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FOOD & DRINK

Top food guide says quality of French cuisine is on the slide

The standard of French cuisine is dropping, the head of the authoritative La Liste ranking has warned despite a Paris restaurant being declared the best in the world for the third year running.

Top food guide says quality of French cuisine is on the slide
Photo: AFP
Beyond the top gastronomic hot spots, the level of cooking was sometimes “lamentable” said Philippe Faure, a former French ambassador who also heads the country's tourism promotion council.
   
“Thirty or 40 years ago you could cross the country stopping randomly every 20 kilometres and eat very well; there were good bistros everywhere. But that is no longer the case,” he told AFP.
 
“Without using a guide you can now eat better in Switzerland, Spain and in Italy,” he added, when it used to be “the other way around”.
 
Faure said that while high-end French gastronomy was thriving — with Guy Savoy's riverside Paris restaurant ranked the best in the world alongside French-born Eric Ripert's Le Bernardin in New York — it has “not succeeded in pulling up the rest”. 
   
“There are too few (good) gastronomic bistros in the big towns and not enough young people doing good things.
   
“In the provinces it's lamentable, it's not good,” he declared.
 
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'Easier to cook Italian' 

The extraordinary admission comes three years after the French-based La Liste was set up as a scientific counterweight to the British-based 50 Best Restaurants guide which had long been accused of “French bashing”.
   
La Liste's “guide of guides” ranks the 1,000 best restaurants in the world by aggregating millions of reviews from guides like the Michelin to newspapers and websites like Yelp and TripAdvisor.
   
Faure said that while haute cuisine is still regarded as the best in the world, with a revival in traditional French cooking in the US, more humble French restaurants were struggling abroad.
 
That was also because French cooking was more demanding and needed greater technique, he argued.
   
“Fifty to 100 French restaurants were closing every year in Japan (when he was ambassador there in 2011) while 200 Italian ones were opening. Italian cooking is very easy” in comparison, he said.
   
“You can't go wrong. Pasta, conserves, sundried tomatoes and parmesan cheese keep for years.
   
“But in a French restaurant you have to have fresh salads, fresh fish sauces, delicate fine cheeses and that is infinitely more complicated and costly and it demands a lot of know-how,” he said.
 
Japan and China top
 
Faure said nearly half of the tourists who have made France the most visited country in the world come because they want to eat well.
   
But he warned that this captive market was in revolt, citing a Chinese blogger who had regaled his six millions followers about his “horribly bad” meal on Mont Saint Michel, one of the country's best known landmarks. 
   
Japan and China have more of the world's best restaurants than anywhere else, according to the ranking, which will be published on Monday.
 
Japan topped the list for the fourth year running with 148 restaurants making it into the top 1,000 — up 10 on last year — with China fast catching up with 143.
   
France came third with 116 and the US fourth with 92, although many of those were French, or run — like the New York's top-ranked Le Bernardin — by French chefs.
   
Le Bernardin was narrowly pipped for the top spot last year after rocketing up the rankings. Finally sharing the number one slot is a triumph for its owner Ripert, 53, after a year marked by personal tragedy.
   
He discovered the body of his best friend and fellow celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain in a French hotel in June after the bestselling writer and presenter of CNN's “Parts Unknown” killed himself.
   
Melbourne restaurant Attica led half a dozen high-performing Australian kitchens, taking joint eighth place.
 
The best-placed British restaurant was television chef Gordon Ramsay's eponymous London establishment which came joint 16th.
   
Faure said that the big trends were for more natural, organic and eco-friendly food.
   
But in the Instagram age, how food looked on a smartphone has never been more important.
   
“There is a growing trend to eat with the eyes,” he said. 

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FOOD & DRINK

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.

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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!

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