France is crazy for patisseries: from the balcony of my apartment alone I could see three of them. But while the humble pain au chocolat still has a place in the Gallic heart, America (as America does) is muscling in on the traditional French pastry market. I stumbled across a Cronut in Tours last year, and considering that Tours is a small medieval French town, I almost choked on my Gauloises. The Cronut is the embodiment of the Franco-American relationship, an almost obscenely delicious hybrid of the two most symbolic pastries of their respective countries. It’s the delicate flakiness of France combined with the brash excess of America. It’s a moody, chain smoking cheerleader.
This American culinary invasion doesn’t stop with the sweet stuff. American bagel joints are another thing that are cropping up across the channel, but frankly, their pastrami and mustard-stuffed offerings just don’t stand up to a classic jambon-beurre-fromage combo, jammed into a baguette that flours shamelessly all over your black roll-neck with every bite. The trend for American burger places that has left London riddled with overpriced patties will also inevitably bulldoze its way through France, and the problem is that whilst there are places in England that do it well, I cannot imagine that there are many places in France that will. France is too stubborn. It can’t pull of that whole fries-in-a-basket, burger-served-on-a-plastic-tray thing (unless it’s McDonalds, which is like a rogue state with it’s own rules). And you have to wonder what French people, who are notoriously precious about their cultural heritage, think about these American food trends threatening their UNESCO protected cuisine. There may have been public outcry when the golden arches first appeared on the Champs Elysées in 1988, but the American export has successfully infiltrated to become part of the national landscape. It would seem that fast, cheap food is now the plat du jour in the country that invented the two-hour, wine saturated business lunch.
All of this begs the question: is French cuisine losing its edge? Take a quick glance at restaurant rankings and it looks like it might be the case. The Acqua Panna sponsored restaurant awards consider Copenhagen’s Noma to be the best restaurant in Europe, and whilst Spain, Brazil, London and America feature in the top 10, France is glaringly absent. Food trends are moving away from haute cuisine to embrace a heartier, less uptight form of cooking. With typical American fare like wings and shakes getting an overhaul in the top restaurants, and BBQ joints seeing queues around the block, there doesn’t seem to be much demand for classic bistro-style eateries – not in London, anyway. This is good news for students, since it seems irresponsible to fritter away your loan on a silver service three course meal when you can grab a burger and fries in the graffitied surroundings of MEATliquor instead (although ironically, these casual eateries are often not much kinder on the pocket). Films like John Favreau’s Chef captured the hype around casual dining experiences like food trucks, which reflect the fact that we’re no longer interested in the fancy restaurants with the penguin waiters from Mary Poppins. Instead, we seem to be craving food with a bit of a kick that you can chase down with a beer, food that shows that we know how to have fun – and we have our Instagram feeds to prove it.