Happiness is a steak and kidney pie

In Germany, the locals are joining homesick natives in British speciality food stores.

Such, runs the old joke, is hell: the car-drivers are French, Germans run the Ministry of Fun, Americans are in charge of the arts, Italians organise the whole show. Oh, and the chefs are British.

Any comment by a German on British cuisine is likely to start off with some calumny of this sort. Yet while Germans may pour scorn, like gravy, on typically British dishes, the contempt runs both ways.

Many of the 115,000 British expatriates in Germany go out of their way to escape Eisbein und Sauerkraut - and they have around 30 culinary havens to fall back on - shops offering food from Britain.

Hayley's British Shop is one of two such speciality shops in Frankfurt, the city with the largest British community in Germany. The store is run by Hayley Wood, a 26-year-old from North Wales. It has a good position in the Frankfurt West End, an upmarket district rather like the City of London, packed with banks, computer companies, estate agents and consultants. About half of the customers in her shop are British, says Hayley. Most of the others are American or German.

Among the regular customers are Steve Walton and Colin Booth, two construction workers from London, who have been living in Frankfurt for a number of years. Their shopping bags often contain the odd can of John Smith's Bitter - a weird brew, too flat and insipid by most German standards. "German beer is the best beer in the world," says Steve, "but, well, sometimes the real thing from back home does a lot more to cheer you up."

For Steve and Colin, the steak and kidney pies in Hayley's shop are particular favourites. This is the sort of food you cannot find in most German supermarkets - to German taste buds such pies epitomise the worst of British cuisine.

Steve and Colin also come to Hayley's shop to stock up on products that may be available on the Continent but that "just aren't the same" as the goods imported from Britain. According to the two Britons, the ketchup on Hayley's shelves is "a little more tomato-ish", the mayonnaise "more mustardy", the cereals more crunchy. Even the same product of the same brand tastes different when not imported from Britain, they say.

This refined sense of taste is not entirely imagined. A spokesman of an American company that produces ketchup confirms that although there is one single basic recipe for their ketchup, the ingredients and the processing do indeed vary "to a minor extent" in the individual countries in which the ketchup is produced.

But Hayley concedes that "many customers are probably driven by the force of habit. The white bread they're after has just got to be Mother's Pride." To meet the demands of her customers she has her food products delivered from a wholesaler in Folkestone every Monday.

Some locals now seem to be warming to the notion of food from the other side of the Channel. British food is becoming more popular, says Roy Edleston, managing director of the Frankfurt-based German office of Food from Britain, which promotes food exports from the UK.

"It is true, for a long time we have had to struggle with a fish-and- chips image on the Continent," says Mr Edleston. "And in Germany and Britain eating and drinking is often considered more of a necessity than something to take pleasure in - unlike in Latin countries."

But the range of British food products in Germany is no longer restricted to classics such as whisky, gin and marmalades. Britain has outstanding natural produce to offer, which is then processed in Germany, says Mr Edleston - crustaceans from the Welsh coast, game and cheeses from the north of England, poultry from East Anglia, or milk from the West Country.

Mr Edleston reels off the facts and figures to support his claim: Germany is the third most important market for the British food industry (after France and Ireland); some pounds 670m worth of food products were exported to Germany in 1994 - 4 per cent more on the previous year; exports to Germany accounted for 8 per cent of total food exports from Britain.

But while Germans may have developed a liking for British ingredients, are they ever going to take to what they regard as a very peculiar way of processing this food? In the English Shop, Frankfurt's other outlet for British speciality products, Germans customers are still rare.

"They account for 5 per cent of my clientele," says shop-owner Gunther Bentz, who is himself German. Four out of five customers are British or Irish. Herr Bentz's assortment boasts some 700 British food products, delivered from London and Kent. Herr Bentz has adapted quickly to cater for British demands on special occasions: before Easter, the shelves groan with Easter eggs of a vastness unknown to Germans; and at Christmas the place is packed with plum puddings.

It is particularly during the festive holidays that many expatriates turn to food to remind them of home. Something that is not lost on Hayley Wood: a tin of baked beans or a jar of orange marmalade may not be the prescribed cure for homsesickness, but, a visit to Hayley's British Shop is, she says, "the next best thing to being in Britain".

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