First up there was my encounter with Alain Ducasse, well with his book Nature. Simple, healthy and good which I reviewed for The Gastronomer's Bookshelf (here). I didn't know much about M. Ducasse but there was something about this book that made me think he was trying, perhaps a bit too hard, to be sort of modern and with it, to be more one of us rather than a super chef. It's all a bit cutesy and clever and somehow doesn't manage to get away from being, well for want of a better description, very French. For one thing I suspect he has shares in a company producing Piment d'Espelette (his seasoning du jour). Can you imagine going to your local green grocer and having a choice of different varieties of turnip? Still not to bother because I won't be cooking up 'Poached foie gras with turnips' any time soon. And I am forever going to wonder whether a pumpkin gratin tastes better made with a Queensland Blue or a Muscade de Provence or a Courge Longue de Nice or even a humble potimarron.
M. Ducasse deserved a better editor and/or a more thorough translation to make this book both more appealing and more user friendly but what struck me more than anything was the implication that there was something new or revolutionary about his approach to food
Plenty of fruit and vegetables, raw and cooked, cereals, preferably wholegrain, a little meat or fish, and all cooked in olive oil. That's the basis of my cuisine and of the recipes in this bookIs it just that M. Ducasse isn't normally associated with the sort of food you and I might cook at home or is this enthusiasm for simple, healthy food meant to come as a surprise to the French? I'm still not really sure of the answer to that question but it did send me off on a quest for more information.
Which meant that I finally got around to reading Michael Steinberger's Au Revoir to All That. The Rise and Fall of French Cuisine. According to the blurb Marco Pierre White considers this 'one of the greatest books I've read' which perhaps says something about the amount of time Mr. White spends reading. This is not a great book - no book which includes a sentence which begins 'One hundred years later, it was déjà vu all over again,' could ever be called great - but it is a jaunty journey through French culinary history and the political, economic and social issues which have contributed/are contributing to the current malaise in France in general and French cuisine in particular, and he devotes a whole chapter to Alain Ducasse. Hot on the heels of Skye Gyngell's decision to throw in the towel at Petersham Nursery now that she has earned a Michelin star Steinberger's stories about the scandalous influence of the Michelin Guide made for very interesting reading.
If nothing else Au Revoir to All That gave me a clearer appreciation of the influence of the French and the changes in the restaurant business over the last twenty years or so and I would recommend it as an easy and sobering read especially for those of us far enough away to be pretty well insulated from the nuances of European life.
Depressed by the news that la malbouffe has been not so much warmly welcomed as enthusiastically embraced by the French (France is McDonald's second most profitable market and their latest promotion sees hamburgers served on a baguette and topped with POD (that is Protected Designation of Origin) cheeses such as Cantal) it was another cruel blow to read about the French bread crisis! But all is not entirely lost. This little piece (here) about an entrepreneurial French baker bringing fresh bread back to the village suggests that there is some hope for the future.
I also have to thank Mr Steinberger for introducing me to a new word - zaftig. This looks for all the world like one of those desperate combinations you come up with in Scrabble and then reject because it seems so unlikely, but no, it is in fact an adjective which describes women who have a full figure -and as such should be used with some care.