TEN THINGS FRANCE DOES BETTER THAN US
We may think we’re superior to the neighbours described by Homer Simpson as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” But that doesn’t stop 17 million of us heading over there every year. Here’s ten things the French do better- and why.
French wine is rightly admired and drunk throughout the world. The sheer amount of bottles produced a year- up to 8 billion- is enough to sail the entire British navy all the way to Marseilles. It’s the largest wine-producing country in the world, and the history of the vineyards dates back to Roman times.
And while a bottle of supermarket plonk may be good enough for Brits, the French care deeply about “terroir”- the soil in which the grapes are grown. Varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Sauvignon blanc, Syrah, Alsace, Malbec, Bordeaux, Burgundy and Beaujolais.
Meanwhile, the Champagne region offers the world’s only genuine Champagnes- to qualify, the grapes must be grown in the area.
Watch the story of two French winemakers:
We have our Wallace and Gromit- friendly varieties, like Wensleydale, but the French have hundreds of cheeses, with every region producing its own wheels, blocks and slabs of dairy goodness.
General De Gaulle famously commented on how hard it was to run a country that offered 246 cheeses, and now there’s even more pressed, soft and blue cheeses wafting their pungent scents through France.
They take it so seriously, they even give certain cheeses an “Appelation D'Origine Controlée" label. Because nobody puts bon Brie in the corner.
See how Camembert is made:
In the UK, your waiter will either be grumpy or Australian. In France, they will be smart, wearing an ankle-skimming apron, and they will set and clear the table like a corps de ballet juggling crockery.
Non-French diners may consider them snotty- but in France, there are unspoken rules about this sort of thing. Waiters are taken seriously, and expected to be discreet, professional, quiet and generally behave like swooping ghosts, so you’ll barely notice them.
Restaurant service is an art. And as a result, your food will arrive on time, the bill will be correct- and nobody will recite a list of specials in a sing-song Brisbane drawl.
Watch the restaurant scene from Ratatouille:
"...it all runs as smoothly as a playboy’s waxed moustache..."
Some may call Frenchmen sleazy, opportunistic smarm-balls. Others are delighted by their attentions. For France is the home of flirting with strangers- from a cup of coffee sent over to your table by a well-dressed Parisian reading Le Monde, to a toothless farmer of the Loire letting you have a ride on his tractor, French men are not embarrassed to smile at a pretty woman, or eye her up as she walks along the boulevard.
Not so great for feminists- but quite flattering if you’re feeling a bit gloomy. And of course, women can flirt too; ideally by wearing a Breton top and giving adoring men the run-around. (We may have seen too many French films. But still.)
See the ex-French prime minister flirting with Hillary Clinton:
In the blue corner we have Shakespeare, Chaucer, Austen, the Brontes and Dickens.. Ok, it’s pretty good. But the French (step forward, Voltaire, Proust, Victor Hugo, Balzac, Zola) don’t write about people going to stay with their aunt’s cousin in Gothic houses.
They write about murder, passion, politics and philosophy, usually all at once, in very long sentences. Or they spend an entire series of books musing about why their Mum didn’t kiss them goodnight. Or how awful it is to be a country doctor’s miserable wife.
In fact, they write about all sorts, but they do it so intelligently, and infuse it with such passionate nostalgia and broken emotion, that they could fictionalise a takeaway menu and it’d still wrench painful tears of regret from readers.
On pure literary confidence alone, the French pip us at the post.
France’s most miserable novel on stage:
UK trains are Ok- humorous driver announcements, people tutting supportively when someone takes a call in the quiet carriage- but in France, they take train travel as seriously as they take everything else.
So consequently, its trains are like speeding bullets, it all runs as smoothly as a playboy’s waxed moustache, and instead of jokes and tepid tea, passengers get decent food, wi-fi and wine.
The real star is the TGV, the world’s fastest train, which runs from Paris-Lyon in under two hours, and also goes to several major European cities in the time in takes to eat a tartine and read a bit of Vogue.
The TGV runs at an average 279.4 km per hour- which makes it rather like flying, but nicer.
Hurtling towards Paris by TGV:
7. TINY DOGS
The Brits love dogs- but research suggests the French love them even more, as plenty of shops, restaurants and businesses let them in to sit about doggily on banquettes, while their owners chat.
Even in big cities, they are not deterred from dog-owning. In Paris there is one dog for every seven citizens- that’s about 300, 000 - and France has more pets than any other European country, with 7.6 million dogs.
But for city livers, big dogs are tricky to manage- and they are banned on the Metro. So the portable French dog of choice is about the size of a large croissant. Breeds in favour for carrying in designer handbags include, the French bulldog, Chihuahua, Bichon Frise, Papillon (also known as “the continental toy spaniel”) and poodle. A dog is known as “Un toutou.”
Admire The Best Dogs in Paris:
"Paris fashion week takes place twice a year- it’s the only fashion week that no editor will miss..."
British actors are alright. Your Jude Laws, your Rosamund Pikes, your Clive Owens are all good, serviceable talents. But French actors- they are a class apart when it comes to emotion, delivery and nudity.
From Gerard Depardieu to Alain Delon, Catherine Deneuve to Brigitte Bardot, Juliette Binoche, Vincent Cassel and Marion Cotillard, French thespians take themselves seriously, which means that are allowed to get their kit off smoke, throw wine glasses and sleep with their leading man or lady, and no one will ever question their right to do so.
Interestingly, while French actors are fabulous, with a few exceptions, French films tend to be tedious, emotional chit-chat and long, moody panning shots, followed by everyone dying of misery. But you can’t have everything, and at least subtitles make us feel intelligent.
Here’s Brigitte Bardot at her best …
Yes, Eccles cakes are tasty and a Victoria sponge is nice- and of course, shows like the Great British Bake-off celebrate the plucky, flour-covered amateur. But really, compared to the absolute joy of French Patisserie, they’re not all that.
The pastry chefs of Paris, however, are artists, the Michelangelos of Millefeuille, and a whole career can rise or collapse on the placement of a sugar butterfly.
Every Grand Rue has its patisserie, and French hosts are not daft enough to attempt to cook pudding themselves- why would they, when they can purchase a perfect Tarte aux pommes or a masterpiece of macarons to take home?
If you still doubt how seriously they take it- watch this amazing documentary on what it really takes to be a grand patissier.
Yes, London fashion week is fun, we know- but really, the greatest fashion designers in history have emerged from the Ateliers of Paris, including Dior, Balmain, Yves St Laurent, Schiaparelli, Chanel, Jean Paul Gaultier, Poiret, Courreges...
Paris is still considered the world epicentre of Haute Couture, and French Vogue is the arbiter of all trends. Fashion has been a key French industry since the 17th century when it was a country of Huguenot silk-weavers, and we were still shuffling about in unwashed wool.
The Royal court of France set the fashions then, and the designers of France do it now.
Paris fashion week takes place twice a year- it’s the only fashion week that no editor will miss.
Gorgeous Paris fashions in 1947:
AND THREE THINGS WE WIN AT…
We are the world leaders of pop. France has Johnny Halliday. Case closed.
Liptons yellow label, in a glass cup, without milk, is not tea. Ever.
The French are very chic. But they don’t strike up conversations in the post office queue like we do.