Sunday, 10 November 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

As I approach my sixteenth year of residence on these shores, memories arrive like the waves of a hurricane: gigantic, menacing and coiled up like a cobra ready to attack. One of them is that of Brits’ relationship with food. In 1997 I had just come from a country where both the economic crisis and the ensuing scarcity had sounded the death knell for meal choice (you basically ate whatever you got hold of).  My recollections in that last year in Cuba were of happier childhood times when sitting around a table to devour a roast hog was an occasion to celebrate. Not just from an alimentary point of view, mind, but also from a family-get-together perspective.

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?
This approach to food has changed over the years in Britain and I count myself lucky to have witnessed the transformation. I am not alone in thinking that. When I speak to people born and bred here they, too, express surprise that the British palate has become more discerning and perceptive when it comes to culinary matters. Yet, this metamorphosis has not arrived without new challenges.

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.

© 2013

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 13th November at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. ha. i like your made up word of food and fashion...i love to try new things and i think too we should think on our food...and how we consume it as well...we are in far too much of a hurry and settle for just filling ourselves rather than enjoying the experience...

  2. Pfft to me food is rude, all the crap in it is just crude. eat what i eat the rest can go get buried in the concrete

  3. My favourite British food has always been wholefood/veggie cafe food. Back in the 80s everywhere (well, everywhere I went) seemed to have a "wholefood" shop-cum-café. Hefty wholefood pastry, loads of beansprouts and aduki beans... My favourite was brown rice rice pudding made with soya milk and brown sugar.

  4. I took me decades before I could eat Italian food in restaurants. Restaurant food was mediocre at best and I preferred cooking my peasant food with ingredients I scrounged or grew myself. My mother sent me seeds of arugula and other Italian greens.

    In a way, the US went through a similar transition, with the advent of California Cuisine, and television personalities like Martha Stewart showing people how to entertain at home.

  5. I love good food - whether it's hearty and simple, or something more fancy, it's how it's cooked that counts. You usually only get three meals a day, multiply that by the length of a human life, and you need to make every one count ;)

  6. i love what jamie oliver did when it comes to fighting for better food also in schools... i think he has a good philosophy and surely a passion for good and healthy food... we eat way too much fastfood and reap the results with heavily overweight or sick people... ugh...time that things change again..

  7. My father always said 'you can live to eat or eat to live'. Which tells you which camp he fell into. Food was pretty much a chore, something you had to do, tick off and move on.
    Sad, really.
    I hope I live in the middle, though food fashions are as alien to me as most other fashions.

  8. Because both of my parents worked, (a rarity in those days) I started doing most of the cooking for the family at a young age, which worked out well, because my mother hated to cook, and I enjoyed it. Even after all these years, I still do. But we're as happy with a really good from-scratch Ethnic meal as we are with a really good "tube steak" with all the fixings. (That's my hubby's name for a hot dog.) We may not live to eat, but we sure do enjoy it, and enjoy trying new dishes and new recipes.

  9. Many thanks for all your comments. Talking to some of my friends and in-laws, the picture I get is that of a Britain going through a ration period and therefore adapting to a mindset mote characteristic of wartime. Hence the bad name British cuisine has had for years, compared to that of the French, for instance. Before the appearance of fancy Italian cafes and Lebanese restaurants, meals were something to got through as quickly as possible. We have the longest working hours in Europe and that's contributed to the rise of easy-to-make meals.

    This week I'm cooking one of those one-pot winter-warming dishes which, by the way, will be the subject of my next post.

    Have a great week.

    Greetings from London.

  10. Other than for banana cream pie and home-made bread, I am among those who eat to live. I have been on record since a fairly young age as saying that among my "three wishes" would be one for a pill which provided healthy, adequate nourishment and eliminated the sense of hunger. I have always been puzzled why anyone would watch a cooking show on television. Well, there you have it.

    Please note, however, that I am talking about me, myself and I. Should I be in the company of an attractive, young lady, I am more than pleased to take part in a six or seven or eight course meal preceded by a number of aperitifs and followed by extensive experimentation with desserts and after-dinner drinks.

    You see, CiL, the word "appetite" has as many levels and meanings as a particular situation requires.

  11. I completely agree with your closing sentiment--the food doesn't have to be fancy, but it has to have heart, be filling, and satisfy both emotions and hunger.

    I could read posts about food all day...which is to say: carry on.

  12. I totally doesn't have to be fancy, but for me, it has to engage all my senses.
    I love colours, textures, tastes, smells...oh the image of baking garlic bread...what more can I say? Haha:)

  13. I love know and read all about food really enjoy and I dont wait all people understand especially I love smells in food like Ygraine say and I love Jamie. ..And Delia too! I learned s lot with Delia.
    Anyway I think all you make food or other has to make with passion and love!

  14. I wasn't very familiar with Britain's cuisine and learned a lot here. I tend to eat the same foods and am not very adventurous when it comes to food. I do like Jamie Oliver.

  15. A fascinating post really. Interesting that British cuisine has changed over the years. Perhaps this is not dissimilar to that of other countries. I would say our cuisine here in the US has undergone a transformation of sorts too. I think Jamie Oliver is pretty cool too!

  16. I was in London two summers ago and found myself eating at immigrant food places--Pakistani, Indian, etc--and finding them a lot better (and better service) than the more traditional British places.

  17. Nicely written! As a Brit living abroad, I'm ashamed very often when I come home as the quality of food in restaurants and cafes can be appalling (as well as good)!

    Oh, and I'm a big Jamie Oliver fan!

  18. your burger is hilarious.
    I´m not a fan of burgers and would never even try this.

  19. I love how you reflected on your time in England via the topic of food. I've been visiting and living England for over 2 decades and the restaurant food in London has definitely improved.

    I appreciate the infusion of both Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsey, but I also like good old Delia. I remember back in the late 80s every dinner party served poached salmon and it got tedious.

    My in laws do the most incredibly delicious roast dinners, usually served at 2pm after sherry, and followed by 3 puddings and cheese. Now that is a celebration of food. One year they came to our house in Maine for Thanksgiving and liked it so much they host their own in England.

    I've also enjoyed pub food with a good pint as much as any gourmet meal I've ever had in Europe. Fancy or not it just has to be good. This post is making me hungry.

  20. Hi--I saw this last week and meant to comment but was very wrapped up in work life--I t is such an intereesting take on British food. I lived in Britain in the early 80s and it was so rt of the beginning of this. I was a vegetarian, which was a bit hard! And living in a university setting! Actually, occasionally, they would make me a plate of special "vegetarian" food, which was quite lovely, but the college food was frankly--well--slop! Served in big buckets at times, or warming plates puddling with increasingly tepid water! But the markets were just wonderful and I enjoyed my ploughman's lunches on walks - and there were a couple of restaurnts--the Elizabeth in Oxford that I went to on a special treat that had food I will never forget. All so interesting. I really enjoyed this;

    K. (Manicddaily. I am typing on a blue teeth keyboard, and my vision is not good enough to allow me to see the screen so I hope there are not too many typos!)

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