Food almost as bad as the Finns: is that the best insult French president Jacques Chirac can throw at us? STEPHEN LEWIS offers a stout defence of

British cooking.

SACRE Bleu! That nasty Monsieur Chirac's at it again.

Clearly rattled by just how close the race for the 2012 Olympics had become - and presumably still fuming at Tony Blair's refusal to back down over Britain's European Union rebate - the French president let slip some insulting comments about our British national character.

The only thing the Brits had ever done for European agriculture, he said in a typically sniffy Gallic aside to Russian President Vladimir Putin, was mad cow disease.

And as for our cooking... "We can't trust people who have such bad food," he said. "After Finland, it is the country with the worst food."

The comments, overheard and gleefully printed in the Liberation newspaper, have landed the French president deep in the merde on the eve of this week's crucial G8 summit in Scotland.

Quite what the poor Finns did to earn the aristocratic M. Chirac's wrath - they do, after all, have food even worse than the British, according to the French president - has never become clear.

Slanging matches between the British and the French, especially at politically sensitive times such as this, are certainly nothing new. The stolid rosbeefs (us Brits) and supercilious French have hated each other ever since Duke William (who was neither French nor British but Viking) came over here from Normandy in 1066 and shot our King Harold in the eye.

Even by the standards of centuries of accumulated mudslinging, however, M. Chirac's latest outburst was a bit below the belt. It does, after all, hit us where we are most vulnerable.

We have been told by the French that we're bad cooks so often that we have by and large come to believe it - and developed a national inferiority complex over our food as a result.

Which is no doubt why the French president's outburst prompted such an outraged response over here. The truer the insult, the worse it hurts.

But is it true that British food is dreadful?

Some of it certainly is - sliced white bread, tasteless supermarket chicken and stodgy fast food for a start. But all of it?

"It has fed me for ten years and I'm quite happy and still alive!" Frenchwoman Stephanie Marion cheerfully admitted. Stephanie, 28, who describes herself as a "stay-at-home mum" and who lives in York with her British partner, believes her President got it wrong on British food and was simply having one of his "private moments".

"I have a good meal every day," she said - before spoiling the effect rather by adding: "I cook it!" Nevertheless, she is full of praise for modern British cuisine.

"There is a great variety of food," she said. "Especially in Yorkshire. I think British people are much better at incorporating international food into their own. One of your national dishes is curry, for goodness sake, which is Indian."

Where the British like to incorporate other influences in their cooking, Stephanie said, the French like to celebrate regionality. Local recipes cooked from fresh local produce is where her own countrymen score. "You're good at a more global cuisine. Maybe we've got a more insular outlook," she said. "But a mix of the two would be perfect."

It's good to hear a Frenchwoman standing up for British food, but what do our own cooks have to say?

Celebrity chef John Benson-Smith, of Hazlewood Castle near Tadcaster, was less than impressed by the French president's outburst. "I just wonder if he lives his life in a dark wardrobe," he spluttered. "He's obviously been leading rather a sheltered life.

"Fifteen years ago I think he would have been totally correct, but nowadays..."

The quality of produce available in Britain now - whether from local farmers' markets, outfits such as Pickering-based Moorsfresh, or simply your local corner shop or supermarket, has improved out of all recognition, Mr Benson-Smith said. And what modern British cooking is particularly good at is 'fusion' - importing foreign influences so as to prepare traditional British ingredients in a different, fresh and exciting way.

A quarter of a century ago, British chefs would have ranked near the bottom of the world's top 100. "Now we're in the top three or four. In the past, British chefs were going to France to learn. Now, you see French chefs coming over to the UK to start learning. And The Fat Duck at Bray has been named the world's best restaurant."

Where British cooking has changed and improved, he added, French food has got stuck in a time warp. "It is the same as it was 20-25 years ago. Who wants to eat bags of frozen frogs legs still?"

Ooh la la! That's almost as far below the belt as M. Chirac's original comment.

Michael Hjort, owner of York's Melton's Restaurant and director of the York Food and Drink Festival, isn't about to start hurling insults at French cuisine, but he's not about to let M. Chirac get away with insulting our cooking.

Talking about British cooking being awful is a clich, he said. "It is part of the French culinary mythology that not only are they the world's experts when it comes to food - and there is a degree of truth in that, but only a degree - but also that the British in particular are completely useless."

That was certainly the case in the 1950s, but not any more.

The French make a great fuss about regional specialities and the importance of local produce. They have a phrase, terroir, meaning food from a particular territory. "It has sparked a joke about French food terroirists," he said.

But while good local produce can make for good food, there is also such a thing as bad local produce, he said. Just because a cheese comes from a particular region of Normandy doesn't necessarily make it a good cheese.

What counts is the quality of the ingredients and the care with which the food is produced.

In Yorkshire, he said, there is plenty of top-quality local produce available - everything from fresh asparagus in season to great local cheeses, fresh fish from Yorkshire coast towns and Yorkshire pork and sausages. But what really marks out good modern British cooking from the past is the care which we take with our food.

Michael is confident he could easily produce a quality British meal - rack of Dales lamb with seasonal vegetables such as broad beans, peas and young carrots, garnished with herbs from the garden - that not even M. Chirac could turn his nose up at.

Actually, he said, deep down even the most hardened Frenchman would admit that not all British food is bad. "They have borrowed from us as much as we have borrowed from them. Roast beef is a case in point. They call us rosbeefs, but they eat roast beef and they enjoy it. And there is a great French appetite for traditional British puddings - steamed suets and steak and kidney puddings."

Neil Samms, restaurant manager at Four High Petergate in York, agrees with Michael and with John Benson-Smith that the secret to good, modern British cuisine is taking traditional ingredients - one of his restaurant's specialities is game such as venison and pheasant - and then giving them a 'twist'.

A dish guaranteed to tickle M. Chirac's tastebuds, he said, would be Pancetta-wrapped haunch of Fort William venison with wild mushrooms en croute in a tarragon sauce.

That, he said, was a dish that typified much of modern British cuisine. Good, traditional British ingredients (Scottish venison, plus wild mushrooms from Pickering) with a little Italian spice (salty, delicious, finely-sliced Pancetta ham) and some French flair (en croute being a deliciously simple French pastry wrapping for the Pickering mushrooms). And if that weren't to M. Chirac's taste, Neil said, he could try tuna (fresh from Whitby) in a warm rocket salad. "He would go away a very happy man."

And what about the veg? Boiled for 40 minutes until it's nice and soggy? No, no, no, said Neil. Very lightly blanched for just a few minutes so it comes out crisp and toothsome.

Just like Tony Blair's smile, in fact. Now that would be bound to earn M. Chirac's approval.

Updated: 09:25 Wednesday, July 06, 2005