The words are simply refusing to come together in a sentence. So I’ll have to write them one by one.
Young. French. People. Know. Nothing. About. Food. Any. Longer. I’m sure you can string these words together. But can you understand their full implication?
It’s as if Italians stopped pinching women’s bottoms on public transport. Or Russians, drinking toxic amounts of vodka. Or Britons, chanting “If it wasn’t for England, you’d all be Krauts” at football matches. Or Americans, confusing Austria with Australia, Sweden with Switzerland and not giving a damn. Or the Dutch, producing and consuming mountains of mediocre cheese.
If such calamities occurred, all those people would still be there in body. But their soul would be gone, their idiosyncratic character no longer recognisable.
That’s why I’m worried about the French. For gastronomy is a part of their national character that’s both essential and immutable. Or so I thought.
Then, over the past few years I’ve had many opportunities to observe young French people, and not just uneducated ones, struggling to identify some basic food items.
We have (or rather had before the lockdown season) a small Sunday market across the street from us in London. Many of the tradesmen and half the customers were French, the latter mostly working in finance.
One would expect those young professionals on the rise to continue the fine traditions of French gourmandising. Yet every now and then they displayed woeful ignorance.
Once, for example, I observed a well-dressed couple thoroughly befuddled by the sight of parsnips and swedes. They were looking at that exotica the way Man Friday looked at the salt shaker in Robinson’s hands.
The novelty struck them to the core. They asked each other if they had ever seen such amazing things, and neither of them had. What are they called? Not a clue.
Being by nature an obliging sort, I helpfully provided the French words for parsnip (panais) and swede (rutabaga). They looked at me not so much with gratitude as with awe, the way Venetians must have looked at Marco Polo who, on his return home from his voyage, told his friends that those odd Chinese cut dough into long strips and then boil them. “Delizioso, amici!”
If reasonably educated Frenchmen can have such lacunae in their culinary knowledge, what kind of expectations can one have of youngsters working in French supermarkets? Pretty low, I dare say, and they live down to them.
People working at checkouts routinely fail to identify simple foods, especially vegetables and herbs. Hence they don’t know how to run them through and have to call for help. The help arrives after some five minutes, in the shape of their older manager who looks as if she thinks the holdup is our fault.
This morning, for example, a young man, probably a student doing a summer job, didn’t know what dill was. My supplying the word missing from his lexicon, aneth, didn’t ring a bell, and neither could he locate that mind-boggling item on his computer.
Penelope had to run back to the vegetable section and look up the item code, which took some time, much to the displeasure of the people behind us in the queue. She then told me not to use such language in public, even in English.
A trivial matter, you would think, and so it is. Or rather would be if it weren’t indicative of a general decline in taste.
I’ve been shopping in rural French supermarkets for some twenty years now, never missing an opportunity to peek into other shoppers’ trolleys. And let me tell you, their contents have changed even during this relatively short time.
If a generation ago most trolleys contained fresh vegetables, good bread, fruit and the ingredients for the ubiquitous local staple, boeuf bourguignon, nowadays they squeak under the weight of frozen pizzas, ready-made meals and revolting fizzy drinks.
It’s 20 years ago I’m talking about, not 450 or so, which was when Catherine de’ Medici married the French king Charles IX and brought some Italian chefs over in her trousseau. The Italians then taught the French that there was infinitely more to cooking than just roasting a whole wild boar on a spit.
Credit where it’s due, the French turned out to be able pupils, who have since created a great cuisine of their own. So great, in fact, that it has gone into much of what adds up to their national character.
One wonders, if they are busily abandoning that part, what other parts are also falling by the wayside. Quite a few, I’d suggest.
Inexplicably, French youngsters of the lower classes are beginning to mimic the behavioural patterns of their British counterparts. As in all such cases, the worst aspects find it easier to cross national borders.
For example, on weekends young Frenchmen often present at hospitals in a lager-induced coma – they seem to think that drinking 20 pints of beer is as cool as listening to rap and punk, which they assume all rosbifs do. Then there are tattoos and facial metal, practically unseen in France twenty years ago.
At that time there was not a single tattoo parlour in our regional centre, Auxerre. Now there are half a dozen, and one sees their customers roaming the glorious medieval streets and making me look away in revulsion.
These are small details, but they are the kind in which the devil lives. I could easily extrapolate from there into the general collapse of Western, not just French, civilisation. But that would be superfluous – you don’t need me to observe our universal relapse into barbarism.
Alas, it’s also observable in weightier areas than just fruit and veg.