I first realised there was a fundamental difference between British and French food cultures when I was about 24.
I’d obviously understood even before that that we weren’t wired in the same way. Like when I stayed with a family in Nantes for a week when I was 17. The mother cooked up the most amazing dishes from scratch every evening in what seemed like about 3 minutes, and despite them being about 95% fat, and therefore delicious, she was the thinnest person I’ve ever met (admittedly, chain smoking helped).
But the real epiphany came much later when I worked for Norbert Dentressangle. It’s not that the company has anything to do with food – it’s a French transporter whose fleet of truck drivers would regularly cross the channel to deliver their wares in an industrial estate somewhere in the UK. And it was the regular conversations with their French drivers that made me realise to what extent eating well is ingrained in the culture.
Once the drivers had completed their delivery, my job was to ensure that they returned back to France with a full load. That would mean their making an additional stop before leaving the country, and in many cases, spending the night in the UK. At which point the conversation would go like this:
24 year old me (you need to imagine this in really bad French): Hi. So I need you to be in (insert name of English town) at 9am to pick up 24 tonnes of gluten. (I never said this post would be glamorous)
Truck driver (also in French): Sorry, WHAT??!! I have to go to proceeds-to-massacre-prononciation-of-English-town??!!
Me: Um, yes please, you need to get there for 9am, which means you’ll need to find a truck stop somewhere this evening because you’re out of hours now.
Truck driver: This is a DISASTER!!
Me: Oh really, why is that?
Truck driver: Because it means I’ll end up having a chip sandwich for dinner or something equally as disgusting! If I could just get back to France tonight I’d be able to find a place near a Les Routiers restaurant and stay there instead.
The key word here is obviously Les Routiers. For anyone unfamiliar with the concept, is a network of independent restaurants which serve up inexpensive but generally good, traditional food. At one stage Les Routiers inspectors would travel throughout France checking that each restaurant met with their standards, although I’m not sure that still takes place.
The point though is that in France, even those that are on what I presume was a modest income, would not only manage to eat well, they’d make it their absolute priority.
I’m not saying that none of our English drivers cared about food, but it certainly never came up in conversation when we asked them to spend the night somewhere (this was also due to a totally different work ethic, but that’s definitely a subject for a different time).
Nor am I saying that no one cares about food in the UK. I was lucky to be brought up by a brilliant cook who has always prepared hugely varied and delicious meals. But when we compared notes with friends at school this was definitely not the norm.
The big difference in France is that good eating is not considered the privilege of a happy few, and that’s still one of the main reasons I live here.
(Oh and I no longer work in transport – for someone who goes out of her way to avoid conflict it was just too much for me.)