Wagon Wheels are rolling into Russian haute cuisine

Daniel Synge puts favoured British food to the test - on foreign taste buds
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Indy Lifestyle Online
British food is no longer a laughing matter. Never have home- grown food products sat so defiantly on the world's dinner tables, according to new export trade figures. A record pounds 9bn of British food was exported last year - 10 per cent more than in 1994 - according to the organisation Food from Britain.

Factories in Kettering, Maidenhead, Slough and Hayes are now the arbiters of gastronomic taste. We have entered a new age in which no self-respecting Italian goes to work without a daily dose of Weetabix, an age when Germans impress their acquaintances not with foot-long bratwurst but Fisherman's Friends, the "upmarket sweet".

The Japanese can't get enough "exotic" Tiptree marmalade and sausage rolls, the French can't glug enough British beer. Our biscuits - the cardboardy ones we never eat at home - are in demand, while Wagon Wheels and shortbread are leading the way to new markets in Europe, the Americas and the Far East.

Such surprising revelations deserve further scrutiny. Who better to put some of Britain's leading food exports to the taste test than foreign students from Westminster College?

The panel of seven start by devouring three rounds of toast and marmarlade. "My friends always ask me to bring them a jar of marmalade back," says Lucia, a part-time nanny, before revealing that in her native Colombia the hallowed orange jam is spread not on crusty white slices dripping with butter, but on a cracker, as an after-dinner snack. The marmalade otherwise elicits neither disgust nor praise.

Surely the sausage rolls, the most popular item of British cuisine at a recent trade fair in Japan, would not be thus marginalised?

Gyong Shin from Korea suspiciously prods one of Melton Mowbray's finest, just out of the microwave. "I don't like the smell of the sausage," she winces before passing it on to Monica opposite. "I would only eat it if I had to," adds the Colombian nursery helper as an afterthought. "It doesn't taste of sausage at all," complains Stephanie from France, who, if the report is anything to go by, should be keener on English mustard and Gentleman's relish. Indeed, only Monica's 12-year-old son Stephen dares raise a voice in defence of the great British canteen snack. "They're lovely," he says, as if appearing in a television commercial.

It was Burton's Biscuits that really struck gold by introducing the mighty Wagon Wheel to the plains of the Ukraine, Russia and Saudi Arabia.

The sweet-toothed Muscovites have annually munched 30 million of these circular gooeys ever since the pioneering company in Bracknell, Berkshire, headed east.

"The Russians prefer English to European chocolate, and we were the first British biscuit manufacturer to get there," explains Burton sales director Ian Gibson, as if recounting the 1849 Gold Rush.

The panel has been as ruthless as Sioux Indians at Little Big Horn, so what's to prevent the Wagon Wheel rolling towards a domestic crisis? "Apart from its big size, I think it's just the same as other chocolate biscuits," says Mr Gibson. "It has all the fun, movement and excitement of the Wild West."

So why do grown-up hands rarely get to grips with them? "The older people get, the less likely they'll admit to eating them," says the John Wayne of the biscuit world. Another curious international success, that of Lofthouse's Fisherman's Friend lozenges, "specially formulated for deep-sea fishermen working in Icelandic frost and fog conditions", may be due to the fact that nowadays we all want to be seen as rugged outdoor types.

An hour into the survey, the aforementioned cough sweets are handed out. Panel members quickly witness their legendary strength; doubts about their amicability, however, are raised. "One is enough for me," splutters Maria Jose from Spain, who suggests smokers would enjoy their unique taste more than northern fisherman.

"Even if I was coughing during a train journey, I would rather wait for the journey to end so that I could make myself a hot drink than eat one," says Monica.

Just as Britain's new-found culinary reputation begins to look as solid as the discarded instant soups going cold in the plastic coffee cups, the arrival of Weetabix (one of Italy's best-selling cereals), and shortbread biscuits, helps to keep the Union Jack fluttering.

"I like it very much," says Gyong Shin, referring to Scotland's premier biscuit. "I've tried it before and it's very tasty with a cup of tea," agrees Monica. But the macho notion of real men eating four Weetabix at a time is lost on French males. "My father would never dream of eating cereal for breakfast. In France only women and children would eat this," says another, holding up a soggy spoonful of Weetabix with undisguised contempt."

On the plus side, the Queen's favourite breakfast cereal gets points for nutritional value and the variety of ways it can be served. "I like it best with fruit or jam," says Lucia, in awe of the royal appointment symbols on the side of the packet.

Two hours have passed since the breakfast marmalade appeared. The panel ponder on the mystery behind the global success of British food. It is not that we produce better food, they eventually decide, but in a world of declining traditions in food and the erosion of regular mealtimes, our ready prepared comfort snacks are teaching the world not, as they say in France, to "live to eat", but to eat to live.

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