Surely, deep within us, there’s an unspoken embarrassment that fish ‘n’ chips – the greasy, unsophisticated, nutrient-poor dish that it is – is a national treasure when it comes to British food. That’s beside the fact that, given it’s an amalgam of foods from Jewish and Belgian backgrounds, it’s not even British. Ditto chicken tikka masala which, though possibly invented by a Scot, relies on typical Indian spices.
So you have to wonder – with British Food Fortnight coming up, is there the danger of not knowing what we’re celebrating? By its existence, the annual salute to food grown and produced in the UK reveals something of an identity crisis concerning the origins of what we eat and drink. Food influenced by cooking from India, America, Italy, France and so on can be as good – sometimes better – as the country from which it originates. But is this to fill a culinary void?
If a visitor was to look at a list of Britain’s most popularly consumed dishes, they’d wonder whether we have any culinary traditions at all. Pizza, burgers, and Chinese takeaway don’t do much for our discerning reputation. Instead, the curious have to look towards restaurants – but away from high street chains – for any idea of what’s truly British, at least in theory.
There are the classics – Rules, Simpson’s, Sweetings; the restaurants using indigenous knowledge and ingredients kitchens once relied on. And there are the young chefs instigating something of a renaissance in British dining – hats off to James Lowe at Lyle’s, Brad Carter at Carters of Moseley, Ivan Tisdall-Downes of Native, et al, for bringing those same ideas up to speed in a modern environment.
They may be few and far between, but these are the restaurants reacting to the notion dining out British food is a novelty. Or, if you’re a visiting epicure, the butt end of a joke.
But we have trouble taking our own cuisine seriously as well. For what can be construed as British, it’s oddly apparent the majority of British people have an intolerance. Strange, given the patriotic ideals running through everyday Britishness, and a shame considering what they’re missing out on. Quo Vadis’ smoked eel sandwich – eel once being abundant in British waters – is subjectively one of the best lunch dishes in the country. Potted beef at St John – this technique of preserving popularised in Britain thanks to the Romans – you will find of a quality unlike anywhere else.
That’s without turning attention on the classics, which rarely make it out of the domestic kitchen and onto restaurant menus – shepherd’s pie, toad in the hole, bread pudding, and the like. If that’s the common fate of traditional British dishes, what synergy will there ever be between home cooking and wider food culture?
You could argue it hardly matters. So what if we don’t have a culinary tradition with a depth similar to that of France’s? But a strong connection to what’s truly British could matter more now than ever. In a piece for another publication, a potter supplying small batch tableware for restaurants told me her business had never been so busy. Because of Brexit, she said, consumers were drifting towards British-made products. With the UK hospitality industry bleeding out foreign talent, and import contracts looking more and more precarious, could the British people face up to real British food, whether they like the idea or not?
British food and cuisine suffers from a poor sense of identity. Maybe British Food Fortnight, now in its 15th year, could could help us realise – and address – that. Either way, our food needs celebrating. Just as long as it’s not fish ‘n’ chips.
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