- Rick Stein's Secret France, by Rick Stein
- BBC Books, £26
More than 50 years after Rick Stein first crossed the Channel to be enchanted by steak frites, a casserole of rabbit and that first plateau de fruits de mer, he's returned to discover if the nation continues to live up to its culinary pedigree.
In Secret France, both a book and a BBC Two television series, the chef seeks to examine if rumours of a decline in standards across the country are true. The introduction of the 35-hour week in 2000 – with employers forced to pay overtime for any labour in excess – has been cited as the cause of a decline in chef skills, as well as a move towards less time-intensive menus.
It's refreshing that Stein isn't looking to simply apply a touch of polish to the reputation of the grande dame of cuisine and buff it up to gleam once again. He cites disappointing meals as well as conversations with chefs and restaurateurs about the challenges of the market and the impact these are having.
But he returns frequently to a nostalgic celebration of the simple French fayre, that has been enjoyed by the chef over many decades – without a sniff of that famous tyre manufacturer.
While at times the book's title seems slightly misplaced – where in Burgundy could really be described as secret? – the 120 recipes included take their inspiration from a myriad of sources, including a small restaurant within a roadside garage, vineyards, a bistro opposite a cattle market, home-cooking and the suppliers and producers he comes across.
Stein concludes that he is confident that France can still boast many unassuming establishments deserving of the country's reputation, as well an exciting new generation of chefs looking to move forward.
Secret France is a fascinating meander through the country and, quite simply, a highly enjoyable read. Stein's enthusiasm and affection for his subject manifests in a light-handed touch that's entertaining, informative and researched extensively through a lifetime of hops across the Channel as well as many epic meals – including an eight-course cheese feast in Jura that is well worth tuning into the television series to watch.
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