French love of shellfish keeps British boats in business: The fury of the latest fishing wars is derived from the different eating traditions on the two sides of the Channel, writes Stephen Ward

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The Independent Online
A RESTAURANT in France. The Cafe de Paris, on the Cherbourg quayside. The patron takes your coat, you settle down, en famille, gazing at the pile of crustaceans and molluscs on display, lobsters in tanks. Everybody orders a few, sits down with a bottle of wine and pulls them apart, sucking contentedly on the claw or leg of a lobster or spider crab.

A restaurant in England. The Carved Angel in Dartmouth, where the food is equally good. But the shellfish are tucked away in the kitchen, the lobsters are either dead or dozing in the refrigerator. Nobody asks to see them alive.

Lobsters and crabs have been the latest commodity to provoke a minor trade war between Britain and France, and are a parable of supply and demand in the free market.

Unlike for lamb, milk or beef, there are few subsidies. The 'producers', the fishing boats, are almost all owner-operated and small. And nobody can interfere much in the market (as with salmon and trout) by farming crustaceans. They take too long to mature and have so far proved too aggressive to breed in captivity.

Market forces draw most of the lobsters and crabs to France. There are a dozen French restaurants for each English one even selling fish, and it is the same in the market and in the home. This explains why the disputes between British and French fishermen erupted with such fury. It is not just that the French pay more, especially at certain times of the year including Easter, but that they buy so much more. If French ports were closed to the English and Channel Island boats, their skippers simply couldn't shift it all in Britain.

According to Dr Eric Edwards, director of the Shellfish Association of Great Britain, the amount of shellfish landed annually in the UK by British boats is 122,000 tonnes, worth at first sale pounds 102m. Statistics are not kept for exports, but for the south-west of Britain, 'between Newhaven and Cornwall, 90 per cent of the shellfish caught goes to France'. Most of the rest goes to London restaurants. Very little is sold in restaurants or markets where the boats are based.

Ken Lynham, who runs two shellfishing boats out of Portland, Dorset, each skippered by one of his sons, explains the economic logic which dictates where he sells his catches. His boats, with 80 pots each, catch half a tonne of crabs and lobsters on a poor day, three tonnes on a good day. 'I would say the English fleet between Poole and Plymouth exports pounds 14m of crustaceans a year. Probably we only sell pounds 2- pounds 3m worth a year to England.' In that stretch of coast, there are probably 1,500 fishermen, and most of them depend for their livelihood on the French appetite. Spider crabs, a spikey species with all the meat in the legs, just don't sell in England, yet in France they are a sought-after delicacy.

The difference between the two nations' attitudes to crustaceans is illustrated by the menus at the Cafe de Paris and the Carved Angel.

Alain Herrou, patron of the Cherbourg restaurant, offers three shellfish dishes, at Fr70 ( pounds 8.75), Fr150 ( pounds 18.75) or Fr500 ( pounds 62.50) for two. A straight lobster would cost Fr390 a kilo (about pounds 24 a lb). He buys for about Fr160 a kilo, (about pounds 10 a lb), less in summer when they are plentiful, more in winter when they are harder to catch. He buys all his fish from a specialist merchant, not from the market or fishmonger or the boats, which would either cost more or could not guarantee supplies.

The Carved Angel's proprietor, Joyce Molyneux, does not serve lobster every day. 'We buy from a small fisherman, fishing out of Dartmouth, crabs and lobsters, and prawns whenever he gets them. We can't have lobster every day. We pay pounds 5 a lb for lobster and pounds 1.50 a lb for crab. It hardly fluctuates. Lobster is sometimes a little more expensive in the winter.'

Her lobster, a la carte, at lunchtime, costs pounds 22 a portion. In the evening it features, when available, either as part of the starter or main course in the set-price meal costing pounds 37 or pounds 42, according to how many courses you have.

She regrets that Dartmouth doesn't support a flourishing row of restaurants offering fruits de mer. 'But in England there just isn't a tradition of the family sitting round tucking into a plate of shellfish.'

(Photograph omitted)