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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 July, 2005, 10:28 GMT 11:28 UK
Les Rosbifs reinvented
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine

Ploughman's lunch
Lovely grub: A classic British lunch
To those who see the French president as out of step with the pace of modern Europe, Jacques Chirac's jibe about British food is perhaps a case in point.

They've got a slick rail network, a home-grown car industry and magnificent stretches of Napoleonic architecture that escaped the German Luftwaffe's mighty payloads.

We, on the other-hand, have half their unemployment, a global language and, for the next six months at least, the EU presidency. Oh, and the 2012 Olympics.

Rivalries between the French and the British are at least as old as Agincourt, the 15th Century battle in which longbowmen under Henry V beat the French forces, despite being outnumbered.

So when the French President Jacques Chirac cheerfully set about disparaging British culinary habits, his remarks stuck in the collective throat like an errant shard of escargot shell.

Putin, Schroeder and Chirac share a laugh
One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad - after Finland, it is the country with the worst food
Jacques Chirac
Perhaps what has enraged the British most about M Chirac's jibe, apart from the hearty laughs it elicited from his immediate audience, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Russian President Vladimir Putin, is how seemingly unfair it all is.

Twenty years ago, he would have had a point. Ten years ago even, the British culinary cognoscenti might have raised a submissive white napkin in the face of France's vastly superior epicural heritage.

But by common agreement (common, that is, except among the aforementioned statesmen), British cooking has undergone a remarkable reinvention in recent years.

"As far as restaurants go, it's a bit of an old cliché and one that's just not true anymore," says Andy Turvil, editor of the Good Food Guide. The restaurant scene in much of Britain is unrecognisable from two decades ago, he says.

Peter Harden, publisher of Harden's restaurant guides, agrees.

"Most Britons probably eat out in pubs not restaurants," he says. "It used to be true that to go for meal in a pub was a random experience. The steak and kidney pie was just as likely to be watery gravy under a concrete crust."

But that was then...

British restaurants have improved beyond belief, says Mr Harden. Not just at the top end of the market but also in the middling price bracket.

Pukka tucker

The single biggest reason, says Mr Harden, is wealth. The British are better off now and "the first thing people do when they get more money is spend it on food".

Cheap travel has broadened the palate, celebrity chefs have added some glamour to the kitchen and opinion formers no longer herald from the stuffy upper class - an echelon of British society that has never much cared for fine food, says Mr Harden.

It's not just a case of the British patting themselves on the back. In March this year, Conde Nast's Gourmet magazine hailed London as the best place in the world to eat.

Banquet at Windsor Castle for centenary of the entente cordiale
M Chirac eats well in the UK
The honour has coincided with a good deal of soul-searching in the corridors of France's haughty catering colleges.

Last year the French government announced the opening of a new cookery university, in what was widely interpreted as a bid to reverse the country's waning international reputation. French chefs are said to have struggled to move on from nouvelle cuisine and fallen behind Spanish, Italian, American and even British rivals.

The Brits, meanwhile, are not letting up. The culinary revolution continues to spread across the county. Most big cities now have several quality restaurants, but in rural parts standards are more patchy, says Mr Turvil.

And both Mr Turvil and Mr Harden agree that while Britain has made up a lot of ground, we have yet to truly conquer the French at their own game.

"The British don't have the same intuitive relationship with food that the French have," says Mr Turvil. "Restaurants here are good, but they have the buying power to get the best supplies. At home we still depend too much on processed foods.

"In France, even in the cities, they expect more from their food - freshness, taste - on an everyday basis."


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