I’m going to talk about France. You might think that’s an odd thing to do for British Food Fortnight but please bear with me. I’ve just got back from summer holidays in south west France and, despite all the anti-European fervour unleashed by Brexit, we still love the Continent. Eight million of us go to France and 13 million to Spain every year and I think the food has something to do with it (as well as the sun and sand of course). And while British food culture has been transformed to the stage where we can rightly be very proud of it, we can still learn a few things from the French and their food.
The first thing that really strikes home is that food in any typical half-decent French restaurant draws much of its inspiration from what’s available in the same region. So, local meats and cheeses abound, many dishes are regional, and local wines are readily available. All this offers an insight into the area and what the hinterland produces.
What struck me most, however, were two adverts in the press that stood out in support of high quality, often traditional, home-produced food, and doing that on the national stage. The first was from Leclerc, one of, if not the, largest French hypermarket chains, proudly advertising their regional food lines – 10,000 at least. Tellingly this includes cured meats, cheeses, honey, and other fresh or perishable produce, as well as dried and preserved goods - many of them characteristic of their areas.
I still see nothing like this commitment to or promotion of regional foods at our biggest grocers.
I did a quick check of one our big chain’s website for their local sourcing, estimable perhaps as far as it goes, for where I live in Essex and also for my home area of Cheshire. For Essex, the site shows a few jams, crisps and a pack of bacon; for Cheshire, just sliced bread and soft drinks. No sign of wonderful Cheshire cheese and nothing that told much of either area. Our great British grocers have a long way to go. Or, to put it another way, the potential for them to stock and endorse superb distinctive regional and local British food is huge.
But, more startling yet was the second advert I spotted. Fronted by one of France’s top chefs, it was posted by the Government. And the topic? Praise for their ‘premier’ industry: ‘l’artisanat’ – craft or cottage industries (though it loses something in translation). France has a reputation for high tech – think Airbus or its high speed trains or nuclear power. Yet, it clearly takes pride in and hard sells its smaller, traditional skilled industries, especially food production. It understands their worth, rurally and nationally. Can we imagine our new Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) talking up our food industry’s small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) or the great, new artisanal bread makers or cheese producers out there as our premier industry? Some credit must go to Defra (our Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), under Liz Truss, who started to recognise their worth, but our Government has a long way to go to in supporting superb British food and our regional and local specialities.
For want of something better – ‘faute de mieux’ as the French would say – we, the great British public, need to get out there to shout about and support great British food in this great British Food Fortnight. To my mind, there’s no better way to do that than to start with local or regional foods. Think of the amazing array of cheeses we now produce – some 750 – the micro-breweries – over 1500 CAMRA recently revealed – the real, craft breads, or the apples, plums and pears now emerging as autumn mellows into our consciousness. There are others too, far less hailed but more than worthy – our cured meats and fish, pies and puddings, and yoghurts and ice creams. The key to this is craft: seek out products where the ingredients aren’t mucked around with too much, get away from the ultra-processed foods and find ones that are a bit closer to tradition - produced with passion and often on a smaller scale. It doesn’t mean wholesale change to your diet or chucking out the cornflakes, but seek out a bit of excitement and pleasure from new tastes and novel products – I promise you your taste buds won’t forget it, and you won’t regret it.