In a new London Review of Books review of Au Revoir to All That: The Rise and Fall of French Cuisine by Michael Steinberger—the book came out here last summer, but has just been published in England—Steven Shapin writes of a telling passage about the undeniable decline of the quality and creativity of French food (at least, professional French food) in recent decades:
Steinberger visited Philippe Alléosse, owner of perhaps the best cheese shop in Paris. Shopkeeper and foodie shared their alarm over the decline of raw-milk cheeses and the rise of industrial junk, and then Alléosse told Steinberger where he thought the blame lay: 'No French chefs come to visit here. We get foreign chefs, but no French chefs. The French think that good cheese is too expensive. It is the Americans and other foreigners who support quality. I have Americans coming into the store saying: "Philippe, you must continue, you must protect lait cru cheeses, you have the best métier in the world." I never hear that from French people.' Here, as elsewhere, the natural allies of terroir and Slow Food are the technologies of globalisation: the internet and the 747.
I'm not sure about the internet and 747 being allies of terroir: if anything, the locavore movement is using the internet to promote and identify ways not to buy anything that's come near any kind of plane, let alone a 747, and preferably not any other kind of vehicle, either.
Still, I take Shapin's point (and take any chance to catch up on the LRB—thanks to Dan Fromson for sending me the piece). It's Americans like Alice Waters, whom he mentions, and the adherents of the Slow Food movement, that have enshrined traditions often ignored in their own country and helped give rise to the appreciation of fresh and local food in countries like the United States that had lost it. France, as Shapin points out, is McDonald's second largest foreign market. The country's long-ago surrender (Steinberger recapitulated the sad tale last year in Slate) is one reason that Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food, called for a demonstration against the siting of a McDonald's at the Spanish Steps, in Rome.
The greatest fans of France might be those "American and British foodies," as Shapin writes, who "appear at times 'plus royaliste que le roi', reminding French food culture what it owes to the world"—and Petrini is firmly in that camp, as he defers to no one in his admiration of France.
I defer to pretty much everyone I know, having long ago written off French restaurants in France with the same resignation born of the disappointment Sarah Elton felt when she recently wrote about being reduced nearly to tears by the bland, trucked- and flown-in fish and produce she was served on her first trip to Barcelona—and in foodie-insider-recommended places, not tourist traps, as she wrote me many readers assumed she'd ignorantly wandered into, eyes alight with anticipation. But I do love French cheese, and bow to no one in my appetite for Comté, which, along with rare treasures, I regularly buy at Formaggio Kitchen, which laudably recently reduced its prices when the value of the euro fell. I'll settle for that—and the non-747 food I can find everywhere in the farmer's markets, with actual local food sold by actual farmers, that are still too hard to find in France.