Only saucy Britons can curry favour in France

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Food from Britain, while "mad cow" disease is in the headlines, was never going to be the commercial success of the decade. But at the opening of one of the world's biggest food fairs - the SIAL - outside the French capital yesterday, the British were putting an admirably brave face on current difficulties and parrying the hackneyed inquiry "Where's the beef?" with paeans to the delights of lamb.

It wasn't British lamb, mind you, but English, Welsh, Scottish and even Northern Irish lamb - all displayed under separate flags or logos. Scottish and Irish meat stands tried hard to remind potential customers in their advertising - "quality beef and lamb from Scotland" - that they still produce beef, and are ready to start exporting as soon as the EU ban is lifted, though no one was under any illusion that it might be soon.

"Well, of course, we wanted to bring our beef here, you need to see it and taste it, but the French made clear that they would not let it in," said the representative of a Northern Irish company. "It's regrettable, but the French seem to feel very strongly about this," said another exhibitor.

The representative of a Scottish meat company, a Frenchman based in Edinburgh, wearing a sticker saying "I eat Scotch beef" (in French), insisted that his compatriots made an exception for Scottish beef. "We have customers trying to order Aberdeen Angus all the time, and we have to explain that we can't export it. French beef is really not very good," he added conspiratorially.

Potential buyers - for British meat of any kind - however, seemed few. "It's only hearsay," said one British exporter, but they do say that the beef problem has affected the reputation of British food generally."

Welsh lamb exporters disagreed, though, saying that exports had held up well. "Their worries about beef have made them forget their objections to British lamb imports," said one, referring to the time when French farmers stopped lorries loaded with lamb, complaining that cheap imports were putting them out of business.

Nationally, the British food industry is selling in Paris on a global ticket. Along with the English tea, scones and jam, and Scotch whisky was a whole new wave of "British" food: Indian curry sauces, Mexican chili, pizza mixes - and this year's special challenge to the French: "couscous in a pot".

"Just pour on boiling water, leave for three minutes, and there you are," said the demonstrator. And for anyone with any qualms about selling couscous to the French, the British variety is not only easier to prepare, but cosmopolitan in flavour: Chinese, Indian and Mexican.