Food & Drink: VIVE LES BRITS

There's a food revolution going on in France. The English white sliced loaf and digestive biscuits are simply the last word in chic
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The Independent Culture
FOR BRITISH foodlovers, the ever increasing ease with which they can get to Paris should be a dream come true. But what do you get at the other end? British food? Surely not.

Unnoticed, there has been a silent revolution in the French capital. But stroll along the boulevards and there you see a typical Frenchman in a smart winter coat and homburg, snacking from a Marks & Spencer's packet of digestive biscuits. On a park bench, a group of copains are opening up their sandwiches anglais, made in England and bought from the French supermarche Monoprix.

Housewives are leaving the top Paris grocer, La Grande Epicerie, their bags stuffed with British-made ready-cooked meals, Indian curries by the Lancashire company Patak, and Chinese and Thai dishes made in Scotland. The boulevard Haussmann branch of M&S reports that taramasalata, houmus, tsatsiki, all made in Britain, are flying off the shelves.

The French capital is also in the grip of muffin mania, not to mention crumpet fever. They can't get enough of them. It's the chic thing. And Parisians are even developing a real taste for British white sliced bread, too. In their top shops it's outselling their own wrapped, sliced pain de mie.

You have to see this to believe it. For Francophiles like myself, it is not a happy thing to walk past traditional French patisseries and boulangeries, their evocative scent perfuming the air, and turn into a store offering stand upon stand of English sandwiches on white sliced bread: BLT, Cheddar and chutney, egg mayonnaise.

Open the French edition of Elle, and you find a double-page spread advertising the Monoprix stores. It shows a fabulously chic girl licking her fingers. The headline reads: "Every day our sandwiches anglais leave London. They are in Paris in three hours. And in your stomach in three minutes."

But how did the French, who have so jealously protected their language from change, who have so earnestly defended their restaurant cuisine from foreign influences, let down the barricades? And above all, to the English of all people, a race whose eating habits they hold in contempt? One person who knows the answer is Dominique Mine, a 40-year-old Frenchman who bought the franchise to the Paris office of the agency Food from Britain when it was privatised five years ago.

Food from Britain is a government-funded agency founded 12 years ago to promote British food products abroad. In fact, I attended their first assault on the French capital in those early days: a food exhibition in the George V hotel in which Scottish beef, lamb, and salmon featured prominently, alongside Scottish whisky and shortbread. There was a memorable moment when the British ambassador handed his French counterpart a box of a newly launched English cheese, called Lymeswold (now dead and buried, without honour).

Over the years, Food from Britain has championed some fine regional products - hams, cheeses, smoked foods, jams, preserves, cakes, biscuits, ice-creams. Nicholas Soames was the most pro-active of our food ministers and he got them working with British Airways to fly the British food flag.

In the UK, Food from Britain still nurses and prompts the small British producer, but abroad, the agencies - in the US and France, Germany, Italy and so on - are on their own. And it is France, of all countries, which has emerged as The Big One.

The French have always been prodigious consumers of premium items such as British lamb and Stilton and Scottish shellfish and whisky. But now they are importing everything across the board. In fact, Britain, exports twice as much food to France as any other country.

Dominique Mine's office, just off the Champs Elysees, has played its part. He conducts a commando operation spearheading the British invasion, helped by an able team of 10 food and retail experts, most of whom are women. Mine himself is a towering man, 6ft 4in, who moves with the urgency of Linford Christie. He's an extreme Anglophile - he sports a photograph on his office wall of Winston Churchill with both dog and cigar. "Nicholas Soames came here when he was food minister and saw that picture," says Dominique. "He said, 'My grandfather'." Soames's own father had been a very popular ambassador to France too, and a famous gourmet. It was evidently a happy start to Dominique's career.

"The French still have a low opinion of British food," Dominique observes with equanimity. If you ask any Frenchman what he thinks of food in England he will shudder at the memory. "He will say, ah, they eat fish and chips, baked beans and jellies."

Dominique's father used to bring him to England on summer holidays with his two brothers (they are doctors now) to encourage them to speak English. When he was 16 or so, he was sent over for a month each year to stay with families. Yes, British cooking was terrible. Vegetables were boiled to death. Meat was overcooked. There was a brown sauce on everything. But the family did find things to enjoy. Dominique loved pub food, fish and chips, bangers and mash, and apple crumble. And marmalade, Cheddar cheese, white sliced bread. White bread? "Yes, we thought it was very exotic, very chic. We always took a lot home and filled the freezer."

Dominique Mine started his career working for the business magazine Expansion. He jumped at the chance to work for the prestigious Remy Martin cognac company, also acting as an agent for Krug champagne, which is the world's most expensive. He played with the idea of starting his own company when the Food from Britain opportunity arose. "My friends were laughing. They thought I was kidding, 'You're leaving Remy Martin and Krug to promote British food?' "

He had the last laugh. "They did not understand that British food retailing is the most sophisticated in the world. British suppliers are very efficient." Marks & Spencer had already got a toe-hold in Paris and their example left rival supermarkets struggling.

Dominique, over a very French lunch in his very British-style club on the Champs Elysees, The Travellers, explains his strategy. Some foods benefit by the UK association (whisky, Walkers shortbread, marmalade, Stilton) and now the sandwich anglais, Most, however, will suffer by association. You don't want to advertise cooked foods as coming from Britain, even though this is the area in which Britain is light years ahead of France. Neither should ethnic foods - Indian bhajis, pillaus, kormas, chicken tikkas, Chinese chicken legs with lime, and so on - make anything of their British provenance. "It not only doesn't make marketing sense to underline the origin, it can be a disadvantage," he says.

Mine takes me round La Grande Epicerie, Paris's most important food emporium - a cross between Harvey Nichols and Waitrose multiplied by three. It pulses with a French heart, with glorious meat and fish counters, exotic fruits, superb charcuterie, fabulous dairy products and cheeses to amaze you. The store's young buyer, Francoise Flament, makes seasonal raids on the UK, combing our top stores and delicatessens.

It is surprisingly gratifying to pass by shelves dignified by teas from Taylors of Harrogate, rhubarb and ginger jams from Thursday Cottage, Spinks's smoked haddock from Arbroath, Pinney's gravadlax, Duchy Originals, Curry Club spices, Lincolnshire sausage, Jordan's cereals and Hovis Malt loaf. "The French had never eaten malt loaf," says Dominique. "We arranged tastings and everyone thought it was wonderful."

Here are Covent Garden's home-style soups in glamorous packaging outselling French soups in glass jars which now look old-fashioned. Ours are twice the price. Outrageously, the range includes a French Vichysoisse, if that's not coals to Newcastle...

Less obvious, until Dominique points them out, are the hidden British products, such as pizzas with mozzarella topping. "It's not generally known," he points out, "that the UK is the world's largest producer of mozzarella - mainly for putting on pizzas."

Surprising too were the range of snacks, not just Golden Wonder crisps, but soft drinks and, of all things, fresh juices - orange, apple, raspberry, all freshly-squeezed in the UK. Bordering on the absurd are British-made baguettes with garlic butter. "It's very popular," says Dominique with a laugh. "We have no such product. It's chic." It's a downright cheek, but who am I to say? Finally a visit to Marks & Spencer and my disillusion is complete. C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas my sort of guerre.

At the Gare du Nord I board Euro-star and, thankfully, leaving British food behind me, I tucked into a proper French-cooked dinner, Premium class; cooked salmon "quenelles", compote of onion and fennel, braised wild boar (marcassin), pancakes stuffed with creme fraiche, excellent burgundy and claret. What a relief.

QUENELLES OF POACHED SALMON WITH TAPENADE AND BLINIS

Serves 4

250g/12lb fresh salmon

bayleaf

6 peppercorns

40g/1oz smoked salmon (or more to taste)

12 lime, squeezed

2 tablespoons double cream or fromage frais

1 teaspoon green peppercorns (from a jar)

For the tapenade:

12 ripe black olives, stoned

4 fillets tinned anchovies

1 clove garlic, crushed

lambs' lettuce for garnish, washed and dried

Do not despair, these are not the hard-to-make time-honoured quenelles - that airy froth of pike, cream and egg white. "Quenelles" here refer only to their agreeable appearance, shaped into torpedo-like ovals using two large tablespoons. These quenelles include both fresh and smoked salmon. If you didn't want to make blinis, you could serve the quenelles with buttered rye bread or pain de campagne instead.

First, put the fresh salmon in a suitable pan and cover with water, adding the bayleaf. Bring to the boil, turn down heat to simmering point and cook till done (around 5 minutes depending on thickness of fish). Test for doneness by lifting out a piece and pressing it between finger and thumb. It should be firm but not hard. When done, remove and leave to cool.

Cut the smoked salmon into thin shreds, then break the cooled poached salmon into loose flakes and mix delicately with the smoked salmon shreds, the cream, lime juice, and teaspoon of green peppercorns

To make the tapenade, pound together the black olives, anchovies and garlic (or use a hand blender).

With two tablespoons shape the salmon mixture into quenelles, serving two per person. Make the tapenade into similar, smaller shapes, and serve one per person. Garnish with the lambs' lettuce, and if you're making them, the blinis.

BLINIS (BUCKWHEAT PANCAKES)

250g/(12lb) buckwheat flour (or half white flour, half buckwheat flour)

12 packet fast-acting yeast

3 eggs, separated (yolks and whites)

425ml/(34 pt) warmed milk

pinch of malt

sunflower oil for frying

Mix the yeast with half the flour and half the milk, beating in the three egg yolks. Then leave in a bowl covered with a clean cloth for half an hour in order to start fermentation.

Beat in the remaining milk and flour, the pinch of salt, and leave for half an hour more.

When you are ready to cook the blinis, beat whites to a light foam and fold into the batter mixture gently.

Heat a small non-stick frying pan and, when hot, rub the sunflower oil on to the surface using crumpled kitchen paper dipped into a saucer of oil. Ladle in dollops of batter to make pancakes about 7cm to 9cm (3in- 4in) across. When they have set, turn the pancakes over to finish.

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