It was only when I travelled to the Basque country, in northern Spain, after living in the UK for more than a year, at the end of ’98 and tried their pub grub four or five times in my four days there that I realised that Brits had – in those years – an awkward relationship with food. My theory was backed up years later by comments made by some of my British acquaintances.
Before the advent of gourmet cuisine and the appearance of what seems on the outside to be a more sophisticated menu (possibly catering to a more sophisticated palate), I noticed that Brits saw food as something to get out of the way. Not all British people, by the way, and not in all settings. For instance urban London differed from rural Devon. I was in the latter in the year 2000 to attend a friend’s wedding. After the event my wife, our son (my daughter hadn’t been born yet) and I stayed in the area for a few extra days. We visited a restaurants and pubs and the natives’ approach to food was somewhat different to what I’d seen in The Big Smoke. Here, in the English countryside, I saw people who looked happy when they tucked into a juicy steak. In my mind this was a stark contrast to what I had experienced in outings with my colleagues of the travel agency at which I used to work. I remember going out to Indian restaurants, pizza parlours and pubs and the attitude of my confrères towards the sequence starter-main course-dessert was one of total nonchalance. There was no discrimination between apéritif and pudding. This wasn’t so much food for the soul but food for the stomach. To me both are important; food should be nourishment for our souls as well as for our tummies. The exception to this rule was the traditional Sunday roast which has, luckily, not disappeared completely (I don't think it ever will), even if its presence as a family-puller has somewhat been curtailed.
|Does my burger look big in this?|
The Britain I first saw in 1997 was still dominated by the Delia Smiths of this world. Delia has been a renowned cook writer and television presenter for over forty years. Her heart-warming recipes are what critics would describe as Middle-England cuisine. Delia was not really on my radar as I became acquainted with British food (I don’t just mean food sold in Britain but also traditional dishes. At this point I would like to add that British cuisine gets a bad, undeserved reputation. I think it should be celebrated more. Just my humble opinion, guv). I kept seeing her on telly but I was looking for something more exciting with which to experiment.
Enter Jamie Oliver. I know he is like Marmite, people either love him or hate him. But he did change the face of British food for better. And I mean food consumed both at home and outside in restaurants and pubs. From Jamie onwards I noticed that suddenly the change I mentioned before had not only taken place but it had also brought about side effects.
At least in London in the last ten or twelve years many people don’t just want to try new recipes but want to be seen tucking into new dishes. This has developed into a phenomenon I’ve come to call “foodshion” (that’s a mash-up between “food” and “fashion”, just in case you didn’t get it). Weekend newspapers have large cook supplement pull-outs, chefs’ autobiographies top bestsellers’ lists and make up the bulk of the upcoming Christmas present-buying frenzy and fast food joints have slowly transformed themselves into gourmet fash-food eateries (another mash-up there) without the negative greasy-spoon connotation.
To me that means that we have now gone over to the other side. Add in the mix of ingredients (sorry, I couldn’t resist that pun) a preoccupation with weight, dieting regimes and eating disorders and the current food scenario in the UK is very different to the one I saw when my plane landed in Gatwick sixteen years ago. On the plus side, we have more variety, even if this new range of food seems to respond more to a ruthless commoditisation under capitalist market forces. On the minus side, food is now yet another front on which people’s social and economic status is judged. Given the current financial climate, that picture hardly bodes well for the future. Meanwhile, we are having “toad in the hole” tonight for dinner. It doesn’t get more British than that and I couldn’t give two figs if it is upmarket grub or not. It is good, hearty, soul food and to me that’s all that counts.
Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 13th November at 11:59pm (GMT)