Interview by Everett Potter
The writer Alexander Lobrano has lived in Paris for three decades and his latest book, Hungry for France, is a culinary love letter to his adopted country. It’s much more than a logical follow up to his earlier book, Hungry for Paris (which was just released in its second edition). This is a lively and opinionated hybrid, a mash up of travel book, cookbook, memoir and even coffee table tome, thanks to Steven Rothfeld’s wonderful color photographs. It’s a highly selective guide to restaurants, regions and specialties but also a road map for some of the newest culinary trends in a tradition-bound country.
Lobrano was the late Gourmet magazine’s European correspondent and writes now for the likes of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Saveur, Travel & Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, The Guardian and Everett Potter’s Travel Report.
In short, he is a born storyteller, and his vignettes take you into his life even as he’s waxing poetic about the world’s best butter (Bordier), stating his personal belief for where the south of France really begins (Valence) or talking about buying a five franc tie from Monoprix on his 20th birthday so he could dine in the tony surroundings of Le Chantecler at the Hotel Negresco in Nice.
The recipes – for curried pork in cider sauce, buckwheat crepes with salted caramel, chard-roasted salmon with fennel salad, and apple-apricot strudel tartlets, etc – are a delicious addendum to each chapter. I spoke with him recently about the new book.
The idea of traveling from region to region of France, dining as you go, remains one of the most inviting travel experiences that I can think of. Do you see Hungry for France as a companion for such travelers, a sort of culinary road map for such excursions?
Yes, very much so. The reason that I wrote this book was to share a deeply meditated list of my favorite addresses in France after having lived, traveled and eaten from one end of this beautiful country to another over the course of nearly 30 years for reasons both personal and professional. As someone who travels constantly, I’ve come to understand that what food-loving travelers to France want most is a carefully curated menu of superb addresses rather than a phone directory length lowdown. Looking at long lists, or sifting through all of the information available on the internet I always find myself thinking, oh, dear, this is really time-consuming and how do I know which places are really good? So Hungry for France is the little black book I’d give to my closest friends, but it’s not really a guidebook either. Instead, with its gorgeous photographs and terrific recipes, it’s a combination dream book, cookbook, memoir and gastronomic primer, since I celebrate and explain the food of France region by region.
I was going to ask you how long it took you to write this book but I guess the answer must be the 30 years you’ve spent in France. That said, was there some hard travel and research during the past couple of years to produce this labor of love?
My gastronomic knowledge of France is thirty years deep, but since I really focus on the remarkable new generation of chefs, food producers and hotel keepers who’ve emerged in France, a lot of travel was necessary for simple reason that I worked by a process of elimination. Since I wasn’t writing a restaurant directory, but rather a gastronomic gazetteer of my favorite places in France, I had to be ruthless. And to say that the travel was very much a labor of love is to put it very mildly. It took over two years to do this book.
You say in your introduction that “France still has the finest and most deeply rooted culinary culture of any country in the western world, and can also stand up to challenges from any other place on the compass.” Is that a red flag to all the France bashers out there who think it’s lost its culinary supremacy?
William Randolph Hearst proved a longtime ago that nothing sells better than a story about smashing or slashing a sacred idol. So kicking France in the shins re. the quality of its gastronomy has been a great print lede and SEO website bait for at least ten years. The reality of what’s happened is considerably more nuanced. For starters, one can eat well almost everywhere now, which means that France is perhaps a neck or two above the crowd, rather than on a misty peak of absolute supremacy. And if there’s no doubt that the French food chain has been hit by the noisome effects of industrial catering, supermarkets and the same things that have diminished the quality of food almost everywhere, what’s different in France is that the French retain an intense exigence based a real historical knowledge of cooking and their country’s best produce when they sit down at the table. This enlightened gastronomic culture isn’t elitist either—almost everyone in France could name a couple dozen cheeses and tell you where they’re from, for example. Then, too, French produce actually is extraordinary–take fish, for example. Here there’s an expression that I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world–”de ligne,” as in “bar de ligne,” which means line-caught sea bass, or fish caught by an individual fisherman on an individual fishing pole, since the French consider that this fish is higher quality than that which is landed in nets. The same is true of butter, vegetables, meat, everything–the language of food in France is hugely rich with phrases and designations that signal a specific type of quality. And finally, the quality and seriousness of French culinary education, or cooking schools, is point blank the best in the world. So if you can get a really lousy pizza in a shopping center in suburban Paris like you can get a really lousy pizza in suburban Madrid or Houston. What you won’t find in these other places is the same exalted caliber of excellence that informs French food.
You make the point that “the talent pool in urban France is deeper and more cosmopolitan than it’s ever been in the country’s history. Hundreds of ambitious young cooks from all over the world, but especially Japan.” Japan? Tell us why.
There’s always been a seriously love affair between France and Japan for a variety of reasons. Both cultures exalt the aesthetics of daily life, prize refinement and subtlety, and adore good food. So France continues to attract ambitious young Japanese chefs who come in search of the holy grail of the greatest western gastronomy, and once they’re here and have done an apprenticeship or two, they often chose to stay on, because life in France is so pleasant, the produce is so good, and the French provide an ambitious chef with such a demanding but receptive audience at the table.
I almost get the sense that gastronomic traveling through the various regions of France, whether it’s Normandy, Provence or Burgundy, is akin to traveling in different countries, because each region is so distinct and so proud of what they have. Is that a reasonable comparison?
Very much so, because every region’s history and geography determine what you find on the table. They’re lots of invisible gastronomic frontiers in France, too, perhaps the most famous being between those parts of the country that love butter and those that prefer olive oil. This was pretty much defined by the Roman occupation of Gaul, but olive oil is now popular Lille in the same way that butter is well-liked in Nice. Still, every region’s vividly different history and geography explains the menu in any restaurant.
One statement I like is “I’d defy you to find another country anywhere in the world where you can so reliably find a spectacular meal—at all levels of the food chain—in its most remote and forgotten villages.” Give us an example of one of those forgotten villages and restaurants.
Two of my favorite restaurants are in tiny little places–Auberge La Prieure, which is in the minuscule village of Moirax just outside of Agen in the southwest, and La Grenouillere, a spectacular auberge in La Madelaine-sous-Montreuil in the north of France.
Was there a single big lesson that you learned while writing Hungry for France?
I came away humbled by the passion and seriousness of the hundreds of chefs, food producers, bakers, butchers, hotel keepers and others that I met during my travels. I was also reminded of how much the French love to share everything that’s wonderful about their country with foreigners. Contrary to what some people may think, they’re extremely generous and gracious.
Your life may look to some like an endless array or champagne, oysters and foie gras. Perhaps it is. But what is the biggest misconception that people have about what you do for a living?
I became a food writer because sharing and discovering food it’s the fastest way to understand where you are and who you’re with. Food is a deeply serious subject, so the idea of the over-fed restaurant critic who subsists on luxury produce like foie gras and Champagne is light years from the life I live. Of course I love Champagne, foie gras and oysters, but I’d be miserable if I were confined to the highest end of the French food chain, especially since street food, family cooking and comfort food–choucroute garni in Alsace, for example–is often the best eating to be found wherever you go not only in France but any country.
Finally, give us a Sunday meal you might prepare at home from a couple of the recipes in Hungry for France?
I’d go for the pan-roasted chicken with garlic and vinegar, the potato and cepe mushroom gratin and a strawberry tart–easy but delicious recipes that will leave you with some left-overs with which to see in the week.
Alexander Lobrano will be reading from Hungry for France at French Institute Alliance Française in New York on June 3.