What’s Happening To British Food?
First Great Britain had a brilliant national cuisine utilising all of the colours and flavours of a country with four distinct seasons (and you could eat a swan).
Then it was wrecked by two devastating wars and the arrival of bullying supermarkets. Americans teased us about our national food, forgetting that rationing rules shuttered restaurants and limited food supply (conversely, it made everyone healthier because they ate less meat). Postwar, the government opened Associated British Cafeterias (ABCs) to provide cheap meals for those on drastic budgets, because they were concerned about malnourishment. The culinary ground could not be regained for years.
Then in the eighties a revolution occurred. British restaurants rediscovered their rich culinary history. Forgotten cuts returned. People learned how to cook pork again (it’s okay to have it a bit pink). Meat and shellfish were mixed; I have a great recipe for oxtails stewed with scallops and oranges. Oyster water was added to stews and we still have beef and oyster pies. Seasonal and forgotten vegetables like samphire and salsify reappeared. Turnips are still awful.
And a chainstore massacre occurred, with cheaper, better quality European supermarkets taking the lead from Tesco, whose profits went into freefall.
Meanwhile, the US ambassador complained that he had eaten too much lamb in the UK and was looking forward to hamburgers. (This wasn’t as funny as the New York Jets NFL team having 350 rolls of toilet paper sent to the UK for their visit, for reasons we can only guess at.) We started looking down at American food – all that orange under-spiced stuff was out. And the portion sizes? How gauche !
But something was happening here. Outside of trendy craft-beer/ hipster foodie London the high street chains returned, delivering huge portions of boring, bland food. In Leeds last week I tried in vain to find a non-chain restaurant. Oxford is even worse.
Split-shifting between the UK and the Mediterranean does my head in. This is what I get served in the UK if I ask for prawns – insipid cotton-woolly boiled things that taste like sucking a salty ice lolly.
This is the same dish in the rest of Europe, rich, crunchy, garlicky, hot, sticky and wonderful.
They’re working from the same main ingredient, so why can’t someone create a chain that does dishes properly? There are some great reasonably-priced gastro chains in London – look for venues that have no more than two cousins. I especially like Islington’s the Albion, the Draper’s Arms and the Pig and Butcher, in Bloomsbury check out the Lady Ottoline, and in the West End the excellent Newman Street Tavern (a rare reversal of trend that has replaced a lousy branch of Thai chain Ping Pong with an indie pub).
Meanwhile the city still caters for vulgar oligarchs, with the opening of a truffle ‘n’ Wagyu joint where burgers start at a ludicrous £38 and a hideous-looking under-the-sea-style restaurant for Russians called Crazy Fish.
So what the hell is happening to British food? And can anyone recommend a UK chain that’s actually good?