British dishes starting to tickle French taste-buds

Australian Erica Hicks has set herself what many people would argue is an impossible goal: to make English cheese in France and sell it to the notoriously picky French.

She makes organic cheddar at her custom-equipped cheese room in an old farm building next to her home in La Chapelle Trevinal, a tiny cluster of farms and cottages nestled into the gently rolling fields and woods of Brittany.

"I don't think I really thought about it much when I decided to do this. I just sort of went into it blindly," said the Sydney-born cheese maker.

"It was only when people started saying 'wow, you're making cheese in France,' that I realised what I was doing. But then I thought, why not?"

Hicks produces her cheese with organic milk from a local farm. Each batch requires six hundred litres (quarts), from which she makes sixty kilos of cheese.

Once formed into cylindrical "truckles", the cheddar must mature for between six and twelve months in the cheese room's temperature controlled cellar.

It's then ready to be taken to local markets, where a jovial Hicks delights in vaunting the merits of real English-style cheddar to Gallic cheese buffs.

"Some people have been to England and have tried cheddar and think it's soapy old rubbish, so it's nice to be able to show them what a traditional cheddar looks and tastes like," she said.

Three years after setting up her small-scale business, the antipodean cheese-maker, who originally moved to France 20 years ago to work in a ski resort, seems to have built up an enthusiastic clientele.

"I like her cheese very much indeed. It's very good quality and she's a wonderful person," says Huguette Le Meur, a smiling, white-haired shopper come for her regular fix at Hicks' stall in the walled, medieval town of Dinan.

But cheddar isn't the only English food that is proving a surprising hit with French gastronomes.

Just a few hundred metres away from Hicks' Dinan market stall, English couple Chris and Erika Hodgson, have opened that most British of fast food outlets - a fish and chip shop.

And by all accounts the locals are delighted.

"To start out they were obviously very sceptical. There was more curiosity than anything else when we started," Chris Hodgson explained.

"But after a period of time, once they'd tried them or once they'd spoken to somebody who'd tried them themselves, then they would start eating fish and chips as well," he added.

Hodgson said that during the summer many of his customers were English as Dinan is a popular tourist destination, close to the Channel.

"But during the winter time, the majority is French trade and we sell fish and chips throughout the year," he added.

A look at the upstairs dining room of the Hodgson's small restaurant on a winter afternoon seems to bear that out.

"For the price it's a very attractive meal. It's tasty, very fried of course, with a sauce that we absolutely love," says Jacqueline Chevalier as she tucked into a steaming plate of fish and chips with her husband.

The Hodgson's fare also seems to pass muster with British clients.

"The batter's good - proper English. Tastes really good, everything's English about it. It's like you get back home," says Brad Walsh, a young English tourist visiting Dinan with his family.

Hodgson concedes that he and his wife have had some criticism however.

"We do get one or two not particularly nice comments from some of the English food snobs abroad," he said.

"They don't like the idea of fish and chips being exported because they want to come here and eat something traditionally French."

Half an hour's drive from Dinan, in Combourg, a picturesque small town that grew up around a local castle, Alison Buckley, a former retail manager from Britain, has opened an English grocery store on the main shopping street.

Its name - "The Olive Tree" - may evoke sunny Mediterranean destinations, but once inside customers find themselves in a Ali Baba's cave of Britishness.

Shelves groan with tins of baked beans and mushy peas, jelly cubes, jars of marmalade and digestive biscuits.

The shop has also stocked up on festive staples such as Christmas puddings and mince pies and customers can even buy packets of Christmas crackers - the popping, not the edible kind - complete with silly hats and awful jokes.

Like Hodgson, Buckley has also come across the English food snobs, whose views she shrugs off dismissively.

"We live in France and we all enjoy French food, but there really is nothing wrong with enjoying a bit of what you're used to every now and again," she said.

Buckley says that in the year since her store opened local French people have been delighted to discover her wares.

"It's gone from intrigue, where they've come in for curiosity to the situation today where more than fifty percent of our clients are French," she said.

Local couple Guyslaine and Pascal Grouard are visiting the shop in search of unusual presents for a friend.

"It's something new. There are different products here and I like to discover things. I like cooking. For example you can adapt French dishes with English sauces. Why not?"

It seems that even in the country that arguably invented the concept of gastronomy, it can be nice to have a change sometimes.

British food's new found Breton popularity could be an example of the favourite French saying, "vive la difference".

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