Is France learning to love British food?

Sophie Van Brugen feeds pork pies and Bakewell tarts to the people of Paris

Sales of stilton, real ale and chicken tikka masala are up in France. Are the French learning to love British food?

You're eating at a pavement cafe in France. "You are Engleesh?" the waiter asks.

His pitying expression says it all. Whatever you order will be a delight after the boiled nursery food you've been brought up on.

You can't trust a country with such bad food, Jacques Chirac said of the UK.

To many French people the English are les rosbifs - a people unhealthily obsessed by roasting cows. That, and fish and chips and a few messy puddings and you have the extent of the UK's culinary repertoire, went the argument.

But something is changing across the Channel. People are buying British.

Stilton and cheddar are making inroads in a land where camembert, brie and roquefort are national symbols on a par with Shakespeare in the UK.

Scotch whisky now accounts for half a billion pounds in exports to France. Real ale is on the march, and sparkling wine from Sussex and Kent is winning awards, and prompting comparisons with champagne.

The tale of two cuisines

Banqueting hall at Royal Pavilion at Brighton
  • Early Normans brought French cooking to Britain where it was adopted in the royal courts
  • British cuisine was not adopted in France, but in the 18th Century it was widely accepted that British produce was of a superior quality
  • After the 1789 French revolution a wave of chefs came to Britain - some, like Antonin Careme, became celebrities and earned huge wages
  • By 19th Century it was British culinary equipment the French were raving about, with British manufactured goods dominating world trade
  • At the same time a few British dishes did catch on in France, including plum pudding and elaborate jellies

Source: Food historian Ivan Day

The minister with responsibility for food, Owen Paterson, is taking a delegation to Paris to celebrate the success of British produce in France.

Last year British food exports to its Gallic neighbour reached £2.2bn a year, double the figure from 2000 when adjusted for inflation.

Among some Parisian chefs, Scottish beef is now held in higher esteem than France's own beef - a huge turnaround from the jokes about the UK's mad cows. Le crumble is a trendy addition to the dessert menu in even rural France.

Marks and Spencer's Champs Elysees store sells more chicken tikka masala than any branch in the UK and the fifth highest number of BLT sandwiches.

A second M&S Paris store opened last week, with two more large stores planned as well as a number of smaller Simply Food branches.

Jonathan Meades, a broadcaster and food critic living in Marseille, says the young, urban French see British food differently to Chirac's generation.

There are about a third of a million French living in London who bring back stories of the British capital's booming restaurant scene and culinary diversity - Indian food in particular - that much of France lacks.

"This generation travels," says Meades. "They realise that something has changed pretty fundamentally in London. They're not as gastronomically xenophobic as they used to be."

The UK has been through a food revolution in the last two decades. It boasts an outward-looking food culture that absorbs influences freely, while its culinary traditions have been reinvented by chefs like Fergus Henderson at St John and Rowley Leigh at Le Cafe Anglais.

Popular British dishes in France

Apple crumble
  • Fruit crumble - French are discovering the delights according to chef Raymond Blanc
  • Sandwiches - British lunch staple has rocketed in popularity, according to Lady Penny Holmes who wrote sandwich recipe book for the French
  • Cheese - UK now produces more types of cheese than the French - 700, according to World Cheese Awards, and are selling more across the Channel

Leigh is a Francophile who named his restaurant to represent a fusion of English cooking and French techniques. He believes that British sparkling wine and soft cheese still have a long way to go before they can challenge champagne and camembert.

But Aberdeen Angus beef, hard cheeses like Montgomery cheddar, and Scottish langoustines, are as good as anything the French can produce. And the French "go mad over grouse as there's nothing like it there".

A blind tasting organised by the Financial Times last year gave English cheese a 5-1 win over their French equivalents.

The balance of culinary power has shifted. "There's no doubt that standards of cooking in France have declined over the last 30 years," Leigh says. "Since nouvelle cuisine, they've lost their mojo."

The backlash against France has taken many guises. From bad coffee to overly rich sauces and fussy presentation, the country whose cooking bible is the doorstop Larousse Gastronomique seems out of step with the innovations taking place in Spain and Scandinavia, or the simple, regional cooking found in Italy.

"I can't do all the foamy sauces they go in for these days, or all the plate decoration," Nigella Lawson said recently of French chefs.

Nigella Nigella Lawson has been critical of overly fussy French food

But gastronomy is woven into France's national identity. And France is a proud country.

Just because the rest of the world decides it has fallen a notch or two on the culinary ladder doesn't mean the French will start eating toad in the hole, bangers and mash or braised oxtail.

For some French, eating British produce would seem unpatriotic, argues food writer Fiona Beckett.

France still out-punches Britain on food exports. It sells almost twice as much food and drink - £4.1bn - to the UK as vice versa. And even the increased performance of British goods in France might not be all it seems.

Whisky, which has always been popular among the French, makes up about a quarter of the sales figures.

Rich Tea

There's also a question mark over who is really buying British food in France.

French rural supermarkets are stocking more and more UK products. Some like Super U even have dedicated British sections, groaning with Marmite, Branston Pickle, baked beans, and London Pride.

But many say it's rare for a French person to pause at these shelves to inspect so much as a Dairylea triangle.

Could it be that they're there for the estimated 150,000 British residents in France, the 200,000 second home owners, and many tourists, rather than Monsieur and Madame Dupont?

It's got to be the oldest cliche in the French book of cliches. That and the one about England's weather. But still it keeps on coming. Even today, I find it astonishing how often acquaintances here feel free to make wisecracks about our supposedly substandard cuisine.

But, as the man said, I am afraid the last laugh is on the other foot.

The revolution in British attitudes to food is now so fully entrenched as to be no longer a revolution. It's the reality. After Elizabeth David in the 1950s, our middle classes consciously adopted what they imagined to be the culinary sophistication of France and the Mediterranean.

But the odd thing is that in the same period, many French households were losing the cooking knack. The ping of the microwave replaced the bubbling of the cocotte. Gastronomy became a preserve of the elite.

Today it's shifting yet again. The French middle classes are going through a media-led rediscovery of the joys of cooking - indeed of all kinds of non-native cuisine. Which is wonderful. But please, messieurs, no more of the jokes.

The rural French haven't embraced British food in the same way as city dwellers, says Meades.

"People in villages in France are very incurious. Their view of England is people wearing bowler hats eating boiled food."

Agnes Poirier, a French journalist who divides her time between London and Paris, says the Anglo-Saxon media's talk of French gastronomic decline is wrong. France has always had a national cuisine whereas modern Britain has some traditional recipes cobbled together with lots of borrowed Mediterranean cooking, she argues.

Meades agrees that the demise of French food has been overblown.

"The quality of the produce is better in France. The vegetables actually taste of something, the meat is much better. A greater assiduousness is paid to cooking."

The fascination with M&S sums up the French attitude to British food, Poirier argues. Mint sauce with lamb, the triangle sandwich, coleslaw - these are alien concepts.

"It's quirky. They look disgusting, so people are absolutely entranced to find they like them." Then there's all the cakes, scones and biscuits, which are hard to resist.

"It goes from repulsion to attraction with British food," Poirier says. "But it is not taken seriously."

To talk of a new love might seem a little de trop.

Here is a selection of your comments.

I live in rural France and have eaten in French homes and restaurants. The food here is bland, boring and predictable. Same old, same old. Frite with everything in the cafe and restaurants and never a fresh vegetable to be seen. It is a shocking misconception that French food is good. French housewives serve meat boiled...yes boiled lamb and poached pork. At my house they enjoy a varied menu and are always taken aback at the quality of my food. In particular they love trifle which is something they never have here. They do eat differently. Small portions and never on the same plate and can't understand us "Brits" who put everything on the plate at the same time. And salad is simply lettuce which they eat after a meal. I am from Manchester so my food is hearty and filling.The British food in the supermarkets is very expensive, I do a Tesco trip a couple of times a year and stock up on basics however I have to admit that the meat is better here but fish can be pricey. It is a different way of eating and I would not be critical to my French friends.

Patricia Bunker, Orbec, France

We are Brits living in Belgium on the French border. There is an advert on a Francophone channel here for digestive biscuits which says, "c'est Anglais mais, c'est bon" - it's English but, it's good. Kind of sums up their expectations!

Zanne Joy, Mouscron, Belgium

I live in rural SW France and my nearest supermarket has a well stocked section of foreign foods. Like the local "international club", whose membership is 95% foreign, it attracts very few natives. The French have been raised on first class meat, excellent fish and wonderful vegetables and are justifiably proud of what they are and what they eat. They may amuse themselves with whiskey for a chic aperitif, indulge in crumble at the local restaurant but they don't look abroad for serious family eating. As with their idiosyncratic daily bread, they consider nothing can improve on familiar shapes and style. With so much good fare shared at home, washed down with some of the World's best wines, French restauranteurs have to lure their customers with innovative and striking dishes. UK restaurants are certainly improving as the nation becomes steadily more food conscious but French cuisine remains ahead of the field with sophisticated embellishments of a fine tradition, still practised in family kitchens throughout the country.

David Cann, Villeneuve sur Lot, France

While on the whole it is much easier to find decent food n France than in the UK, there are some very notable exceptions. No French supermarket comes remotely close to Waitrose in all-round quality and only a minority of French boulangeries sell proper baguettes any more. The ones from our local baker in Herne Hill are made and baked in store from scratch in front of your eyes and their baguettes would beat those from most French boulangeries hands down.

Stephen Benyunes, London

I'm English living in Paris with a French wife. We were in the new Marks and Spencer today. The clothing floors were relatively quiet. However, the food hall was full. A lot of interest in the curry section and gaping holes where the white loaves once were. Cheese? Long gone. It could be twice the size, with double the stock and they would still run out. Pork pies and scotch eggs, however, were still plentiful - perhaps they are still viewed with suspicion! I'm sure a lot of it is curiosity - and I did notice other English accents there but the food "corridor" at Champs Elysee is always overflowing - with languages of all sorts!

Simon Cresswell, Paris

As a youngish Brit running a small holding in the south of France I would say that Parisian cooking might be something else but rural French cooking is not that dissimilar to the English rural tradition. Braised oxtail is a classic in France but like England rarely found today. The french love their sausages and together with Aligot (mash potatoes with melted cheese) you've got bangers and mash. Toad in the hole is perhaps unique to Britain but my French father in law loves it and i'm sure any other "paysan" would agree!

Ed Orton, Chamborigaud, France

Crumble has certainly appeared in the last few years "a la Francaise" though of course. Otherwise about the only things that are around are Worcester sauce and "creme anglaise", custard to you, though made as it should be not with yellow powder from a packet. There is a super U near me with an English section as well as Spanish, Chinese and North African sections. It doesn't do much business, not even among the many UK inhabitants here. Why would anyone pay four euros for sugar filled baked beans when you can have a proper four-course meal with wine in a proper restaurant for 15 euros. As as for that packaged white stuff erroneously called bread, no normal French person would touch it with a barge pole, we have real bread thanks.

John Murphy, Un Village, France

Where does Johnathan Meades buy his produce? As an English French farmer I find the quality of the meat far below that of the English equivalent. In fact, the best meat I have found locally was German. As for vegetables the quality is generally very variable.

Christopher Dale, Bordeaux, France

French meat, particularly beef is dreadful and often too tough to eat, presumably because it is not hung long enough, their pork is often factory farmed in conditions we would not tolerate in the UK and their lamb is astronomically priced and average. No one would care a jot about any of these things if the French would just relax and admit it, however their superior attitude is often infuriating.

Sue Roberts, Bayeux, Normandy

I lived in France for eight years in a very small village in southern Normandy. We invited our new neighbours for a Christmas party during our first year. They ate us completely out of our Christmas stock of cheddar, Leicester and other hard cheeses, Melton Mowbray pies, rich fruit cake, home cooked ham and other typically English fare including seeing off a nine gallon barrel of real ale. We had to send someone back to replenish stocks. After that, we developed quite an export trade. Our neighbours couldn't get enough of it.

Kenneth Pearce, Weymouth, England

French expat here. It'd be hard to criticise the quality of the food in a city as rich and diverse as London, especially when, in my seven years living here, it has helped develop and mature my culinary tastes. Real ale and cheese, let's not even mention your cakes, mmmm. But while you do get better food now than you may have had in the past I'd be cautious when using the term revolution and judging that the French are on the decline etc. Industrialised food and economic woes are currently affecting the French now the same way it affected the UK during the industrial revolution and after WWII. But is this so called revolution over here really taking the whole country with it or is it just affecting the upper and middle class? In supermarkets, the only nice yet still affordable cheeses are still French. The very nice British stuff is very upmarket and not common in all shops. The number of Kentucky Fried Chickens speaks for itself, people with less money over here would rather spend two quid on a cheap deep fried/frozen horror than take 30 minutes to cook something from scratch with what's left in the cupboards. Without a fancy cookery book, people are often lost and it will take more than M&S selling Chicken Tikka to change that.

Jean , London, UK

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.