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An un-fond farewell to the English countryside's French foe

Friday 18 May 2007

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, bored rigid by political propaganda in the UK, explains why he is ending his personal boycott of all things French to lift a glass of classic Burgundy. The toast: farewell to a French president who has done more harm to the English country side than even Defra

SO FAR, this has been a most un- Merry Month of May for any Brit with even a passing interest in politics (assuming, of course, that there still a few hundred of such in existence). With electoral chaos in Scotland and Gordon Brown boring for Britain (literally), I have taken to switching off the TV or turning the page of my newspaper whenever the subject is raised.

However, there has been one political event of supreme importance for the English countryside this week and it has caused me to substantially change my ways: on Wednesday, Jacques Chirac became the ex-President of France.

john sheard's french tipple
John Sheard's French tipple

This is why I went out in search of a bottle of decent red Burgundy for the first time in more than a decade. And this weekend, I might even treat myself to a plate of French cheese!

During his reign, the scheming, devious - and allegedly criminal according to his many critics in Paris - Chirac has done more harm to British farming, and therefore to the British countryside, than even our own rural affairs department Defra has managed to achieve. It is a case of cunning triumphing over incompetence.

It was Chirac, for instance, who maintained the ban on British beef imports to France for years after the BSE crisis was ended. His country was fined millions of euros by the EU for that but, unless this was hidden away somewhere in the Brussels maze, those fines have never been paid.

It was Chirac who ordered French police to take no action when French farmers were stopping and burning British lorries carrying our lamb to French markets - as a result of which, some of those animals were burned alive if some of the more sensational reports are to be believed.

It was Chirac, too, who took no action to stop French fisherman blockading the Channel ports when their quotas were cut to preserve stocks, even though they themselves had been a major cause of the over-fishing in what once had been British waters.

But these are minor issues. Chirac's greatest triumph was to completely out-manoeuvre Tony Blair into giving up Britain's EU multi-million-euro rebate - hard-won by Maggie "Handbags" Thatcher - on the promise of reforms to the notorious Common Agricultural Policy.

Our Tone didn't seem to notice that France, which has been robbing the CAP (and by default British farmers) blind for 35 years, will not introduce those reforms until 2011. This means that French farmers can still produce cheap subsidised food well below anything we can match - and ship it across the Channel so that our chiselling supermarkets can force even more local farmers and growers into bankruptcy.

After one of Chirac's more devious moves against Britain (I can't quite remember which, because there have been many more of the above) I decided to boycott all French produce. I never liked French golden delicious apples anyway but when it came to wine - and, even more particularly, cheese - it would be a long, hard struggle.

Thank goodness, though, that no Englishman has yet come up with a way of growing red Burgundy!

So when Chirac stepped down this week (hopefully, to end up behind bars if the many allegations of corruption against him are true) I set out to find a very special bottle of red Burgundy from the magical town of Beaune, where I had camped with my family many times when our children were young. We were once passionate Francophiles, you see.

I decided to buy this special bottle of red Burgundy from the local Wine Cave in Hetton, which specialises in imports from small select growers in the Burgundy region.

The chosen bottle: a 2005 premier cru Beaune Clos du Roi from Domaine Henri Boillot, a cracking vintage from a highly sought after producer, not cheap but not expensive as Boillot's wines often find their way on to the shelves of Fortnum and Mason and Harrods at almost double the price of the Wine Cave. I don't imagine I will let it keep despite its youth, it will probably go down this week with a coq au vin - made with corn fed, free range ENGLISH chicken.

And there's the rub. I am a passionate defender of locally produced food. Since my boycott of French cheese, I have found some delightful English varieties from small creameries in Yorkshire and Lancashire, even passable Somerset brie.

So French produce will have to go through a new probation period before it becomes a regular on the Sheard table once again. Thank goodness, though, that no Englishman has yet come up with a way of growing red Burgundy!

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