Are British food producers now good enough to rival the French?
I’ve been encouraged to think about this question by the research and filming I did for my new BBC Two programme Raymond Blanc’s Kitchen Secrets. As you’ll see from the show, British food producers are changing the food landscape (and their own, usually small parts of the actual landscape) with their ever-improving artisan products.
Of course there’s a vast difference in scale. France is many times larger than the whole of the UK, and it consequently has many more climate zones. True, we have part of the North Atlantic in common, but I’m afraid my native France trumps our access to the North Sea, with its Mediterranean coastline. And, of course, when it comes to agriculture, it’s not only the climate zone that matters, but also the microclimate – and France has hundreds of times the microclimates of Great Britain.
Still, British farmers and producers have the guts, gumption and will to succeed. And there is one area where they might just have overtaken France – cheese. Britain has had a renaissance in cheese-making, and the wonderfully named British Cheese Board claims that we now produce 700 named varieties of cheese, as opposed to the 246 French cheeses Charles de Gaulle is supposed to have complained about.
Even so, it is probable that we import as much as half of our food, whereas France is the world’s second largest exporter of food. I think this might be because we in Britain have lost our former craft and skills in many areas, whereas France (French gastronomy has just been added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list) has managed to retain most of her crucial agricultural and foods-related skills.
Apart from citrus fruit, bananas and the like, why should we be importing any fruit or veg at all? With gardening skills and attention to microclimate, we can grow tomatoes, most herbs and salads, and even vines. Last September the BBC ran a story claiming that two-thirds of the apples consumed in Britain were imported. This is madness! Britain is capable of growing the finest, crispest, juiciest, most fragrant apples on the planet. Yet only one-third of the apples we eat are homegrown.
Why are apple and pear orchards being destroyed? Sometimes the development value of the land exceeds the value of the orchards. But most often the reason for their destruction is the difficulty of making a profit on their crops. This in turn has led the worst aspect – the loss of skills and craft.
You can always replant an orchard, but you can’t replace a generation’s local knowledge of soils, microclimates, pests and what varieties flourish best where; or their pruning skills, experience concerning pollination; or knowing when to perform triage and when to pick.
Raymond Blanc with charcuterie producer James Swift at Trealy farm
So let us celebrate our food heroes – those we filmed and talked to in Raymond Blanc’s Kitchen Secrets, such as Stuart Allen, the Scottish lobster fisherman, and fruit farmers such as Euan, Jack and Gillian Cameron of Pittormie Fruit Farm in Dairsie. There’s the superb charcuterie producer, James Swift in Wales; and Laverstoke Park Farm in Hampshire; and Charlie Beldam and Lawrence Millet-Satow, who make fantastic, cold-pressed culinary rapeseed oil in the Cotswolds.
So over to you... is cheddar better than brie? Can you name other food producers that are flying the flag for good-quality artisan food?
Raymond Blanc is presenter of BBC Two series Raymond Blanc’s Kitchen Secrets.