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How British food, long a source of national shame, became exhilarating

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Now that we do most of our restaurant booking via an app, categories matter. It’s important, before we “swipe” and commit to spending the evening with a restaurant, that we know what to expect. We want to know if it’s going to be Korean street food at a shared table or Portuguese seafood at the bar.

An increasingly common category is “Modern British”. Pleasantly encouraging, but do we really know what that means? Unlike French or Japanese food, nobody has bothered to codify or particularly define it. There’s a possibility that it’s a catch-all term for anything from gastropub to three-starred place of pilgrimage that doesn’t fit any other category but “contemporary”.

But I’m increasingly convinced, particularly after Covid has beaten the British hospitality industry into taking a long hard look at itself, that it can be accurately defined and, more importantly, that it is something of which we Brits can be incredibly proud.

For the longest time, it was just accepted that we didn’t have a British cuisine. (We even had to borrow the word from the French.) Instead, our tables were an international showcase for joyless, grey, overcooked, poorly prepared and artlessly presented dreck. Even tourists from America, inventors of the iceberg lettuce and jello salad, would return home with tales of the ghastliness of British cooking, of the slop they’d eaten at a B&B or the soulless, genteel posturing of hotel dining rooms. Much of this unfortunate stereotyping is fairly recent, really beginning after the first world war.

Up to that point, some British food had been pretty good. While the French were formalising their cuisine in the mid-19th century, there was already spectacularly grand food available in Britain. And this wasn’t simply the Escoffier- and Carême-inflected stuff of imported French chefs in stately homes. Take a look at Arabella Boxer’s Book of English Food (1991), a brilliantly researched collection of recipes drawn particularly from the menus of London gentlemen’s clubs. There are a few that don’t stand up as anything but historical curiosity, but there are many others that could be lifted straight from the dining room at Boodles in 1911 to a scrubbed wood counter in Shoreditch in 2021.

This feature appears in the November 5/6 edition of the FT Weekend Magazine

In a controversial 1950 essay, the Australian critic and academic AA Phillips coined the term “cultural cringe”. This described Australia’s national tendency to judge its own art and literature inferior to work produced elsewhere, especially in Britain and the US, anglophone cultural centres.

For generations we, in the UK, have suffered from a similarly entrenched, highly developed and seemingly irreparable sense of culinary inferiority to our neighbours, France and Italy. France was the first to codify western cuisine and enjoyed a long and unbroken period of easy hegemony, while we felt we lacked a tradition of our own. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the development of Modern British cuisine (which was first mentioned around the same time we stopped talking about “Nouvelle cuisine”) is not about a national menu or canon of recipes but the visible corollary of shedding the “culinary cringe”.

Because of our geography, we should perhaps characterise our indigenous produce as “modest”, but we’ve always shamelessly leveraged outside influence. We got new ideas from the Romans, the Vikings, the Norman conquest, the Crusades, our status as a trading nation and the influences of our colonial expansion — the first recipes for “curry” by English writers appear in the mid-18th century while, for comparison, the first recorded recipe for coq au vin appears in France in the 20th century.

Yet we have suffered from being an island nation for whom food is a matter of national security. We forget that there was extensive rationing throughout the first world war and food scarcity during the Depression. In the 1920s, it became weirdly déclassé to discuss food and then, in the second world war, it was rationed again until 1953. Through no fault of our own, we bred several generations for whom food was merely fuel, usually scarce and of poor quality, most often controlled by the state. It is not surprising that the idea of a national cuisine drifted away.

In the mid-19th century, there was no Italian cuisine, because there was no Italy. It took a campaigner for unification, Pellegrino Artusi, to collect the hugely divergent recipes of the peninsula into a single book, forging a cuisine to unify a new nation. But these weren’t posh dishes. The new Italians reappropriated the rough food of bad times to define themselves.

More recently the US has done the same, elevating soul food, BBQ and burgers to cult status. The peasant or working-class foods of their recent past have become powerful signifiers of identity to what one might term “culinarily emergent nations”. Is not, therefore, the lamb and potato stew our minestra, the pie our pit-smoked BBQ? Are these not the most solid foundations?

A unique influence on British food is the pedigree of many of its most revered practitioners. Where in most cultures recipes have risen from the well of common knowledge, brought to fruition by long-trained cooks, the British, in the years after the second world war, produced a unique cadre of self-taught chefs armed with nothing but good taste, enthusiasm and well-thumbed copies of Elizabeth David.

It began with George Perry-Smith at The Hole in the Wall and includes Joyce Molyneux at the Carved Angel, Rick Stein, Alastair Little, Fergus Henderson, Rowley Leigh, Simon Hopkinson, Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray, all firmly middle class, often university educated, bypassing the apprenticeship of the kitchen or formal training to become the most influential cooks and restaurateurs of a generation.

They cooked simple food, usually inspired by the Mediterranean but defined by their simplicity and, invariably, their rejection of bourgeois “formality”. If tattoos had been as big a thing back then, they’d all have “faites simple” inked on their forearms. It is because of them that a piece of grilled protein on a bed of well-seasoned puy lentils, a whole poached artichoke and mayonnaise or bone marrow on toast are the perennial pillars of “New British”.

As our national enthusiasm for good food has increased to the point of obsession, we’ve taken on influences in technique as well as recipes. A long flirtation with “tapas-style” service in restaurants may have begun as a homage to Spain but has since been fully integrated. Standard patterns of starter/main/sides/dessert are far less ubiquitous than they used to be.

Japanese technique has had an enormous influence too, completely revolutionising the way we present food. Cooks have always sought to delight the eye as well as the palate, but now often choose crockery to complement ingredients and use of negative space in a plate’s “composition”. Your Modern British meal in the fashionably austere dining room of your independent restaurant might have an old English, French or Italian core, been foraged like a Dane or portioned like a Spaniard, but it will sit on the plate like it was arranged by a Japanese master.

Perhaps the most liberating influence has come with “Modernist” cooking (sometimes referred to as molecular gastronomy). There have been other movements in the history of cuisine but none quite so radical as the one that made science more important than tradition. It’s easy to parody the foams, airs and smears as shortlived gimmickry, but in the UK, it meant a far more profound change. Heston Blumenthal may be famous for some of his innovative dishes, but his real legacy is to this generation of young British cooks, which no longer looks to historical France for leadership but the thrillingly open horizon of a scientific future.

As food gets better and better here, it’s increasingly apparent that eclecticism and the lack of tradition to hamstring creativity have been tremendous benefits. Our levels of appropriation have been heroic, our corruption and reinvention of our inspirations constant. Take, for example, vitello tonnato — invented, of course, in Italy. Braised veal, often served hot with the fish-fragrant sauce thickened with roux — perhaps not a hugely popular dish and, justifiably, a bit of a culinary curiosity.

It was served as a cold appetiser, with a mayonnaise-style sauce, in the 1950s, in Harry’s Bar in Venice, a hangout for British and American travellers. That got it into a few recipe books and the occasional magazine story, but the meat/fish combination made it, still, a bit of a gimmick. What’s led to it resurfacing on British menus is the acceptance, learnt from south-east Asian cooking, that meat and fish sit well together. We don’t cook with veal much here; we prefer pork. The dish is brilliant with pork . . . it’s even better with tomatoes. I suppose the nearest translation of “tonnato” into English would be “tunafied” so it makes sense to keep the Italian. It’s well on its way to being a fixture on the Modern British menu, but it’s very much evolved. If you tried to serve it in Venice, you’d get stabbed in the neck.

It’s not something one considers often in the context of food, but the internet has changed cooking as radically as it seems to have altered everything else. It’s easy to forget that we are only a couple of decades into a world where any recipe, from anywhere in the world, can be googled. Until the turn of the century, writers or cooks could appoint themselves explorers of, and gatekeepers to international cuisines. They would collect recipes, curate and adapt them, so cooks needed libraries to contain any knowledge of cooking other than their own. Today, cuisine, which is, after all, only information, only transmitted knowledge, is truly global.

This is one reason why Britain has finally been able to wrench its culinary attention away from the Mediterranean. In the postwar years and before we all shrank from the sun in terror of carcinomas, the Mediterranean was the place where the well-off liked to travel. Discerning people had “experience” of French, Spanish and Italian food, and writers fed them with evocative prose and simple recipes.

But it is, when you think about it, extremely odd that the food we aspired to for the second half of the past century was stuff that could never grow in our climate. Glorious trusses of fat tomatoes grow on the slopes of Etna, not Helvellyn. They did not design panzanella to be eaten in the dismal, damp dining rooms of English houses, but on some sun-blasted veranda, overlooking somebody else’s sea.

It’s no coincidence that in the past 20 years, with all the world’s food knowledge freely available to us, we’ve developed a fascination with the Nordic regions. Beef, lamb and fish; foraging, salting and curing; fortifying starches and dark metallic brassicas — it’s almost as if, at least where food is concerned, we’ve finally accepted that we are a northern European nation. Though we don’t have an unbroken tradition of, say, using gooseberries instead of lemons for sharpness, it is right for our geography and our agriculture and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it also turns out that it suits our taste.

Modern British, young as it is, comes from a unique time and place. A trading, post-imperial nation. Robbed of its own food culture by wars, rationing, depression and even class. Late to the game, but hungry and uninhibited by tradition. Already a melting pot. Hothoused like a tulip craze by the enthusiasm of a two-decade “Food Renaissance”.

These have been glorious years. There’s been something joyous about coming of age and discovering ourselves, but it feels very much as if the completely unusual circumstances of Covid might put some kind of punctuation into the narrative. It’s not just here in the UK. Look at Leila Abboud’s recent FT report from Paris on how the gastronomic temples of France are being forced into painful reappraisal. Here in the UK, the pandemic has put the brakes on the crazier self-indulgent excesses of chefs, made us question the structures and conditions of the work and made the more contemplative cooks re-examine what they’re trying to achieve.

What, then, is the definition of a “Modern British” dish or menu? It is anything that derives proudly and respectfully from this history of collected influences, that is prepared and presented without culinary cringe. If Italian food can be characterised as being “all about the ingredients”, if French food is about tradition, if Japanese food is about simplicity and technique, then Modern British food is about an honest joy in eclecticism and diversity.

Our food story is, in part, the acquisitive hunger of those who see themselves without deep culture, but also gaining the confidence to reappropriate their own recent past. Perhaps because we can’t look back like our neighbours do, we have to look to those around us and, more importantly, forward. Hungry for the next influence. Alert and greedy for the next trend.

Modern British is alive, moving and growing under its own steam. Sucking up influences, a rolling-boil stock of creativity. One thing’s for damn sure, it is a thing. It’s shed the cringe, it’s going to keep evolving and nothing can stop it now.

Follow Tim on Twitter @TimHayward and email him at tim.hayward@ft.com

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