The authentic knead

I went to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia once many years ago. Most of the food we ate seemed to be wholesome stews and goat-with-rice dishes that leave you on the toilet for two days. But in the centre of the city there is a french bakery. Mongolia’s only french bakery and a must-visit if you’re foolish enough to believe the Lonely Planet guide we had with us at the time. It was apparently run by a french couple, so would obviously be a delightful little piece of France out in the great Asian plains. To say the “croissants” they made were bad would be understatement of mongol-empire proportions. The one I had was one of the worst things I’ve ever eaten. A rock solid exterior with the texture of freeze-dried leather, eventually gives way to a starchy oozing mess of runny uncooked dough inside. It was further from what a croissant should be than Ulaanbaatar is from Paris.

The real surprise for me though, was the reaction of the person I was with. In summing up Ulaanbaatar as we were waiting for our train to leave, he said
“I had the most beautiful croissant of my life here.”
I did wonder, for a moment, if that was a euphemism for some other activity he’d got up to. But no, he actually meant the puss-dough filled leather rag he’d eaten at the french bakery. I challenged him on this and ventured the opinion that it was in fact considerably worse than what he’d have found at pretty much any supermarket bakery in England. His indignant, shouty response was that I was “completely uncultured”. If the definition of uncultured is not believing everything that Lonely Planet tells you and not finding a weirdly-overcooked-on-the-outside-but-completely-raw-in-the-middle croissant to be the pinnacle of baked goods, then fair enough. But really, I think he knew that the croissant he’d eaten was shit, it just didn’t fit the story he wanted to be able to tell everyone at home. That out here in the middle of nowhere, there’s a “french couple lovingly baking the most delicious croissants you’ll ever try”. And I think that’s the crux of it. We love to indulge ourselves with these lies, to believe that we’re refined enough to have a taste for authentic french or italian cuisine, and the more obscure the place we find it, the better.

It’s the all too often encountered appeal to authority, in talking about food, that “authenticity” trumps all else. French food made badly by someone who doesn’t have a clue what they’re doing, but that happens to be french, is somehow more authentic (and therefore better) than french food made well by someone who does know what they’re doing, but that happens to not be french. It’s one of the cornerstones of aspirational middle classdom, the idea that you’re refined enough to see through the pretenders and faux cuisine and appreciate only the genuine article made by the genuine hands.

It’s the bulletproof parent-to-parent playground brag.
“Well we get our bread from this delightful little French bakery around the corner.”
“Oh that place. I tried it once but the bread didn’t seem very fresh.”
“Well your palette is too anglicised. It’s run by this French couple. They make it the French way.”
Any protest is just evidence that you’re too habituated to the bland supermarket take on it and just too uncultured to appreciate what real French people value.

There’s a bistro near me. The food there is reasonably priced for what it is, which is OK ingredients cooked to an OK standard. Cote brasserie is certainly better than it and most competent home cooks could put together something fancier. And that’s fine. It’s the kind of place you go when you can’t be bothered to cook at home and you want something quick, cheap and non-fussy. It also appears to be run by french people (or at least the waiters have all mastered convincing french accents). This is enough for my friend Andrea to place it as the pinnacle of French cuisine. Anything cooked competently at home or served to you by an English sounding waiter in a chain restaurant is apparently sorry, bland, inauthentic feculence in comparison to this place’s offerings. It always used to be the dead-end point of contention with Andrea. Be foolish enough to suggest some other french-sounding restaurant for dinner and you’d get berated for your uncultured taste in english slop.
“No. If we want French food, then I know this superb little bistro we should go to. Much more authentic.”

A few months ago, I had the great fortune of being out for dinner with both Andrea and a colleague from work, Antoine (who happens to be a bonafide born and raised frenchman). Again Andrea insisted we go to this place, expecting Antoine to vociferously approve of her fine taste in authentic French cuisine. By the end of the meal Antoine hadn’t volunteered an opinion on the food, so Andrea probed him for one: “The food here is simply amazing isn’t it?”
Antoine’s response was the perfect: “It’s OK, but it’s not really French food. No-one would call that confit in France.”
Andrea’s face melted from smug self-assuredness into the embarrassed look of someone trying to swallow an 8-ball. She’s not mentioned that place since.

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