France. More worryingly still, our children are three times as likely as their French counterparts to be overweight.

Yet it would be wrong to see this as an exclusively British problem. In the US, where food isn’t recognisably food at all until all the last vestige of nature has been processed out of it, getting on for half the population is obese.

Even Canada has a higher obesity rate than ours and that’s because its national dish is not salmon as we might suppose, nor even maple syrup, but something called poutine – a stomach lining of chips, cheese by-products and stodgy brown gravy that makes our steak bake look like filet mignon.

And even French cuisine, though it’s still the envy of every other country, is not completely immune from cultural contamination. You wouldn’t have guessed though that it would be a nation as gastronomically challenged as Wales that would give it a run for its money.

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The national dish over there is, as you know, cheese on toast. They call it rarebit but they’re kidding no-one; it’s cheese on toast. And it’s absolutely the last dish in the world you’d expect the French to appropriate – especially as they already have their own take on it in the croque monsieur.

But that’s what’s happened in the Hauts-de-France region near the Belgian border, where a dish called Le Welsh is as common on restaurant menus as pasta in Pisa. This part of France is steeped in rugby as much as in red wine and they got the idea apparently from visiting teams from the Valleys. It’s basically cheddar cheese – a lot of it – with bread, beer and Dijon mustard, cooked in a shallow dish and served as if it were a Swiss fondue.

I suppose melted cheddar works wonders as a hangover cure but Escoffier must be spinning in his grave at the very idea. If the rest of France gets wind, they’ll soon be as porcine as us.

That’s a long way off, though, for the unpalatable truth is that, occasional aberrations aside, the French care more about what they eat than we do. Enjoying a meal is for them an emotional undertaking, not just a means of staving off hunger. And they drink wine with their food because it adds to the enjoyment; they don’t drink just to get drunk. It’s a big difference.

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It’s also why there isn’t a Greggs in France. The nearest equivalent is a chain called Paul, where you queue for a long time to buy baguettes and pastries that are less tasty and more expensive than those at the local boulanger. But they’re still better than anything on your local British high street.

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