French President Jacques Chirac could be forced to eat his words over the derogatory remarks he made about British food last summer.
Hi comment that “one cannot trust people who have such bad cuisine” ignited a fierce cross-Channel debate and led to a culinary first – an English food market in Brittany.
The idea, by the BBC’s Inside Out, South West programme, was to set up a cultural exchange and to give the French an opportunity to try English food. After all, French markets have been coming here for years. The result was an overwhelming success, with some shoppers reportedly making a 90-minute round trip to taste the fare on offer – namely, breads, cakes, buns, cheese, cider sausages and curry.
Among the five food producers from south west England invited to take part in the market was craft baker Elaine Ead, owner of the Chough bakery in Padstow, Cornwall.
She says: “Unfortunately, the French have been brought up with a preconceived idea that British food is rubbish. There may have been times in the past when it wasn’t so good, but there is real diversity now, particularly in the baking industry.”
She set up her stall, using a borrowed table, alongside the English traders and the dozen regular French sellers, at a Saturday market in the small town of Plouescat – about 15 miles from the port of Roscoff.
The day before, she had taken the ferry from Plymouth with her van loaded up with scones, which she sold with clotted cream and Cornish jam, shortbread with a toffee and chocolate topping, apricot and date slices, flapjacks, saffron cakes, breads
Mrs Ead knew which products were likely to sell because, for the past six years, she has had French students, studying food technology, working at her bakery.
“They have such a sweet tooth,” she says. “They love scones and anything with chocolate in. Yeast buns, like hot cross buns, are also a favourite – they don’t have anything like them in France.”
However, import restrictions into France on British beef meant she had to bake her Cornish pasties at 5am on the day of the market at a local restaurant.
The owner of the restaurant had ordered the beef for her, but, to her surprise, it wasn’t French but Dutch. “I had to laugh,” she says. “There I was at 5am in a French kitchen, using Dutch beef and making Cornish pasties.”
But her hard work paid off – she sold them all. “We were delighted. At first, the French shoppers were very hesitant to try them, but then we suddenly became busy and we sold practically everything we had brought.”
In just three hours, Mrs Ead, a member of the Taste of the West regional food group, had sold £320-worth of products. But she says: “I didn’t go into this for commercial gain; I did it to show how good our food is.”
Even the town’s Mayor was impressed. Jerome Blonz invited the English traders and the BBC crew, who were filming the event, to a reception and many of the local residents turned up. “They made us feel so welcome,” she says.
On the day, Mrs Ead, who was a teacher before becoming a baker 12 years ago, asked one of her former French students, Dorothy, to help her with the language. “I only know a smattering of French,” she admitted.
She advises any other British baker wanting to join a market across the Channel to either learn French or bring along someone who can speak it for you.
She explains: “This is a great market to get into but you have got to be enthusiastic and be prepared to talk about your products.”
The only downside was actually getting a market up and running. “The French people loved our English food but the bureaucracy can make it difficult,” she says.
Further trips planned
Not deterred, John Sheaves from Taste of the West, who also came on the trip, thought it was a tremendous experience and is planning to organise a series of English markets in France next year. Mayor Blonz has also invited them back to Plouescat later this year.
Mrs Ead, who was featured in the recently screened BBC Inside Out programme, says: “I would love to go again. I felt proud to be the first baker to be a part of this.”
Producer Dimitri Houtart, who organised the event, says: “I am a Belgian, but I have been flying the flag for English food. Jacques Chirac was pandering to the 1960s stereotype of overcooked British food. Local food in Britain, and especially in the south west, has changed tremendously in the past decade.”
The first English market even made French TV headlines. FR3 journalist Tangi Kermarrec says: “It’s more ignorance from our side when we say English food is bad. It’s a good idea to show what is made on the other side of the Channel and that it actually tastes good.”