Rick Stein loves more than just France’s great seafood; he’s passionate about the fantastic markets, old-fashioned brasseries and unspoilt countryside as well. The TV chef talks to us about his romance with l’Hexagone…
What do you think is the essence of good French Cuisine?
I think it’s the fact that they have access everywhere in France to really excellent ingredients. You get such good markets all over France and the French have got a reverence for raw materials, which makes their cuisine so special. Plus they have a fidelity to their cuisine. One of the joys of being in France is that you get nothing but French cooking – it’s very nice to go to France and nearly everything you get in restaurants is French, Vietnamese or North African. I love going back there time after time. The last time I went to Paris I just stuck to those big, old brasseries like La Coupole. I love that old-fashioned service and the time- honoured dishes. I like going to new, smart, trendy restaurants but I also love the sense of tradition, certainly in Paris, which is alive and well.
What is top of your shopping list when you go to a French market?
It depends. I have to say fish because you can go virtually anywhere, even in the middle of France, and get good fish. I remember the last time I went to Paris – to the Bastille market – and just being amazed by the quality of the fish counters. Not just by the freshness but the way that everything was displayed. Vegetables come second on the list. One of the things we discovered on the French Odyssey TV series was that the markets are full of vegetables but you can’t get them in the restaurants because people buy vegetables to eat at home. Similarly in the new series, in Greece in particular, they’ve got marvellous vegetables but you don’t get enough of them in the restaurants. There is a theory that all foreigners want to eat is meat and fish but quite often what I want to eat is vegetables.
What or where in your opinion is France’s best kept secret?
In my knowledge, which isn’t extensive, I very much like the Jura and the Savoie. I also like the western end of the Mediterranean, which I think is more unspoilt and interesting than the eastern end. I love Saint-Jean-de-Luz in the pays Basque. I think the Pyr�n�es is great too when you get off the beaten track. And anywhere near Belgium is good because the Belgians cook very nice French food, so I like Picardie. I think it’s true of everywhere that the more you get off the tourist track, the better the food. What I’m always looking for is the places where the locals eat.
How has French cookery changed over the years?
There’s a lot of chat these days about French cooking not being what it used to be. I think the French have suffered partly because of having quite punitive social security systems for employing staff in restaurants and they’ve got a 35-hour week, which as a restaurateur would be a nightmare. One of the things I said in the last series is that it’s still generally true to say the less you spend in France in restaurants, the better or more honest the food. And that’s still the case. I probably feel more at home in France than anywhere in the rest of Europe.
Your latest series is called Rick Stein’s Mediterranean. Which French Mediterranean dishes or ingredients do you most enjoy?
In the latest series we went to Corsica. What we liked in particular were all of the dishes associated with the food of the mountains. In particular I liked the various Corsican stews with wild boar, the figatellu, hams, local cheeses and the Patrimonio wine. There are also three seafood dishes in the book from Corsica – a nice bream dish with fennel and an oyster dish. The island has a fantastic saltwater lake where they cultivate lovely oysters. We had a very nice time in Corsica – it’s quite unlike anywhere else we went in the Mediterranean simply because it’s very mountainous and the people are quite different, they’re very proud.