French should learn the lesson that British beef is still the best
Agricultural journalist and food writer Chris Rundle made a disturbing discovery on a cross Channel ferry - the French are suspicous about UK beef and prefer to buy from South America.
The beef we were offered on the ferry coming back from France last week was from South America. I know this because it was clearly marked up as such on the menu board.
It was edible, but not particularly outstanding. Certainly nowhere near the quality of that subsequently provided by my butcher for lunch on Sunday.
And, to be honest, I should imagine the majority of passengers who queued up to eat it – and British account for the overwhelming preponderance of users of this particular – line must have been rather bemused by the announcement. If they represented a typical cross-section of British consumers they wouldn't have cared particularly where the beef originated from so long as it was reasonably tasty and tender.
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But you have to know and understand that this was a French ferry line and the information tag about the beef was merely the lingering fall-out from BSE. That may have been put behind us, but on the continent they continue to remind themselves of some of the darkest days of the British livestock sector.
The origin of nearly every piece of beef is stipulated on menu boards from Calais to Cannes, from Rennes to Reims. No matter what gets served up on the plate, whether it's the stringy beef the French themselves produce or something that seems to have been cut from a gaucho's saddle bag it won't be British.
It is all a massive delusion, of course, since the French market readily gobbles up every stone, pound and ounce of British cow beef it can lay its hands on for the processing sector, the products of which can be conveniently, legally and satisfactorily described as containing "Beef from the EU".
Beef exports to France comfortably top £60 million a year, but the stigma surrounding anything resembling a prime cut of British beef remains ineradicable. We are now 14 years on from the point where France originally refused to comply with an EU order lifting the export ban on British beef but the taint remains, carefully nurtured in an attempt to create preferential market conditions for French producers.
But there are some across the water who regard this as utter folly and who appreciate the fact that British beef is indisputably the best in the world.
There was, for instance, the pair of French noblemen who, a few years back, were prepared to go to any lengths to obtain the best and defied the export ban by driving home with prime cuts of bone-in Somerset beef in the boots of their cars.
There are enlightened chefs such as Yves-Marie Le Bourdonnec, who runs Le Beef Club steakhouse in Paris. A French butcher who recently did a spell working in an English butcher's shop announced he would give his eye teeth to be able to source the same quality of beef back home.
But the majority of eating-house proprietors know that to put British beef on the menu – and describe it as such – would evoke as much enthusiasm as if they were to serve boned and stuffed rat.
Does it really matter? Probably not. Beef exports to France are climbing steadily and the growth of "le fast food" and the emergence of a generation less pernickety about matters gastronomic – and for whom the phrase will probably see British beef rehabilitated in the eyes of the French public within a few years.
What would be refreshing, though, would be to see a more stoutly chauvinistic attitude in the hotel and restaurant sector here, where many establishments still eschew British beef, because they regard it as too expensive, or are prepared to make something of the fact when they do.
It's a fairly safe bet, for instance, that anywhere offering you two "steak meals" for £10 will not have sourced the principal item on the plate from just down the road, or even within this country's borders.
Nothing is more reassuring than a board outside a pub or a note on a menu announcing where the meat on offer has been sourced. But such are the murky dealings which still bedevil the catering sector that the number of establishments which could or do provide such information remains pitifully small.
That situation could be changed. The English Beef & Lamb Executive could do worse than to organise a well thought-out Eat British Beef campaign on its own doorstep. It would be a project some of our better-known chefs – always seeking to make a bob or two more on the side – could get behind.
And it would certainly be a far more valuable exercise than the current one, which has seen British chefs travelling to India like gastronomic missionaries to arrogantly and pointlessly promote the dubious delights of British balti cuisine.