October 6, 2009 / 7:22 PM / 9 years ago

Author says pillar of French culture a shambles

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Signs of decay in French food and wine have been apparent for decades but there could be a saving grace, from of all things, the global economic crisis, according to wine critic and author Michael Steinberger.

It was bad economics, an overbearing state bureaucracy and the tyranny of a restaurant guide that contributed to driving France’s famous food and wine culture into the ground, he argues in his book “Au Revoir To All That. Food, Wine and the end of France.”

French chefs left home for the welcoming and prosperous shores of England and the United States. They were no longer willing to suffer from high taxes, rigid labor laws and a sub-par economy with high unemployment that put fine cuisine out of the reach for most French, says Steinberger.

The wine critic for online magazine Slate, he argues that arrogance on the part of established chefs and their pursuit of building business empires ended up sacrificing the quality that brought worldwide renown for its cuisine.

An avowed Francophile, Steinberger, spoke to Reuters about what went wrong over glasses of the 2007 Lignier-Michelot Bourgogne red and the 2006 Coudoulet de Beaucastel red.

Click here link.reuters.com/fav32f to see an interview with Michael Steinberger.

Q: Why did one pillar of French culture, its food and wine, decline so much in your opinion?

A: “Over the past 25-30 years France has stagnated economically and the cuisine has followed suit. I don’t think it is terribly controversial to suggest that the country’s gastronomic fortunes are dictated to a very great extent by its economic fortunes.

“When you have had, in France, you have had stagnant growth, high unemployment, stagnant living standards, onerous levels of taxation and regulation. All this has been a toxic stew for French cuisine.”

Q: Why would French wine makers benefit from the economic crisis?

“You have seen a flight to quality in the truest sense. People are being more selective with their money and are not willing to spend $70 or $80 now on some start-up Napa cabernet. If I’m going to spend that kind of money I’m going to go for a Burgundy or a Bordeaux or a Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

“Quite apart from the economic issue I think there is also a shift in taste. This overblown style is one found in California, in Australia and I think people are getting tired of it. It wears thin pretty quickly.

“This change in taste married to very different economic circumstances, in that sense the good French producers are well positioned to ride out the storm. That said they are not having an easy time of it either. No one is.

Q: Why should we care about this stuff?

A: “Obviously these are bad times. People are concerned about losing their jobs, they are concerned about all sorts of things. Things that matter a heck of a lot more than the quality of the foie gras on one’s plate or the quality of the bread down the street. But even before this downturn people were very passionate about food and there are still many people who are passionate about food, who can afford to be passionate about food and who will remain so.

“France taught people how to eat and how to eat well.”

“You had all the French chefs who came (to the United States), came to Britain, started restaurants, serving food far more refined and sophisticated than anything we had seen here before. They helped lay the groundwork for culinary revolutions that you see in the U.S. and Britain. So the decline of French cuisine is something that ought to matter to anyone who cares passionately about how they eat, and what they eat.”

Q: You don’t portray the famous Michelin restaurant guide in a favorable light. Is it overrated?

A: “Overrated? No, not certainly in terms of its importance. Its importance can’t be overstated. But I think it has ceased to be a force for good in French cuisine. I think it has become really, a millstone for the French restaurant industry.

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