Thursday, 26 November 2009

Long live "Les Rosbifs"!

British food is as derided as our wet weather.
“One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad", French President Jacques Chirac joked at a meeting with the German and Russian leaders back in 2005. Well if we are talking about trust here, at least England qualified for the world cup finals next year fair and square!

But this poses the question, is British food really that bad? William Somerset Maugham evidently thought so when he famously said “The only way to eat well in England is to have breakfast three times a day.” Often perceived as being insipid, British food has taken a battering over the years; overcooked meat and soggy vegetables served with the ubiquitous brown gravy, school dinners, spam, stodgy puddings with lumpy custard and processed cheese have done nothing to improve this image.

However, I beg to differ with the disparaging judgements. Whilst I cannot dispute that breakfast in Britain is indeed a thing of immense greatness, opinions such as those of Somerset Maugham and the entire French population do a huge disservice to our culinary heritage and the progress we have made over recent years.

I cannot pretend that it is not possible to eat bad food in Britain. It used to be true that to go for meal in a pub or restaurant was a random experience – think bad experiences at the "Bernie Inn" chain type pubs from the 70's and 80's. Maybe this is even still the case to some extent, but this can also be said of anywhere else in the world. There is good and bad to be had everywhere.

In reality British cooking has undergone a remarkable reinvention in recent years. The restaurant scene is unrecognisable from two decades ago, with the emergence of chefs such as Mark Hix, Richard Corrigan, Nigel Haworth and Paul Heathcote championing regional cuisine and re-establishing traditional British dishes on their menus. Writers and TV personalities such as Rick Stein, Valentine Warner and Hugh Fearnley- Whittingstall (all of whom I harbour something of a healthy pre-occupation for, but that's another story) have also brought British food to pre-eminence, focusing on traditional foods and local produce.

The availability of quality ingredients in Britain has undergone a similar revolution. British food is by no means limited to mass-produced goods such as Heinz baked beans, OXO, HP sauce, Marmite and Bird's custard. Our shops, markets, and farmers markets in particular, often offer outstanding produce and there are a large number of artisan producers now taking pride in what they make.
This poster was issued by OXO circa 1941 and whilst I have no doubt that this iconic British product did indeed have everything to do with victory in The Battle of Britian, these days it's actually more about high quality cheeses, fresh fruit and vegatables, meat, game, fish and seafood to rival any in the world.

British cuisine has prevailed over the curse of industrialisation, survived the war and rationing and the subsequent assault by Elizabeth David and her obsession with all things Mediterranean in the 1950s and 60s. It no longer deserves the bad press; on the contrary, British food has evolved beyond the days when French Presidents could scoff and smirk. British food culture is thriving and there is so much that we can be justifiably proud of. Some of the best food I have ever eaten has been in these fair isles, there is so much to relish and explore - this blog is about celebrating that.

And funnily enough, it is probably the British weather that we have to thank for it all. Chirac can keep his Mediterranean climate, the olives, tomatoes and aubergines. I’ll take a bit of rain; give me the lush English countryside and a comforting Lancashire hotpot to warm me up any day!

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