On 25 September 2014 we hosted an evening devoted to the debate, discussion and devouring of British food as part of FICEP’s events to mark culture week. Kim Laidlaw, editor of the city guide Unlock Paris, tells us more about the discussions that took place regarding cooking à la British in Paris.
Last week I hosted a mouth-watering panel discussion at the British Council on the topic of British cuisine.
Now, it’s fair to say that British cuisine hasn’t always had the best reputation. But, recently, it seems to have been having something of a renaissance—right here in Paris, the capital of French gastronomy, of all places. Why is this? Well, during the panel discussion, we tried to get to the bottom of this as we talked about both British and French cuisine—an enduring topic of debate between our two countries—trying to analyse them, define them and compare them.
With me to do this were Michael Greenwold, the British chef behind Paris’s first—and dare I say best?—fish and chip shop, The Sunken Chip; American food and travel writer, Alexander Lobrano who is the author of Hungry for Paris, The Ultimate Guide to the City’s 109 Best Restaurants and font of knowledge on the Paris’ restaurant scene; and half-British, half-French Alice Quillet who is the chef behind British café in Paris Le Bal and, quite frankly, is responsible for the best ploughman’s lunch this side of the channel.
We started off trying to define British cuisine, which raised the question of whether it can be defined at all. Whereas French gastronomy has UNESCO world heritage status, British Cuisine is so cosmopolitan in its influences that it is harder to pin down. One of Alice’s signature dishes, kedgeree—a colonial recipe with Indian flavours—is an example of this; conversely, we debated, French food is perhaps more homogenous, with fewer foreign influences. All panellists agreed that although this is true historically, it is changing as the Parisian restaurant scene is becoming more international and we’re now seeing Australian, Japanese and indeed British chefs in top Paris kitchens.
We also talked about the role of produce in French and British cuisine: is the focus shifting to simple, quality ingredients rather than elaborate recipes? In France there is this idea of terroir and there has certainly been a tendency to source the best ingredients throughout Paris’s top restaurants over the last few years. Alexander noted that whilst the importance of high-quality ingredients may have been lost in the UK as food became industrialised, it is now being rediscovered; in France it perhaps never fully disappeared.
Michael mentioned that when he started out in the restaurant scene in Paris he was often mocked for being British, but he noted with glee that, for example, the best langoustines in the French capital’s high-end restaurants were sourced from Scotland. Alice explained that certain ingredients for her kitchen can only be sourced in the UK—such as British cheeses to make Ploughman’s lunch, or the irreplaceable Golden Syrup. She also talked about the importance of regional cooking in British cuisine, and that there are often similarities between French and UK food. For example, hachis parmentier in France and shepherd’s pie in Great Britain: in Britain the beef will be cooked in beer, and in France it will be cooked in wine. Although neither Alice nor Michael adapt their dishes for a French consumer, they agreed with Alexander’s point that different cultures have different palates, Alice citing the example of tart and sweet British pickle as being significant in the UK palate.
All in all, it seems that the view of British food in Paris is changing. What do you think? Is British cuisine becoming more accepted in Paris? Have you noticed a difference? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Londoner-in-Paris Kim Laidlaw is the editor of city guide Unlock Paris. After studying History of Art at the Ecole de Louvre, she decided to make Paris her home and has lived in the City of Light for ten years and counting. Kim writes travel guides for Lonely Planet, Thames and Hudson and Dorling Kindersley, and articles for the BBC and Conde Nast, as well as copywriting for big name ad agencies in Paris and copyediting for several fashion magazines, including Dapper Dan, Fashion For Men and Self Service.
FICEP is the Forum des Instituts culturels étrangers à Paris: www.ficep.info.