WHO IS Bernard Branco? This is the question that has been puzzling the food world since the launch of Egon Ronay's Cellnet Guide, 1993, at Langan's Brasserie in Mayfair last month. Although he is credited as the editorial director of Egon Ronay's Guides, Mr Branco did not attend the party, and no one appears actually to have met him, including Egon Ronay himself, who had never heard the name before opening his copy of the book.

This year Egon Ronay's Guide is published by Pan, in conjunction with Leading Guides Ltd, whose chairman is Roy Ackerman. Last year the guide was published by Roy Ackerman's Alfresco Leisure Publications plc, before that company went into receivership.

This year the key personnel involved with the guide remain the same as last year - Andrew Elliel, managing editor, and Mario Wyn-Jones, chief inspector - with the exception of the mysterious Bernard Branco. Inevitably, a rumour has been circulating that Mr Branco does not actually exist and is merely a pseudonym for Roy Ackerman.

In order to quash this rumour, the Gastropod rang Egon Ronay's Guides and asked to speak to Mr Branco. He was out of the office, but would return the call. In fact, it was Roy Ackerman, initially affecting a funny French accent, who called back.

Jovially, Roy insisted that Bernard Branco was not an alias, but a Frenchman to whom he had been introduced by 'a well- meaning source', and whose job it was 'to make sure that the people who compile the guide maintain the values of the project that he's involved with'.

Andrew Elliel was not available for comment and Mario Wyn-Jones, when asked if he had met the elusive Mr Branco, said: 'Er, I'm not allowed to say.'

When the Gastropod mentioned the rumour that Bernard Branco was a fictitious name, Roy became quite indignant. 'I think every guide needs its own bit of mystery,' he said. 'If you've never met Derek Brown (of the Michelin guide), how do you know he exists?'

The Gastropod duly phoned Mr Brown to verify his existence, and asked if he knew Bernard Branco. 'Who he?' was the response.

Roy Ackerman maintained that, for 'a variety of reasons', Mr Branco preferred to keep a low profile and would not speak to the press. However, he 'might be persuaded to a meeting some time in the new year'. The Gastropod is leaving his diary blank in anticipation.

WHEN THE Elite Fish Bar and Restaurant on the High Street of Ruskington, in rural Lincolnshire, won the title of Fish and Chip Shop of the Year a fortnight ago, its owner, Adrian Tweedale, declared himself to be delighted. 'We've been working for this all our lives and it is a dream come true,' he said, after picking up a cheque for pounds 1,000 at the awards dinner in London.

The prize has been sponsored for the past five years by SeaFish, the Sea Fish Industry Authority, to encourage excellence in the service of what continues to be the most popular takeaway meal in Britain. Past winners include Toff's in Muswell Hill (1988), Skipper's in Peterborough (1989), The Ashvale in Aberdeen (1990) and Chez Fred's in Bournemouth (1991).

This year Mr Tweedale and his team beat more than 600 chippies to win the award. 'Business has doubled at least,' he says. 'We really haven't time to be counting, but we sold 641 portions in three hours last Saturday after being featured on Radio Lincolnshire.'

IF YOU are planning to tuck into Christmas pudding or cake, the Gastropod recommends that you accompany it with a glass of sweet Oloroso sherry such as Matusalem, one of the Gonzalez Byass range of three fine old sherries, matured for a minimum of 25 years, each of which won a gold medal in this year's International Wine Challenge. Matusalem Oloroso Muy Viejo has a dark colour and a full, rich flavour ideally suited for drinking with puddings and fruit cake, and costs pounds 14.99 from Oddbins.

MICHAEL DAY of the Huge Cheese Company, which supplies many leading restaurants, is feeling unseasonally uncharitable. His Christmas card offers greetings to all except a dozen or so named restaurateurs who have gone bust, owing him money.

Mr Day was hoping to hold his annual staff party at L'Escargot, in central London, which went into receivership on 9 October.

As L'Escargot owes the Huge Cheese Company pounds 3,580 (plus more than pounds 2,000 from a previous unpaid bill), Mr Day felt he should entertain his guests at the restaurant before Christmas and haggle over the bill in the new year. However, Smith & Williamson, the official receiver, demanded that Huge Cheese pay the full pounds 1,000 cost of its party at least a week in advance.

Mr Day continues to supply L'Escargot with cheese on the condition that his invoices are paid within a fortnight. How long that relationship will continue is a matter for speculation.