These days London is acknowledged to be a hot contender for food capital of the world, thanks to its diversity and the creativity of its concepts. And although we blasé Londoners may think that the bubbling cauldron has reached saturation point, foreign investors re still looking to join the party. The rate of enquiries in my inbox is undiminished.
But what about ordinary food shopping? How can the regular local shops afford the horrendous rents in central London to serve the local population? It seems that many of them cannot and increasingly we are restricted to the bland offerings of supermarkets with their unripe fruit, packaged vegetables and immature cheeses.
Recently I was lucky enough to be able to realise a lifelong dream: to buy a flat in Paris for the family, and have spent the last two months, when not roaming the bricolage department of the Bazaar Hotel de Ville, exploring a new status of being a part time Parisian resident.
The identity of each of the 20 arondissements which make up central Paris has a particular community feel, with its mairie and allocation of boulangeries. Already I am developing a pride in and loyalty to the 10eme, supporting its local shops and bars.
Daily life in Paris is suited to the residents. The food shops open at convenient times, and take a pride in their service. Fish for Sunday lunch? Not a problem. Open till 1pm on a Sunday, Madame. There are 3 boulangeries in the street; one will always be open Sunday morning by mutual agreement for the local population’s breakfast baguettes and croissants. The greengrocer with its enormous fresh unwrapped lettuces, fragrant bunches of chervil and juicy black tomatoes never seems to close. And no other milk will do after getting used to the raw version from the local Beillevaire cheese shop.
The point is that we are in no South Kensington nor Notting Hill. This area is not at all smart. It is just normal.
Undoubtedly the restaurants have some way to go to match the excitement of London. But what is so bad about being jammed together in a local traditional bistro where the patron is present, welcoming his customers as if into his home, and being served well cooked French food? And NO MUSIC so you can talk to each other? I may be wearing rose tinted glasses at the moment with the novelty, but I am also relishing the attitude where the customer’s comfort and convenience takes priority.
I think it boils down to the fact that when a proprietor in France opens a food shop or restaurant he/she expects to be present to nurture it for several years. The expectation is not just to run it for a year and then either sell it on or build a chain. This attitude shows a contradiction about how we often regard food in the UK, and London in particular. We profess to “love food”, but somehow it feels like a fashion, and not a way of life.