The news that Shropshire MP Owen Paterson is leading a delegation to sell cheese to the French would once have been the butt of jokes.
It would have sounded akin to taking coal to Newcastle, or teaching granny how to suck eggs. The French, after all, are the godfather’s of great cuisine. Their gastronomy is a world treasure.
Twenty years ago, British food was a laughing stock. The French poked fun at us, calling us Les Rosbifs – ‘the roast beefs’ – while our contribution to world cuisine could be summed up by that great British staple, the Full English fry-up.
Paterson was today telling the French that stilton and English sparkling wines were as good as camembert and Champagne.
The figures support Mr Paterson’s audacious claims. UK food exports to France have doubled in little more than 10 years, rising from £1.1 billion at the turn of the millennium to £2.2 billion today. Even more remarkably, Shropshire is at the forefront of the revolution.
The French, of course, are known as the best cheese-makers in the world. Cheese is a national obsession and in 1962, ex-President Charles de Gaulle in 1962 was famously moved to remark: ‘How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?’
In recent years, however, us Brits have taken on – and beaten – the French at their own game. Here in Shropshire, we have some of the best cheese makers in the UK. The county boasts great producers who sell to the masses, like Beltons and Applebys, two significant Shropshire employers whose cheeses have won countless awards.
We also have an ever-increasing band of artisanal makers; small businesses that stock some of the UK’s best restaurants. Martin Moyden, at Newport, recently dazzled French gastronome Raymond Blanc, the celebrity chef who owns Le Manoir, while Sarah Hampton, at Brock Hall Farm, near Bridgnorth, stocks countless Michelin-starred restaurants.
Against that backdrop, Mr Paterson’s visit is less surprising. Who knows, the MP whose constituency includes many of the county’s best cheese makers may actually teach the French a thing or two about how to make great cheese.