The UK has been celebrated for many things over the millennia. The steam train, HP Sauce, the toothbrush, Jaffa Cakes, the hovercraft and even the military tank to name a few – but our cuisine has never been as highly regarded.
Fish & Chips, hot pot, shepherd’s pie and Yorkshire pudding are some of the most delicious foods in the world, but for some reason, the rest of the world thinks meat, potatoes and gravy is something to turn your nose up at. They are wrong – just to be clear.
Virginia Wolfe it down perfectly (and rather bluntly) in her 1927 novel To The Light House:
“What passes for cookery in England is an abomination…..It is putting cabbages in water. It is roasting meat till it is like leather. It is cutting off delicious skins of vegetables…..A whole French family could live on what an English cook throws away.”
It wasn’t always that way though. In medieval times, us Brits were known all over the globe (that we knew existed) for our proficiency in the roasting of meats as well as our ability to make breads, pies and stews. For a long time, the French referred to us as ‘Le Roast Beouf’ (which I am sure doesn’t need translating), which was for a time, considered the best cuisine in the world.
Where did it all go wrong?
According to my extensive research, things started to go south during the Second World War. During the 1940s, the UK saw a huge influx of travelling American GIs to its shores. These people who were better accustomed to meatloaf and macaroni were more than unimpressed by the local cuisine, which is where the rumour started to gain popularity.
In our defence, we were in the midst of total war at the time and food rationing was in full force. This meant that over half of the ingredients available before the war were completely unavailable and even standard things like lard, fruit and meat fell victim to severe shortages.
Times were bad, I’ll admit, but I’d like to think that we Brits with our stiff upper lips gave it a jolly good go. Granted, I can see how the Yanks might have considered the likes of ‘mock sausage’, minced beef ‘steak’, bean and egg pies and boiled grapefruit lousy, but as I said, we were in the midst of a full on WAR.
We were being attacked from every angle, supplies were blockaded and half the rural workforce was away in France and Africa getting blown to pieces, and it is safe to say that we had more important things to do than concentrate on our cuisine.
Rationing continued well into the 1950s in the UK, and after that, we didn’t really know what to do with ourselves. Nearly 450,000 people lost their lives in the war which meant that not only had we forgotten how to cook with real meat and butter, but hordes of family recipes and traditions died along with them.
Things didn’t get much better during the 1960s and ‘70s. People were richer and better travelled which resulted in half-arsed versions of ‘world-food’ taking centre stage which did nothing for our culinary reputation. Suddenly anything that was wasn’t British was very much en vogue – we’re talking Duck a l’ Orange, Bolognese, Coronation Chicken, Fondue, Crêpe Suzette… as well as anything you could think of set in aspic jelly.
As for restaurants, from the ’70s to the early ‘00s the only thing people wanted to pay a lot of money for was traditional French haute cuisine. Chefs like Paul Bocuse and Albert Roux had their hay day in the 1980s and ‘90s cooking ‘Nouvelle’ cuisine that was heavy on the cream and light on the bacon and shortening which put British food on the back burner once again.
To be completely honest, it wasn’t until a little more recently, like the past 5-10 years, where chefs and home-cooks in their stead started to look back at our native culinary traditions for inspiration. Encouragingly, this is something we can see right now in the restaurant scene in here Manchester and indeed the length and breadth of the entire country.
I was in a lovely restaurant in Chester a few months ago where I sampled hogget for the first time. Chef Andrew Green at Mamucium has a modern take on a Lancashire Hot Pot on his menu while Adam Reid at The French pays homage to Rhubarb and Custard on his.
Beastro on Left Bank Spinningfields is completely unafraid to serve up retro classics like chicken livers or devilled kidneys, while I have eaten pigs head twice this week- once at Restaurant MCR and once at Hispi.
It is no longer ‘embarrassing’ to have things like Bangers and Mash on a menu- in fact, it is encouraged, as long as it is good and preferably locally sourced. Sunday Roasts are now more popular than ever with thanks to those like Hawksmoor, The Bay Horse Tavern, The Refuge and Trof. In fact, I would go as far as saying no clichéd millennials weekend is complete without one.
Nowadays, the word on everyone’s lips is ‘Modern British’, and I have got to say that that puts a smile on my face. I think one of the most beautiful things about the phenomenon is that our own stance has changed. It has come from within. We are learning to love our food again and not listen to the opinions of other countries dictating the quality of the food which brings us joy.
Although I must say it helps when some of the world’s greatest chefs appreciate it too, so I’ll finish with a quote from Raymond Blanc, my favourite Chef ever, who happens to be very, very French:
‘There is a revolution happening. When I first moved to Britain, the food was all about cheapness and shelf life and nobody cared. Now we are reconnecting with our food culture here in Britain and it is so exciting to see my British friends reconnecting with the values of food because food connects with every aspect of life.’
Monsueir Blanc, I couldn’t agree more.