French patisseries and delicatessens are filled with all sorts of decadent goodies. This is a nation that takes indulgence very seriously - at least in small bites.

The French favour unadulterated, rich, natural ingredients. A desire for maximum taste and appearance means diet products - with reduced fat or sugar or artificial sweeteners - are not high on their shopping lists.

"Consumers don't tend to worry about fat content," says Oliver Marchand, manager of pancake producer Johny Crêpes - particularly when it comes to desserts.

The same could be said for their attitude to artificial additives.

"In France, people are not obsessed with the raw materials used to make products as is the case in the UK," says Cynthia Lefebvre, area sales manager of Brossard, suppliers of frozen party foods and ambient cakes. "They consider that, as they eat very few manufactured products, it doesn't matter if the product has an additive or an artificial colour. The UK is the only country where there is such a focus on artificial


Some French manufacturers are now removing artificial additives - and introducing organic lines - to make their ranges more desirable to British markets.

But there are other stumbling blocks. For frozen food producers it's thawing out the perception that frozen foods are lower in quality.

French consumers are comfortable with the frozen format. There is a healthy frozen sector, with specialist outlets doing well even in the face of competition from hypermarkets. Picard Surgeles is France's top frozen food retailer, with a 14% market share and sales of about $1bn (£505m).

And desserts were among the bestselling frozen products in France in 2006. This has seen companies such as Brossard and Tipiak flourish into well-known household names. Unfortunately, their success at home isn't easily transferable across the Channel, and making a mark in the UK has been frustrating, with price being a real problem. Tipiak says it is "constantly surprised" by the level of discount expected by the retailers.

English manufacturers have worked hard to improve quality while keeping prices low, and while this is increasingly difficult in the current economy, with raw material prices rising, French manufacturers appear to be hitting a stumbling block as a result when trying to compete for listings in major UK retailers.

Tipiak, which employs qualified patissiers on its production lines as opposed to unskilled factory workers, has tried to tempt Iceland with its premium frozen food. These include tiny pastel-coloured macaroons and choux bun towers. Negotiations stuttered when price entered the equation and Tipiak has now turned its attention to M&S and Waitrose, perhaps a more appropriate avenue for pricey desserts.

"Appearance, quality and content of raw materials are very important to us, and to French consumers," says international development manager Christèle Bagnoud. "Picard [France's leading frozen food retailer] has a focus on quality; Iceland is not comparable. The difficulty is to make [buyers like Iceland] understand the quality and level of our products."

In France the Tipiak name is synonymous with quality, but this won't be enough to ensure success in the UK.

Bagnoud accepts that the Brits don't have the same approach to mealtimes as the French. The appeal of starting Sunday lunch with canapes at 1pm and ending with petits fours around 5ish is, well, foreign.

But it isn't all bad news for French producers, as the current economic uncertainty is working in favour of companies such as Tipiak and Brossard. French consumers are tightening their purse strings, which has led them to eat out less. As a result they are treating themselves to premium products to eat at home.

However, as Brossard's Lefebvre points out: "In Northern Europe it is more difficult for us to sell our premium desserts to be eaten at home. [In countries like the UK], eating well means going to nice restaurants."

This may well change as the Brits tighten their belts and dine more at home. Whether they will be buying premium petit fours for such occasions may well depend on the supermarkets loosening their belts.n