Written by William Dobson
Everyone keeps saying that the UK is in the midst of a food revolution. That means it must be true, right? We’re in an era when you can hardly turn on the television without seeing one of Jamie’s, Hugh’s, or (disappointingly) Gordon’s face adorning the box in all their technicoloured glory (or the light reflecting off Gregg Wallace’s bald head for that matter). It’s an age when a couple of hirsute former make-up artists can earn their living out of driving Harley-Davidsons up and down the country and, indeed, further afield in search of epicurean delights. Food ‘blogging’ is suddenly hip rather than self-indulgent and ‘seasonality’ is the buzz word of, well, the season. Every man and his dog now seems to have published a cookbook and, everywhere we turn, we’re being told that Britain is home to the most informed and discerning of diners; that by embracing our rich multi-cultural society we have become more open to and enamoured by food from all corners of the globe than anywhere else. From Eritrean eateries in Brixton, Persian supermarkets in Peckham, French fine-dining in Fulham, or Michelin-starred gastro-pubs in the Yorkshire Dales, we’ve got it all.
Yet, is this really a full-blown revolt? In the lead up to the French Revolution, Marie-Antoinette (allegedly) said ‘let them eat cake’. The current equivalent might be ‘let them eat organic.’ But is this really viable? It’s not just that we’re in the middle of a recession (I think we are at least; someone tried to explain the credit crunch to me once but I got bored and stopped listening). More than that, I’m just not sure whether a deep-rooted passion for food exists on our small, but undoubtedly great, island. Yes, people here love food and, lately, they have really started to love great food. Ever since the brothers Roux first opened Le Gavroche – it was the summer of ’67 – and introduced us to the finery of multiple Michelin-starred quality, we’ve embraced it and, indeed, excelled at it. England is currently home to some of the greatest restaurants in the world.
However, on a day to day level, we don’t seem to have that same affinity with eating that is inherent elsewhere in the world. While abroad, British cuisine is certainly no longer the joke that it once was, there still seems to be a prevailing sentiment that, with the exception of special occasions, food plays a predominantly functional role in our society. Two contrasting quotations epitomise this idea perfectly; on the one hand, the great French philosopher, Voltaire, stated that ‘nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity.’ Yet, on the other hand, British theatre critic and writer Kenneth Tynan said that ‘cooking is a minor art. I can’t imagine a hilarious soufflé or a deeply moving stew.’ (Unfortunately, he’d died long before he had the chance to witness Heston’s vibrating phallic jelly.)
During my long bouts of unemployment, I occasionally make a foray down to our nation’s capital for ‘work experience’ (although I’ve experienced work in the past and I didn’t really like it). One such placement, however, really excited me. It wasn’t just that the work was actually interesting but more because the offices were situated next to Fernandez & Wells, an ‘artisan’ sandwich delicatessen in Soho. Everyday I would delight myself at lunchtime with the joys of their Spanish-influenced menu while staring wistfully at the huge leg of jamon iberico de bellota which hung in the window, dreaming of a time when I had enough money to put down a mortgage on my very own cured Spanish ham. Yet, when I’d head back to the office, postprandial, I’d be greeted with the sight of actual employees, who earned actual money, tucking in to their Boots’ meal deal, apparently unable to afford anything more – of course, I’m sure they were more than happy to shell out at least twice as much at the pub after work. At the end of the day, I’d wend my way back to my sofa-based accommodation at a friend’s Clapham residence, making a pit-stop on the way to pick up the evening’s meal, lest I be served Tesco value fish cakes, purchased for £1 in the reduced section, with a selection of boiled vegetables. It’s not that said friend doesn’t like food – he certainly eats a lot of it – it’s just that, in terms of priority, it falls well below other expenses, such as beer, beer and more beer.
But perhaps, therein, lies the problem. While we do indeed have fantastic restaurants in this country, it’s very difficult to eat well on a shoestring. Outside of London, this becomes near impossible and, even within the confines of the M25, it can only really be done in ethnic restaurants. As such, a paradox exists. On television and in print, we’re constantly reminded how truly exceptional British produce is, but afforded little opportunity to try it on a regular basis. There is a whole movement geared towards the ‘Great British Food Revival’ but, at grass roots at least, it doesn’t seem to be catching on. One only need look at the epic failure of the Heston’s ‘Big Chef, Little Chef’ venture or, as Rick Stein points out, that there are more fish restaurants in the small Normandy town of Dieppe than there are along the whole of our South Coast, even though they share the same body of water. On a personal level, one of my biggest disappointments was being served with defrosted cod from the North Atlantic in a Tynemouth fish and chip shop, a mere 300 metres from the North Sea. Minds obviously turn to Spain, Italy or France when we think of ‘foodie’ nations, but on a recent trip to Munich – with Germany hardly renowned as a powerhouse of world cuisine – it really struck me how undiscerning we are forced to be on a daily basis. Every street was home to a bakery, serving a mouthwatering selection of different breads and cakes whilst, elsewhere, the portions were vast, the food tasty and the prices cheap.
Spending time with Mona from Samara Cuisine the other day really hammered home this sentiment. It emphasised how in Lebanon, and other parts of the Middle East, food and culture are so inextricably linked. They don’t just enjoy food, they live it. There seems to exist an innate ability to cook and, when you speak to people from the region, the conversation almost invariably turns to breakfast, lunch or dinner. When they see produce, they don’t just see it for what it is, but rather what it could become. An aubergine isn’t merely an aubergine, it’s the possibility of baba ghanouj, mousakka, or perhaps bazinjan maa al riman. These dishes aren’t just something to eat, they are part of the region’s history and it’s heritage. Aleppo is as proud of kebab bil karaz (meatballs in cherry sauce) as London is of Dickens, while one of the main sources of dispute between Israel and Palestine is over who invented hummous.
This dichotomy is perhaps best shown by respective late night eating habits in Levant and the UK. Whereas here, an over-indulgent night is usually finished off with some cheesy chips and beans or suspiciously textureless kebab meat, an early morning stroll through Beirut or Damascus is a completely different experience. There you’re greeted at every corner by the delicious smell of freshly baked mana’eesh, a Levantine dish similar to pizza and generally topped with either za’atar, cheese or minced lamb, served still warm from the oven. This can be enjoyed in the midst of the hustle and bustle of hawkers setting up their stalls for the day, selling everything from street food, a vast assortment of fruit & veg, or freshly squeezed orange juice.
So, just some food for thought but, until it is economic to eat well rather than convenient to eat poorly, I’m not sure whether this ‘revolution’ is really going to take hold. We’re hamstrung by the supermarkets that make it cheaper and easier to buy ‘value’ ready meals, resembling little more than cardboard in taste, than it is to use fresh and exciting produce to develop something wonderful from scratch. Moreover, until food becomes an innate part of our culture, it’s unlikely that we are going to truly embrace these ideas with both our hearts and our minds.