In Defence of British Food
The full English: bacon, eggs, sausages, toast, tomatoes, fried mushrooms, and baked beans. Composition may vary from region to region. Photo credit: iStockphoto.com
In a sense French President Jacques Chirac was right when he said, "One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad" He was talking about us. The British that is. But... well... the thing is. He's wrong. It's not that British food is badbecause it jolly well is notthe perception problem stems from what masquerades as British food and not what British food is.
I'll readily admit British cuisine lacks the delicacy of Japanese sushi, the lightness of Vietnamese and Thai cooking, or the arrogant swagger of French slop, but you can't compare cuisines, that's a mug's game. All cuisines are good, the only problem is supply. Of quality and quantity. And that's where Britain lags Continental Europe, much of Asia and pretty much everywhere else for that matter. Sure, we've got plenty of good food, but scant little of it is British.
Britain is awash with poor British food. From the Lizard to Lerwick, you'll find restaurants run by know-no-better chefs and filled with ignorant eaters. The British don't know what good food is, they just think they do. Industrialisation, wartime rationing and the modern day domination of the supermarket chains have conspired to cause a taste bud catastophe across the pond. Vegetables have no taste, fruit is nothing more than imported fibrous water. Some folk realise something's gone wrong, but the majority don't.
There are signs of change; the 'sleb chef circuit, the mountains of food mags, gastropubs, farmers' markets, foodblogs, slow food. However, in a capital city of 8 million people, in a country whose favourite dish is chicken tikka massala (that's a British dish too by the way...) there are probably no more than fifty places serving good British food, whereas there are thousands serving not just bad British food, but appalling British food.
The fact remains that in London in 2007 you are still hard pressed to visit a British pub and find a couple of tasty faggots covered in gravy, or satisfy your desire for a really good spotted dick, let alone score a decent tart. All puns intended. You see, British food is not only completely and utterly misunderstood by foreign tourists and by Brits themselves, but it is blessed with the food world's most descriptive, most suggestive, most idiosyncratic lexicon. None of your poncey bouillabaise, mousakka or borscht here. Toad in the hole, Lancashire hotpot, bubble & squeak, pie and mash, clootie dumpling, haggis, bangers and mash, Welsh rarebit, faggots, the full English, cullen skink, cock-a-leekie soup... and then there's the dessert trolley... jam roly poly pudding, knickerbocker glory, sticky toffee pudding, sherry trifle, spotted dick, eccles cakes... Read that list back. Listen carefully... that's the sound of your arteries gently furring with contentment.
Three weeks ago I visited the Anchor & Hope gastropub near Waterloo station in London. The place has been at the end of a welter of good press reviews and awards. They don't take reservations. Diners commonly have to wait for one or two hours in the bar area until a table is called. You have to share tables with whoever else happens to be there. It serves no-nonsense fayre in an unpretentious setting. The emphasis is heavily skewed towards seasonal produce and traditional British dishes. The menu changes daily. You might find anything from succulent quails and juicy snails to a roasted skate, sublime potted bloaters or a full Sunday roastreplete with crispy pork cracklingSunday is the only day they do take reservations. The Anchor & Hope is always packed to overflowing. Its formula for success is nothing more than the ingredients. Seasonal produce, locally sourced where possible, and none of this over fussy, air guitar cooking and menus chock-a-block with wankwords.
It's a way of cooking I discussed with chef Richard Corrigan at Bentley's Oyster bar and grill, another award winning British restaurant on Swallow Street, a small alleyway nestled between the Piccadilly and Regent street. Corrigan professed his utter distaste for pretension and his willingness to rely solely upon the natural flavour of whatever ingredients are available on that day. Like the Anchor & Hope, it works. The restaurant's popular and he's a busy chef.
If these examples are anything to go by, there is a thirst and even a reverence for top quality British food, but you have to hunt it down, you have to want it. And starting from such a low base of public perception, it's an ongoing battle. And what that means for the time being is more Jacques Chirac's, more whingeing, more bollocks. But, never mind the bollocks here's the Sex Pistols. Or read more about British food.
About the author: Graham Holliday a British freelance journalist living in France. He's also the bloke behind noodlepie.com, a foodblog whose focus until recently has been on the street food of Vietnam, thanks to Mr. Holliday's eight-year stint in Saigon.