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28 October 2002updated 27 Sep 2015 3:00am

NS Special Report – The French could teach us a thing or two

Food - When it comes to meals, they do it better

By Richard Burge

The big difference between the French and us is attitude. And nowhere is that more acutely visible than in the issues of food and sex. The British attitude is one of resentment – “Why should I have to spend my income on food or my time making love when I could be spending it on luxuries?” The French attitude is one of positive resignation – “Well, if we have to eat (or make love), let’s enjoy it.”

The perversity of this is that the French spend less on good, tasty, local, healthy food than we spend on over-processed, under-nutritious, highly salted, excessively sweetened crap. It is our very desire to pay less for an essential of life that has enabled a market to appear which has stifled innovation and diversity, and created inefficient and bureaucratic systems of distribution. These simultaneously hold the primary producer to ransom and deliver food that has to be processed to tasteless oblivion in order for it to stand up to the long hours and miles of movement from one factory to another.

I do not believe that the supermarkets are in some sort of cabal or illegal cartel. But I do think that regulation in this country is perverse: we try to reduce risk to zero and apply systems of control that are cost-effective only on a large scale. And I strongly suspect that the decline in teaching young people about food and cooking has enabled such a disastrous situation to develop. Why teach someone how to recognise a potato, clean and cook it in five different ways if the biggest profits are to be made from encouraging people to buy the overpriced, pre-processed version? Why teach a child to relate the meat on their plate to a living animal, or a vegetable to the plant on which it grows, if marketing works best when people are ignorant?

Instead, youngsters are told about nutrition only in the form of figures, and have the life scared out of them by talk about the, in reality, imperceptibly small risks of food poisoning – everything is so much safer out of a tin, they are taught to conclude.

What can we expect when we do not teach people about the enjoyment that can come from the essentials of life, and when for years we have been told that consumer choice is all about price?

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We have some hard lessons to learn about food in the UK. The French can tell us a good deal (we produce twice as many varieties of cheese as them, but then make it available only to the rich who patronise exclusive delicatessens).

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I will truly believe that we have got a grip on the situation when we install a proper kitchen and plant a vegetable and herb garden in every school – and when we start to take time off for lunch, all of us, to eat properly (and to make love with leisure).

The writer is chief executive of the Countryside Alliance