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Britain's food fad is only skin deep – so far

02 March 2006

Every month or two, there appears in the press a slew of headlines along the lines of: "British food now ‘better than French', says survey"; "English fizz beats Champagne in new poll"; or "UK restaurants are officially the best in the world".

Let's not kid ourselves. Having retreated marginally from the blatant "Up yours, Delors" jingoism of 15 years ago, tabloid sub-editors are merely using food and drink as sticks with which to beat our Gallic cousins. People in our industry who actually believe that Britain is a better place to eat than France are deluding themselves.

It is true that if you know where to eat in Britain and don't know where to eat in France, you will probably have a better meal here. Compare London and Paris, and you could, perhaps, argue that London has greater interest and diversity in its restaurant scene.

Compare Birmingham and Lyons, however, and we are closer to the truth. Encouraging though the explosion of interest in food in Britain is, it is only skin-deep.

Once Newcastle, Glasgow and Cardiff can boast covered markets of the quality of those in Lyons, Avignon and Montpellier, we might be able to compete. Farmers' markets are a great boon to those who can afford them, but they are not the same as the weekly markets in the south of France, at which everybody shops.

Nor are the French as complacent as we might think.

At a recent conference hosted by Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, dozens of French winemakers queued up to emphasise just how forward-thinking they are - from the progressive biodynamics at the great Domaine Leflaive in Burgundy to the launch later this year of Chamarré, a range of easy-drinking country wines which ignore traditional appellations.

In food, too, the French are reaching out as never before. French markets have mushroomed all over the South of England, and online retailers such as Natoora are delivering high-quality French produce.

In any case, the battle is not between Britain and France. It is between great food and drink and the cynical, industrial dross which haunts menus and supermarket shelves on both sides of the Channel. If we really want to eat and drink well in the future, neither country has any room for complacency.

Can British food really rival that of the French?

Marcus Wareing, chef patron, Pétrus and Savoy Grill, London
"Yes, British cuisine can, but I don't think we can rival French fine-dining. However, gastropubs and bistros are now offering cooking which can match any of France's cafés and pubs. British food has never been more popular - Sunday roasts and fish pies are a big hit, and I think we need to continue to push that forward."

Roy Ackerman, food commentator and restaurateur
"It depends on the food and the cooking. In terms of the raw materials, British produce is as good as you can get anywhere in the world. The provenance of things like farm-reared animals is far superior to anywhere else. But I think it's hard to classify French and British food as there is so much overlap between them nowadays."

Sat Bains, chef-patron, Restaurant Sat Bains, Nottingham
"The standard of produce in the UK is just as good as that of France, but food runs a lot deeper in French culture. I think French and British produce can be compared in terms of quality - for example, some of the finest shellfish comes from our coasts. But the French really have more of a food heritage that's deeply ingrained in their psyche."

Pat McDonald, director, Ford-McDonald consultancy
"Absolutely. We have so much fantastic produce and fantastically skilled chefs but, as a nation, we need to realise that we have all of this around us. For me, what we lack is the passion of the French and Italians, but I do think that the appeal of Jamie, Gary and Gordon to the public is profiting the awareness of good British food."

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