Food counter offensive targets French

British fish and cheese break the cultural barrier to tempt Gallic gourmands
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The Independent Online
The latest assault in the battle for French tastebuds is being launched by the British food industry. Not content with a campaign to promote British cheese to Gallic gourmands, a dozen British fish exporters visit Paris today in an attempt to explore potential markets in France.

The discerning French palate is worth pounds 1.6bn to British food exporters and makes up 14 per cent of all Britain's food and drink sales abroad. "It is our biggest market," said Patrick Davis, chief executive of Food From Britain, a quango marketing British products across the globe.

Even trying to promote cheese to the French seems, at face value, like taking coals to Newcastle. But Hanna Kelner, press officer at the British Embassy which hosted the campaign launch last month, said: "Most French people are not aware that there are so many different types of cheese in Britain. The point of the exercise is to explain how they make British cheese and to show that it's not all the same.

"This initiative is about informing the French as to what British cheese is being made. The fact is that Stilton is very different to Roquefort."

Britain's fishing industry hopes to emulate the cheese- makers with an assault on the French shopper. Mariea Limonci, of the Sea Fish Industry Authority, said: "France is by far our biggest export market. The market for fish is buoyant, and over 80 per cent of French households are eating fish on a weekly basis.

"We have already had a successful trade mission to Spain where exporters met buyers, and we are hoping this one to France will be just as successful."

Last year, France imported just under 29,000 tonnes of fresh fish worth pounds 75m and 24,000 tonnes of shellfish, also worth pounds 75m. Figures from the Sea Fish Industry Authority show that France, which consumes the most fish after Japan and Spain, imports more seafood from Britain than any other country.

Until the BSE crisis, meat was by far the best-selling British product in France and was worth pounds 500m a year. It is now worth pounds 340m, according to Department of Trade and Industry figures.

Fish, with a French-export market worth pounds 250m in 1996 is the second largest market. Cereals (pounds 126m), tea and coffee (pounds 65m) and fruit and vegetables (pounds 40m) are the next most popular goods selling in France. Cheese exports to France are worth pounds 20m.

Mr Davis said: "We are seeing a change in French eating habits. All our products are doing extremely well."

But he admitted that Gallic pride in French cuisine created a formidable cultural gap for the British food industry to tackle.

"There is a barrier," he said. "We recognise the French have their own high-quality goods and a wonderful heritage. But we can also provide quality and innovation and that's something the French respect. We are playing to our strengths."

Britain is now the sixth largest exporter of food and global exports are worth pounds 10bn to the UK every year.

Marks and Spencer, which opened its first store in Paris 22 years ago, now operates 11 in the Paris region and 20 across the country.

The company's success in France was partly due to its pre-prepared ready meals, said spokeswoman Isobel Foulfoin.