Updated: Feb 17
Most of the time I write, I am uncertain. I have no clear idea of where the words are heading. I hesitate to admit this to the reader, who I am sure wants to be sat comfortably in the backseat, humming along to some music, with an experienced driver at the wheel, but ‘it doesn't matter how the paint is being put on, as long as something is being said'. Uncertainty, may be the reason why I started to write about food. There is always the recipe, acting like a lighthouse guiding me away from jagged rocks. The subject, a meal, plant or animal can be explored with hunger inducing sentences, clear commands for cooking or personal evocations of memory, but the purpose remains clear: a recipe for a meal. During the conception of this article, the endpoint started becoming increasingly foggy and the pathway to a recipe, hidden from sight. My initial idea was to write about fish and chips. I was going to employ the usual tools: a recipe, some nostalgic recollections of a Cornish holiday and maybe a glib discussion about the right to call it our national dish. I began by describing the thick, confident, deep fried chips. They were healthily doused in vinegar and tucked snugly into yesterday’s newspaper which were on the plate in front of me. The chips at the top were crisp and salty, but digging further down past the crust and into the layers of potato revealed its mushy and vinegary core. Sat alongside, the fish was resting in its crunchy crypt, until it is torn open and revived by a squeeze of lemon and tomato ketchup. It is redolent of a certain ‘Britishness’, but I started questioning what that even means and what, if anything, was I trying to say? This islands food culture is certainly a lot more complex than some potatoes and a battered fish. Digging further down, I found my attempt at understanding Britain's cuisine was about as fully formed as a soggy chip. So, I decided to get the spade out, to look at the history of Britain's food, the recent changes to it and perhaps what lies in the future.
How about a bite-size bit of history, an amuse-bouche? British cuisine has historically faced a good deal of ridicule and scorn, some of it well-deserved, but what I would say is we aren’t precious, we aren’t overly sentimental and we really are starting to care about the quality of the produce we eat. Our food is hard to define because what we eat in Britain continuously transforms and evolves. The Vikings brought smoked fish, the Romans peas, corn and stinging nettles, spices and dried fruits arrived from Asia, coffee from South America, tea from India and sugar from the Caribbean. Even sausages and Yorkshire puddings, food we consider as British as owning an over-sized sports direct mug and burying emotions, originate from France. The influx of food during the period of Empire was vast, in fact, food had become so tasteless during the scientific rationality of the enlightenment period, that the search for new flavour may have been a driving force. The phantom of despotism and theft which brought these foods should be reflected upon, but thankfully we have moved towards a society where “people from different parts of the world meet as equals, rather than as masters and slaves, and no one needs to shoot elephants to confirm their supremacy”. The plurality of the food on offer in Britain should be a symbol of national pride, but it has also made our cuisine harder to define than most.
The British public's relationship with food has changed rapidly in the last ten years, discussions about our all-time favourite burger toppings or the nations favourite crisp, have been overtaken by the swift rise of the slow rising sourdough bread, sustainability and which vegetable may or may not be in season. The passive aggressive question, ‘Are you a foodie?’ is now heard in conversations across the country as the defendant tries in vain to explain ‘yes, but not like that’. That nasty nickname which seems to take all the joy out of appreciating food has taken on a variety of definitions; ‘a person who has an ardent or refined interest in food’, ‘someone who Instagram’s every plate of food they come across’ or perhaps the most used ‘a prick who likes food’. Whilst being called a foodie is unarguably squirm inducing, it is a consequence of something positive emerging in British food, food is cementing its place into our cultural consciousness. We are remembering or realising that what we eat is a significant in understanding who we are and where we are.
In the past 15 years we have undoubtedly seen a renaissance or an emergence of the importance of ‘good food' in Britain. A rediscovery of the taste of place, the value of home cooking and the undeniable necessity of a healthy food system for our ourselves and for the planet. Words such as provenance, sustainability and seasonality seem as abundant as farm shops, land to plate restaurants and ‘foodie’ friendly supermarkets. Students are attempting to strip the label of being dominoes guzzling, late night McDonalds munching monsters and instead cook flat meals, buy local, affordable produce and construct a make shift table in their sitting room to eat around. Food is a political choice, it can define you as much as the music you listen to or the clothes you wear. These developments do seem to be taking on a class dynamic and this should be recognised, but all the best cuisines are based around food which is affordable, quotidian and eaten by ordinary people, but I will discuss these issues at another point.
There is a debate about where this ‘renaissance’ stemmed from. Could it have been the explosion of the TV chef? It definitely worked for me. I became almost obsessive about early River Cottage episodes at university, it was a little bit of escapism, but it was honest and about something as positive as food. The enthusiasm of the spectacled, long-haired hippy zipping around Dorset in a battered old convertible, having BBQs on the beach and looking after his own pigs was the perfect antidote to the seriousness of studying or lack thereof. It also, along with cooking, reawakened my relationship with the natural world. I began to see the world in a new delicious light.
Social media and the recent deluge of food photography has undeniably played its part. The championing of food being an experience and a reaction against consumerism falls nicely into the millennial’s hands. This may have led to the rather curious development of food becoming a hobby. Some people obsess over cookery programmes, beautifully illustrated books and the perfect picture of avocado on toast, but without actually partaking in the daily craft of cooking for yourself and others. MasterChef may have exciting music, but the reductions and foams are not the job of the home cook, cooking the food and eating it is surely a lot more enjoyable than watching it being made, inspected and analysed on a screen.
Is this then a genuine interest in having a healthier, more knowledgeable and natural relationship with the food we eat and the land that it comes from? Whatever the cause, the outcome has been an undeniable explosion of interest in food. Conversations which should have been confronted 20 years ago are now at least being discussed. What really is a healthy diet? How can food be used to develop and embolden communities? How are animals really being treated in our country? How does our diet affect the planet? And how can we sustain the soil which we rely upon? Cooking, as Paul Freedman notes is a ‘daily production undertaken by ordinary people as well as by masterful and acclaimed exponents,’ it is our job, as well as theirs.
I have a friend, a great person, but a fairly unreconstructed male, the type who drinks a pint like a dehydrated elephant. One evening, he found himself inadvertently in a lengthy conversation with me about the industrial meat industry (a situation other friends have learnt to avoid or to nod along whilst thinking of the delicious steak they had the night before). A couple of weeks later he invited me over to his flat for dinner, this in itself was fairly unexpected, but I accepted with enthusiasm. He opened the door beaming with pride and presented me with a packet of organic free-range bacon which he had acquired from his local butcher, this would be the key ingredient in his very own carbonara. A fairly insignificant moment you might think, but after we had eaten and a few bottles of beer later, he revealed to me with unexpected sincerity, “It felt nice to care.” Later that night, after a few more drinks, he wandered joyfully out of a chicken shop clutching a bargain bucket of wings, ‘they are just so good”. Forgetting the late night nuggets for a moment, this incident showed me that people do care where there food comes from, but it is incredibly hard to navigate your way through the maze of industrially produced food. This navigation of what to eat where, is why cuisines were constructed.
In comparison with our continental neighbours where food is so intrinsically engrained into daily life, these steps can seem embryonic, but we should make hay whilst the sun is shining. The coming of age of the last 20 years now needs to be baked into society with a blueprint of how to cook with what our country produces. An appreciation of all those delicious cuisines from around the world, but built upon what the land around us produces. And yes, all that did come from eating some fish and chips.