Food & Drink: Raising the standard for Britain: Our emissary to Paris will have to fight for recognition of our native foods, says Joanna Blythman

If someone asked you to list Britain's food treasures, what would come to mind? Stilton? Christmas pudding? Kippers? Next month in Paris, a committee of European experts will be pondering just that question.

The idea is to compose a European inventory of regional speciality foods, broken down by country. The initiative's working title is Euroterroirs (short for Le Groupment Europeen d'Interet Economique Euroterroirs). It is, of course, French in origin, and was launched last autumn on an existing French model.

The French had been concerned for years that their regional food treasures might be swept away in the deluge of international junk food, or undermined by too permissive European standards. So, in 1989, the then culture minister, Jack Lang, and a top chef, Alain Senderens, set up CNAC (Conseil National des Arts Culinaires), with the aim of reawakening the nation's food awareness. The body was backed by all the relevant government ministries, commercial interests, and local and regional councils.

'The ministers asked us to treat our traditional regional food products as we would public monuments,' says Alemandre Lazareff, a noted restaurant critic for Le Figaro and French television, who heads CNAC.

The body divided France into 22 regions, for each of which an inventory of speciality foods was to be produced. Five have been completed. Now, with Euroterroirs, the CNAC has broadened the scope of these food listings to include all interested countries in Europe. The project is being financed by the European Commission in a spirit of self-interest (of which more later), and the task of composing the British list has fallen to the food writer Henrietta Green, whose The Food Lover's Guide to Britain (BBC Books, pounds 9.99), is both authoritative and quality-conscious.

Ms Green, aided by Alan Davidson, a respected researcher and author, aims to settle on a list of some 400 foods with which to negotiate in Paris. Apart from the scale of the undertaking, she is likely to have classification problems, because the French are applying criteria that do not readily translate.

Initially, the French cast their net wide, trawling in mass-produced industrial foods along with specialised artisan products. Thereafter, however, they become more selective: each food, they say, must be distinctly regional in provenance and character, with a history stretching back at least three generations. It must be in production still, and be known both in the region and nationally.

'There is a basic difference in the way the French are thinking about this project,' Ms Green says. 'We in the UK are not preserving our traditional foods as in France. In many ways we are at a more exciting stage because we are inventing and discovering new foods. Take cheese. The French have hundreds, but how many of them have been invented in France in the past 50 years? Here in Britain, we probably have 50 or 60 new cheeses, most of which deserve recognition.'

The French emphasis on the past is an issue that will have to be confronted. 'When it comes to cattle breeds, for example, we would have no problem conforming. Our best breeds in terms of eating quality - Aberdeen Angus, Herefords and so on - have centuries of history. But what about ducks? The best and tastiest we can buy are either Gressinghams or Treloughs, both breeds that have been developed in the past 10 years. Obviously, we will have to argue that the criteria are altered for Britain so that emerging, worthwhile foods such as these can be included.'

Geography is another problem. 'What could be more British than Christmas pudding, but from which region does it come? The strict geographical tie doesn't always work.'

Also, not all British products conform to the textbooks in the way that, say, Arbroath smokies (the marvellous haddocks still prepared in smokeries in the town after which they are named) do. 'You can go to Bakewell and buy something called a Bakewell pudding, but the chances are that it will be poor. There is something called Newmarket sausages, presumably because someone had the commercial nous to call them that. They may have a traceable history, and they claim to follow an original recipe, but they are a low-meat product and, frankly, not up to much. Yet they would conform to the French criteria. My impression is that these standards do not capture the quality aspect of food in contemporary Britain.'

Strange though it may seem, quality is not a factor in the regional French inventories produced to date. The Loire area, for example, is dealt with in a weighty volume, impeccably referenced with academic notes, copious technical details and bibliographies. Among the listed treasures is a BN Gouter Fouree - a children's snack biscuit found in almost every food shop in France.

Its manufacturer, La Biscuiterie Nantaise, is a local company - if you ignore the fact that it is owned by US giant Pepsico Foods International Inc and General Mills. It is also true that BN's chocolate-filled biscuit was first produced in 1933, therefore qualifying as 'traditional'. But the ingredients are a depressingly familiar mixture of partially hydrogenated vegetable fat, sweetened animal fat, powdered sweetened starch and so on. Applying this sort of thinking, we would have McVitie's Digestive biscuits on our list. Then why not Sainsbury's or Safeway's versions while we are at it?

Not far from the home of BN's chocolate biscuit, in the town of Sable, you can buy a delicious shortbread biscuit known as a sable. This eschews all modern industrial processes and ingredients in favour of butter, flour, eggs, sugar, salt and water. But its listing is decidedly less prominent than BN's.

Such logic may be influenced in part by EC thinking on the creation of protected status for high-quality food producers in Europe. The Commission is funding the Euroterroirs inventories (so many ecus for each food on the list), so one assumes that the project is, in part, doing the Commission's work for it.

Because we are now in the Single European Market, all member states are obliged by law to accept any food legally produced in any other. This means that many countries are having to accept lower-quality foods than previously. The Dutch, for example, have to accept German gouda with less fat than their own. The French must accept Danish salami which is cheaper than French and contains less meat.

This laissez-faire climate means that food standards have been 'harmonised' to the lowest acceptable level, a state of affairs exacerbated by the recently signed Gatt (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) deal. This is causing consternation among good-quality food producers, who feel they need some way to identify their products so that the consumer, confused by the proliferation of lookalike and soundalike foods, can distinguish them. Cheddar cheese is an obvious example. It can be a push-button factory job or a lovingly matured one made with raw milk at the farm down the road.

To overcome this difficulty, the Commission has agreed two formulas for awarding special-status labels. The first and most strict is 'Protected Designations of Origin' (PDO); the second, 'Protected Geographical Indications' (PGI). A spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food says it already has dossiers on 36 British foods, which it is submitting on the producers' behalf for either PDO or PGI status.

The Commission's support for the building up of a European data-bank of foods can be well understood when one realises how much of its legwork will be done for it in the matter of conferring special status on certain foods. One can understand, too, why the Commission should base its special quality status labels on the thinking of the French, who have led the way in Europe in setting up geographical and traditional classifications to protect wines and foods from impostors.

But such criteria may be inappropriate for Britain, and it could be a disaster if they were to go unchallenged. It could mean that the wrong sort of British 'heritage' foods were afforded special status, while the quality trailblazers were left out in the cold cabinet with the German feta cheese.

The flexibility of the European Inventory will be tested by Ms Green next month when she comes to negotiate her list. 'I'm going to fight the corner for Britain,' she declares. We wish her luck.

Suggested Topics
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Supervisor

    £24800 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of London's leading Muse...

    Recruitment Genius: Centre Manager

    £14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Guru Careers: Accountant

    £28 - 45k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Accountant is needed to take control of the ...

    Day In a Page

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before