French cuisine ready for global charm offensive

Thousands of French dishes will be served up around the world on Thursday as France aims to show off the merits of its fabled cuisine and hit back at those who say its glory days are over.

French cuisine ready for global charm offensive
French chef Raymond Blanc is cooking for the French ambassador in London as part of the Gout de France/Good France. Photo: AFP

On Thursday around 1,300 “plats” will be dished up in selected restaurants across five continents as part of the Goût de France/Good France gastronomy festival.

The one-off event has been organised under the patronage of France’s foreign ministry and Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse.

France is hoping to remind the world’s taste buds just exactly why the Unesco designated French cuisine an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” in 2010.

The carefully prepared meals will be designed to highlight French cuisine's capacity for innovation but also its core values such as quality and sustainability.

The chefs will offer a full French-style menu including an apéritif, a hot and cold starter, fish, meat or poultry followed by the obligatory cheese board. A dessert and a digistif will follow.  

French chef Raymond Blanc is leading a diplomatic offensive to restore the good name of French cuisine in Britain, saying it must escape its comfort zone to reign supreme again.

The 65-year-old has made his name in Britain but has stayed true to his belief in French food — and the Michelin-starred chef is now helping to revive the prestige of French cuisine.   

But if he has made his life in Britain, the notion that he has turned his back on his homeland infuriates him.

"It's the biggest possible insult. I love my English friends, but I am who I am," he said.

This week he is putting his passion where his mouth is as part of the "Goût de France / Good France" initiative.

Blanc must also dish up a speech at a banquet staged at the French ambassador's residence in London.

"We're not dead. We're still alive. France has a magnificent opportunity to embrace this," he said.

Standing by his stove as the big day approaches, he describes on one hand a false case against France's "culinary genius" and the need for an honest look in the mirror by French chefs.

Seeds of doubt have been sown by The World's 50 Best Restaurants, a list produced by Britain's "Restaurant" magazine, which since it started in 2002, which gave first place to restaurants in Spain, California, Denmark and England.

The French are challenging the criteria.

"Cuisine these days is obeying a fashion, one served by public relations," Blanc said, choosing his words carefully.

"I don't believe in an Anglo-Saxon conspiracy. But it's the first time that our gastronomy has been called into question," he added. 

"There are questions to be asked, problems we can't ignore. In France, the traditions are sometimes heavy. It's up to us to open ourselves up, to enrich ourselves, to reinvent ourselves and to take risks without denying our heritage."

Among the things needing changing are France's 35-hour working week laws, tendencies of self-indulgence and "a lack of self-confidence".

"It's up to us to add into our heritage spices, ingredients, flavours and techniques from elsewhere," he said, citing Japan, China and Thailand.  

Blanc is calling for France to emulate "the revolution under way in Britain" — something he is partly responsible for driving.

"The consumers are in charge. They want to know what percentage of their hamburger is actually horse — where their food is coming from," he said.

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Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

One thing everyone can agree on is that France has a lot of cheese - but exactly how many French fromages exist?

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

Question: I often see a quote from Charles de Gaulle talking about ‘246 different types of cheese’, but other articles say there are 600 or even 1,000 different types of cheese and some people say there are just eight types – how many different cheeses are there in France?

A great question on a subject dear to French hearts – cheese.

But it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Charles de Gaulle did indeed famously say “How can anyone govern a country with 246 different types of cheese”, but even in 1962 when he uttered the exasperated phrase, it was probably an under-estimate.

READ ALSO 7 tips for buying cheese in France

The issue is how you define ‘different’ types of cheese, and unsurprisingly France has a complicated system for designating cheeses.

Let’s start with the eight – there are indeed eight cheese ‘families’ and all of France’s many cheeses can be categorised as one of;

  • Fresh cheese, such as cottage cheese or the soft white fromage blanc
  • Soft ripened cheese, such as Camembert or Brie
  • Soft ripened cheese with a washed rind, such as l’Epoisses or Pont l’Eveque
  • Unpasturised hard cheese such as Reblochon or saint Nectaire
  • Pasturised hard cheese such as Emmental or Comté
  • Blue cheese such as Roquefort 
  • Goat’s cheese
  • Melted or mixed cheese such as Cancaillot

But there are lots of different types of, for example, goat’s cheese.

And here’s where it gets complicated, for two reasons.

The first is that new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented by enterprising cheesemakers (including some which come about by accident, such as le confiné which was created in 2020).

The second is about labelling, geography and protected status.

France operates a system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC or its European equivalent AOP) to designate food products that can only be made in a certain area.

As cheese is an artisan product, quite a lot of different cheese are covered by this – for example a blue sheep’s milk cheese is only Roquefort if it’s been aged in the caves in the village of Roquefort.

There are 63 listed AOC cheeses in France, but many more varieties that don’t have this protected status.

These include generic cheese types such as BabyBel and other cheeses that are foreign in origin but made in France (such as Emmental).

But sometimes there are both AOC and non-AOC versions of a single cheese – a good example of this is Camembert.

AOC Camembert must be made in Normandy by farmers who have to abide by strict rules covering location, milk type and even what their cows eat.

Factory-produced Camembert, however, doesn’t stick to these rules and therefore doesn’t have the AOC label. Is it therefore the same cheese? They’re both called Camembert but the artisan producers of Normandy will tell you – at some length if you let them – that their product is a totally different thing to the mass-produced offering.

There are also examples of local cheeses that are made to essentially the same recipe but have different names depending on where they are produced – sometimes even being on opposite sides of the same Alpine valley is enough to make it two nominally different cheeses.

All of which is to say that guessing is difficult!

Most estimates range from between 600 to 1,600, with cheese experts generally saying there are about 1,000 different varieties. 

So bonne dégustation!