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On Mange du Local

Eleanor Curtis

Friday, 9 February 2024

French food culture benefits producers - how can we in Britain learn and start to back British farming once more.

Having spent time in France as part of my degree, I was struck by one major difference between France and England. The French care about where their food comes from. I’m not talking about opinions I have heard on the echo-chamber that is my For You Page, or even about advertisements or opinion pieces in French news. The people around me cared about what they ate.

Where I was living was in Limousin country , and anyone interested in commercial livestock knows what that means: beef. And the local people routinely bought beef from Limousin cattle raised within the old region that gave the breed its name. They even drank Limousin milk. Furthermore, the Saturday morning market was always bustling with locals wanting to buy fresh produce from local farmers that were known to the community. Every item was labelled with its town or commune of origin. Even in supermarkets eggs were labelled with the town in which they were laid – which was never more that 30km away.

Growers and Éleveurs (livestock farmers) in France are afforded something very important – an engaged consumer.

This leads to thriving rural communities where welfare and quality are prioritised. People are willing to pay what producers deserve – often aiming to buy directly from the farmer. This is in direct contrast with my general experience in the UK, where even in specialised greengrocers or ‘farm’ shops it is near impossible to work out where exactly your food comes from, or indeed if it’s even British.

People here are trying; my social media feeds are full of producers aiming to sell locally and show people where their food comes from. But this is in face of a public conditioned to look for the cheapest produce possible – often at the detriment of quality, and always at the detriment of the rural economy. The market is flooded with cheaper imports – leaving British producers to fend for themselves, or take a price well below that which they deserve.

But its not simply about locality or about money. The French eat with the seasons. They do not use summer veg all year round. Granted, France benefits from a warmer and drier climate than we have here, meaning food can have a longer season. However, recipes and food cultures are directly dictated by the time of year. This seasonality is missing from the way that we eat in the UK, which necessitates the import of ingredients that can’t be grown in the British winter, such as Peruvian mangetout or Spanish butternut squash. These are both items that can be grown here in the UK, but they are not year-round produce.

One final aspect of the French Food Culture which requires examination is the importance of variety. The supermarkets even carried local delicacies which were different as I travelled around the country. Notably, local cheese varieties took pride of place on the shelves and were only available in the regions they were made. The diversity of food that existed across the country was fuelled by buyers looking for their local delicacy, allowing producers to sell for higher prices. My region was also famed for goat’s cheese – and producers of goat’s milk often sold direct to the consumer or cheesemaker at local markets. Contrastingly, here in the UK the market is dominated by cheddar types, which are mass produced and frankly not so good – leaving dairy producers no choice but to sell wholesale. We even import French cheese when we want something special, despite the UK being home to hundreds of delicious local varieties.

Not only does the French food culture benefit health and reduce food miles, it also directly helps producers. The agriculteur (farmer) is an important figure in French society, whereas we have largely lost sight of the people who produce our food. Perhaps we should learn from the French and learn where our food comes from, back British farming, and start to love farmers again.


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