Paris: great city, shame about the food

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Marius Benson gets out his knife and fork on a trip to the French capital - but awards no stars.


Beans and cornbread, fish and chips, hotdogs and mustard, white wine and seafood, coffee and cake.

We all know some foods together - and some combinations of food and drink are marriages made in heaven.

Another truism is that Paris is one of the gourmet capitals of the world.

Why then is it that when you go into a coffee shop in the city on the Seine, anticipating the astringent charge of an espresso and the sugar lift of a good pastry - why is it that looking up and down the length of the gleaming zinc bar you can see nothing more exotic than that a sad collection of unadorned, croissants?

Nothing wrong with those simple crescents of pastry, but the last word in the French satisfier's art, they are not.

Tired of the lack of choice we asked in one coffee shop if we could have something more exotic - perhaps a pain au chocolat and a petit pain aux raisins?

"Pas de problem," was the cheery Gallic reply.

The man behind the bar then transformed himself into the man crossing the street and buying our order at the patisserie opposite on our behalf.

Telling this tale to Paris residents we were told we could in fact quite safely buy pastries and take them into any cafe and there would be no objection raised.

After this revelation we noticed this is in fact a common practice. People sipping espressos while eating a cake out of a paper bag is standard behaviour.

But why don't the cafe proprietors observe this practice and think: "There's someone drinking my coffee and eating someone else's cake. Maybe if I sold cakes I could make a buck on them too"?

Glad you asked that question. I'll tell you why.

It's because the French stopped thinking about food in about 1905.

By then they decided they had got it just about right and from there on nothing more was needed than repetition.

Well life, and even more so food, is not like that. And it's time for someone to blow the whistle on the great French culinary con-trick.

It is time to stand up and shout: "The emperor (or chef) has no clothes!!"

Sure Paris is the home of good cakes and bread. You can get good produce at the open air markets - and when the oysters are running (every month with an 'r' - or possibly every month without) there is none better.

But from where is the freshness, the innovation that has characterised the best of cooking in recent decades? Where is the inspiration drawn from? Asia, the Middle East, Turkey?

"Pas ici," is the answer in Paris.

France is resting on its gustatory laurels. The meat, the veg, the sauce, the pommes frites, the salad.

It's alright, but it has none of the piquancy, life, variety and freshness of any number of other national cuisines - Thai, Japanese, Cantonese, new-world cross-over.

Paris is also one of those cities, in the European tradition, where you can open a bad Asian restaurant without any fear of going broke.

If we are handing out prizes for the best city in the world Paris would probably get mine. But on the culinary front, it is falling behind.

In fact France generally might still be the land of the big-name chefs, the high white hats and the Michelin stars - but it is living on a reputation which is growing as stale and unattractive as yesterday's baguette.

"Aux armes! Mes citoyens,
Formez vos bataillons
Marchons, marchons"

Back to the kitchen and fire a bit of new life in that revered culinary history.

May 2002

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