Why can’t the English teach their children how to eat?

by Thomas Henry - Saturday October 3, 2009 11:16 am

Ramsay loves it, Oliver can’t get enough and Hugh, well Hugh would sooner munch down on a battery farmed chicken-rat than go without it. We are of course talking about British food, lovingly grown and locally sourced. 

There are more cookery programmes and celebrity chefs knocking around these days than there are dinner ladies. It’s enough to make you think that this country is in the middle of a foodie frenzy, an orgy culinary patriotism. Except it doesn’t feel that way, not even in the beating heart of the London restaurant scene.

Celebrated chef Rowley Leigh recently said that: “a few scattered farmer’s markets and Borough [market] opening at the weekend does not constitute a food culture. Go to any decent sized town in France or Italy and you’ll see what food means to people. The markets will be teaming with local produce being sold by local people, to local people.”

Will Smith, award winning restaurateur and part owner of the hugely successful Arbutus and Wild Honey restaurants, is inclined to agree: “That’s true, the French and Italians have this great culinary tradition where regionality is very important to them. We have great traditional dishes in this country too but if you go to Bolton, you’re more likely to find Carbonara than a hot-pot.”

It seems odd that in our green and verdant land we can’t get excited about the stuff that is grown and bred here. What’s even stranger is that while we shovel ready meals down our increasingly bloated throats, Parisian and Venetians are more than happy to capitalise on our apathy.

“Britain has amazing produce,” Smith says, “but most of the best stuff ends up going abroad. Look at Scotland; they have a horrible reputation for their food which is ridiculous because their produce is some of the best in the world. It’s funny; I’ll be at a market in Paris buying for the restaurants and see the French queing round the corner to get their hands on Scottish oysters even though they’re twice as expensive as they are here.”

The biggest myth about the supposed resurgence in British food culture is the idea that access to local food is something we want. It isn’t. What we want and expect is for food to be cheap, ridiculously cheap, so cheap that it doesn’t matter how poor quality it is, so as it goes ‘ding’ in time to watch Masterchef. Local produce is seen as an expensive luxury and the insane truth is that vacuum-packed lamb from New Zealand is cheaper than a better product from Wales or Scotland.  As a restaurant owner Smith would never scrimp on quality, but as a husband and father, he faces the same problems everybody else does.

 “Of course I look at the price of things, most of us can’t afford not too. I just don’t think that local produce has to be expensive. I was in a supermarket in Italy, not a deli, just a regular milk and eggs sort of place and a farmer dropped off a delivery of beautiful red peppers, a huge stack of them. They were selling 20 for a euro or something ridiculous. People were walking out with bags-full. It was so amazing to see normal, everyday people, who wanted to eat what’s in season when it’s in season. It would never happen here. Those peppers will have been stuffed, pickled, roasted, fried added to pasta sauces, basically used up any way they could until they were gone. And they were unique to that branch of the supermarket, which was the exciting thing. Where’s the regionality in Sainsbury’s or Tesco? I can’t imagine their apples cost less in Somerset than they do in Newcastle.”

This seems to be the biggest difference between us Anglo-Saxons and our continental cousins. British food like so many other parts of our national heritage is locked away from the masses and only accessed by a privileged few who enjoy it not as a living breathing part of life on this island, but as a pastiche, a re-enactment. It’s like paying through the nose for a vintage jacket that because the high street don’t make ‘em like they used to.

The sad thing is that it won’t change, because real seasonal, local food takes effort and more importantly imagination to bring it to life.  God bless their enthusiasm but with Jamie, Gordon and Hugh vicariously spoon feeding us the good life, they do all the thinking for us and our passion for real food is left to wither on the vine.     

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