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Are British food producers now good enough to rival the French?

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Raymond Blanc Raymond Blanc | 16:51 UK time, Monday, 21 March 2011

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.

Selection of UK cheeses

 

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.

Tomatoes on the vine

 

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

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.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Totally agree with Raymond Blanc I have a real hard job to buy British Meat,Fruit&Veg! We've got to support our farmers & growers as people do in France! Think about it! How far has your food travelled before you buy it. Maybe we should 'dig for Britain' again?

  • Comment number 2.

    Very interesting. I believe we have some fantastic produce though and I for one always try to buy seasonal within reason and as local as possible. I do not believe you can compare a Somerset Brie to a Brie de Meaux though and I adore Roquefort and its saltiness. However I think we have some fabulous cheeses like Berkswell Ewe which I would jump through hoops for, Stinking Bishop, Blacksticks Blue and Tickler cheddar to name but a few. Our Asparagus and Strawberries, our new potatoes are hard to be beaten, cured meats, Fish etc should all be demanded outside the UK as is French produce. whay I would like to know though is if France produces so much for export why can I only seem to find for eg Kenyan tasteless green beans in the supermarkets in the summer why are we not getting it as there are far less food miles there. Also I am so with Raymond on the Apples it is madness that we import so many when we have some fabulous varieties when in season.

  • Comment number 3.

    There is a fantastic spectrum of British food available especially in the smaller retailers but the elaphant in the room is our reluctance to pay a reasonable price for it. Our recent history has been formed from our enthusiasm for all things USA including processed foods. If only we had stronger ties to European culture many of our food issues (and social ills) would not exist. Just walk around the large supermarkets in France and see what is on offer - we have a long, long way to go. On another subject I especially enjoyed Raymond's programme last night (22 Mar) and want to try and produce the duck ham but cannot find the recipe - in fact I think the link from Kitchen Secrets to the recipes used in the programmes is a nightmare or am I just being a bit dim? Can anyone help me?

  • Comment number 4.

    @John you can find the recipes from recent programmes here: www.bbc.co.uk/food/programmes

  • Comment number 5.

    I find it very difficult to buy anything but British meat.. I prefer French beef, New Zealand lamb and even Argentine Beef..
    Give us the choice! If we don't buy then you will have won.. I find Ostrich delicious and I suppose the opportunity of buying horsemeat is an impossible wish.

  • Comment number 6.

    I agree we could be doing more to support these growers and producers. Food may be more expensive but it has several positive factors. Less waste, better taste, obesity would possibly reduce in some of the population and the encouragement of grazing by animals and the growing of trees would have a positive effect on our climate.
    In Gloucestershire there is a producer of Camembert called Hills and this has been favourably compared to the French original. I hope Raymond has a chance to try it to compare and give his thoughts on this British version.

  • Comment number 7.

    I was astonished to see Raymond Blanc cook a pot au feu (a dish using only beef and root vegetables) using pork, sausage and cabbage. That's not a pot au feu, it's a Potée, of which the best known variant comes from the Auvergne 20 miles from me here.

    As for British food, much if it is excellent, though just as I'd prefer it if the name Cheddar was reserved for the real thing and not borrowed by every Tom Dick and Harry cheesemaker from Canterbury NZ to Willamook Oregon, so I'd be a lot happier if the name Camembert was reserved for a raw milk cheese from Normandy and not tagged onto any random imitation no matter whether it's British or French for that matter.

  • Comment number 8.

    Hello Ianisinfrance - thanks for your comments.

    I've just looked up Larousse Gastronomique and a Potée is any dish cooked in an earthenware pot. You are of course correct in that a dish such as Potée Franche-Comtoise is indeed similar in description to that which RB cooked in the programme as it used bacon and morteau sausage. However the key difference is that Pot au Feu is served as two courses and Potée as a single course.

    Larousse concedes that Pot au Feu is usually beef, it is not always the case and as Raymond was serving the dish in two courses - the meat and broth with mustards and toasts - I feel comforatble that our description was acceptable.

    Hope you continue to enjoy the series which I assume you are getting via satellite in France?

  • Comment number 9.

    What Raymond doesn't state is that French producers have been overprotected by way of huge government subsidies for generations, something which the British, and other countries, have not had the benefit of. Remember the Wine lake, the Butter Mountain. It is easy to prolong inefficient practices which appear to be prevalent in France when you have government, and EEC financial backing.

 

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