Endorsement of leading French chefs is a timely boost during the Brexit process says Stephen Jardine
Twenty years ago I moved to France to live and work.
After asking what Scotsmen wore under the kilt, the next most popular question was, how did we put up with the food back home? French friends and colleagues used to regularly joke that I was actually seeking asylum, from the Scottish diet.
The view then was that Scots ate like peasants, surviving on turnips and porridge along with anything we could fit in the deep fat fryer.
In contrast, Paris was the food capital of the world, where great chefs went to learn their craft and a pilgrimage for anyone who loved to eat well.
Back then the idea that the greatest French chefs would travel to Scotland to learn about our produce and taste our food was like Prince Charles asking Donald Trump for tips on etiquette. It simply wouldn’t happen.
However two decades on that is exactly what took place this week when the Maitres des Cuisiniers de France made a rare overseas foray and travelled as a group to Scotland.
The 23 top chefs visited Glengoyne Distillery and Loch Fyne Oysters as well as meeting chefs and food producers. Their subsequent endorsement could not have been more emphatic. At the closing dinner on Tuesday night, the President of the group, Michelin-starred Christian Tetedoie, said all the chefs would fly home as unofficial ambassadors for Scotland food and drink.
A lot has changed in the world of food in recent years. From being the temple of gastronomy when I lived there, French food is now often accused of being stuck in a time warp. As Scandinavian, Spanish and Italian cooking changes and evolves, French restaurants remain hard-wired to dishes that look increasingly out of date. The revelation a couple of years ago that a third of French restaurants were serving factory frozen products sparked national soul-searching and a recognition that looking to other countries for produce and inspiration was not culinary treason.
So that explains why they came but why is their seal of approval important to us? The answer is timing.
The visit was organised by Scottish Development International which has the job of encouraging trade with Scotland.
On the surface, 23 chefs can’t seem to make a big difference to that but it is their seal of approval as a group that really matters.
France is already Scotland’s second biggest export market behind the United States. Since 2007, food and drink exports to France have risen by more than 50 per cent to £733 million.
Fish exports make up £214m of that with whisky dominating the overall total with £445m of Scotland’s national drink being consumed by the wine-producing French.
Brexit throws all that up in the air. Just a week ago French President Francois Hollande warned Britain would pay “a heavy price” for leaving the European Union. While most believe a trade agreement is inevitable, the negotiations won’t be easy and the end result is surrounded by doubt.
As the Scottish Government attempts to protect Scotland’s position amidst the confusion, anything to strengthen the auld alliance is important.
At the French chefs’ farewell dinner there was plenty of discussion about Brexit but there was also a commitment to maintain links and relationships regardless of what comes next.
With the UK Government now committed to triggering Article 50 in March, we have less than six months until formal negotiations to withdraw begin.
In that time all informal pressure and positioning is useful. While top French chefs won’t shape their country’s policy on negotiations with Britain, a healthy French appetite for our produce backed by the endorsement of their culinary stars does make it harder to slam the door and leave Scottish food and drink out in the cold.