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.