I’ve been to France maybe six or seven times, and of those trips the majority were to Paris. I recently, however, went back for the first time in more than five years. As the Eurostar pulled into Gare du Nord, the sight of Sacre Coeur shining in the bright October sun was an instant reminder of my A Level French oral exam and happy times with school friends following the indominatable Mr Homer as he marched us around the city (remember those crepe-fuelled walks Luce and Soph?).
This week I was back again, for the second time in as many weeks. Unfortunately, Monday in Paris was neither a happy nor well-fed experience. For a start, I hung around at King’s Cross for hours because my ticket hadn’t been confirmed by the company sending me. Once that issue had been resolved I made it to Paris to be greeted by a student cheerfully handing out leaflets on retirement issues. Great chance to practice reading some French, I thought. As it turned out, I should have paid more attention to the news before I left. Riots and strikes had not been part of the plan.
Suffice it to say, travel was a nightmare. I was on my way to Sial – one of the world’s biggest food industry shows. There, thousands of companies were exhibiting their wares, yet I struggled to find some decent (non-mass-processed) food to eat and found myself actually thinking fondly of the cafes in London’s Excel centre, which I can only say is a sign of how bad things were. In the press centre I found a few pieces of cardboard masquerading as sandwiches, so I stuffed a few of those down, before trying to head back to my hotel. Complete nightmare.
Fast-forward three hours and I’m eating dinner in a Novotel on the outskirts of Paris. It consisted basically of soggy pre-packed vegetables and a beef burger made of raw beef mince, so, feeling hungry and dispirited, I went to bed. The next day wasn’t much better for finding decent food and, returning to the Gare du Nord from Parc des Expositions, where Sial was held, I felt slightly confused. Every other time I’ve been to Paris, I’ve eaten from vendors round practically every street corner and loved it.
Undoubtedly, being on the outskirts had something to do with it; as did the scale of the show. Any cafes I found at Sial just didn’t have the kind of tasty, filling, reasonably-priced food I had come to expect from the French capital or from any other show at home. Basically, the entire experience reminded me how far we have come in the UK. The number of companies coming up with foods that have provenance, taste good and use quality ingredients is really encouraging. By contrast, some of the mass processed fare I was offered this week was just really sad. I’m not saying the UK necessarily trumps France – because, as was recently pointed out to me, France has more independent butchers and grocers. (I also visited a wonderful food market near La Defence on the trip a few weeks ago.) I guess what the trip made me realise is that not only have I actually become quite fond of London – enough to feel that coming back from rioting French workers is coming home – but that we should be proud of our food scene and how much things have moved forward.