The debate over the southward movement of good cooking to Spain underlines the importance the French attach to food
The world can be divided into two types of human beings. One consists of those who eat to live and the other of those who live to eat. The second — call them gastronomes, epicures, gourmets or by any other name — place a very high priority on good food. They will go into any amount of trouble to find and eat food that is extraordinary — it might be food in a London pub, a Parisian café, a small trattoria in a Florentine alley or a dark room in a dingy lane in Calcutta making exquisite sandesh. Members of this devoted band study books, chase chefs, take pains to choose the perfect menu for a given occasion: bad food to them is a solecism, a break in the way things were intended to be in the world. It is not surprising therefore that food should become a minor cause célèbre. A food critic of New York’s leading newspaper had the temerity to suggest that French cooking has not changed for the last 20 years and therefore had lost its innovative edge. Good cooking had moved southwards in Europe and Spain was the destination of gourmets. To rub salt into wounds — or, more aptly, to put chillies in the curry — a French chef with several Michelin stars, Marc Veyrat, has agreed with this view. The master cooks, he said, were all now in the land of tortilla and gazpacho. This judgment has not gone unchallenged of course. Pierre Gagnaire, a chef with three stars from Michelin, the gastronome’s bread and butter, has upheld the vigour in French cooking and has drawn attention to the fact that French cooking has not remained static at nouvelle cuisine.
The issue might appear to be a bit trivial but for lovers of good food the matter is serious. Indeed, they might argue that the word good in the previous sentence is redundant. Food has to be good. That is precisely why the controversy over French cuisine is more than a storm in a wok. The French have led the way in cooking for a very long time. It can be argued that no other people — with perhaps the possible exception of Bengalis — spend so much time over food as the French. Their discussion of the next spread begins as the present one is about to end. The delicacy and the subtlety of French cooking, the variety of the sauces that are prepared, the many ways the meat and vegetables are cooked and the sheer delight French chefs derive from their work have made French food into an art form. The great chefs of France are as much venerated as the great artists of the country. Given all this, the claim that the Spaniards have appropriated good cooking is as sacrilegious as saying that Picasso is a better artist than Matisse.
The debate is unlikely to be immediately resolved, if it ever is. Cooking in Spain may currently be enjoying a high. But it remains to be seen if it will acquire the dimensions of French cooking and the elaborate and almost ritual-like procedures one associates with French dining styles. The very fact that battle lines can be drawn over a criticism made of French food is an indicator of the importance of the gourmet in French culture and society. Spain might enjoy a short term victory but it is doubtful if Spain or any other country will set the standards — from the aperitif, the entrée to the cheese — of gracious eating.