In the summer of 1997 readers of the serious-minded British newspaper The Guardian were startled to find a front-page story about a new, ultra-chic London restaurant that had taken delivery of chips, (aka pommes frites, French fries) from the delivery van of the firm that supplies suitably sliced, frozen potatoes to restaurants and fish-and-chip shops all over the country. In the second paragraph we were told that the restaurant, the Bluebird, in Chelsea, was trying to head off a PR catastrophe and the debate that followed centred on the question were the chips fresh or frozen? Eminent figures in the restaurant business had their say: “We take our chips seriously,” said one implying that they were sliced up by patrician ladies wearing tiaras and the editor of a food magazine said the irony of the news was that the owner of the Bluebird made serving fresh produce a great selling point at all his many restaurants.
I had a limited personal interest in the story as we had visited the Bluebird supermarket below the restaurant a short time before and had left believing we had wandered into a time capsule of the worst days of the Weimar Republic; the prices of food were out of sight and one item remained the symbol of the over-fancy, over-priced marketing: a smallish fruit cake, deemed suitable for nursery tea, was “just like nanny used to make—with a little sherry added” and cost the unheard of sum of £28 ($47).
Later, it became clear that the real reason for the front-page treatment of a footling story was that the owner of the restaurant, Sir Terence Conran, had become a figure to watch, criticize, envy, and sometimes praise. He was—and is still— both a leading designer and the colossus of the London restaurant world; he makes news: the more negative the better.
Placing such a news item on the front page of a serious newspaper was, everyone agreed, another stage of what one writer had called “the tidal wave” of writing and talking about food, the new British obsession. To those with long memories all this seemed like an invention. What had happened, people asked, that the British, for so long the most despised cooks in Europe, had changed so much?
British foodyism really started in the 80’s, and writers still ask whether this was the result of foreign travel, the influence of the European Union, the influx of immigrants since World War II, (especially those of Indian and Pakistani origin), the effect of a painful educative process by official agencies, more nutritionist than gourmet, or the influence of a galaxy of food writers especially Elizabeth David? Enough to say that the English are themselves astonished by this change of heart and never seem to grow bored with articles and features, in all branches of the media, about food politics, chefs and restaurants. Cynics said that British food was so uninspiring that it could only go up—and not before time in a country where tourism is a major industry: self-interest called for improved standards. Agreed; yet this does not quite fit the bill since one of the aspects of British interest in food is that it is as much directed at other people’s cuisine (Indian, Chinese, Thai, Italian, French, Spanish—you name it) as in a revival of what there might be of a native tradition. In fact the favorite British food, according to market research, is chicken tikka masala, an Indian dish that only exists in Britain.
In London only a handful of well-known eating-places serve English or modern British food, but there are more than 3,000 Indian restaurants. Their owners often resent local snobbery which refuses to distinguish between styles and regional recipes and assumes that because Indian food is cheaper than, say, French cuisine, it is thus less worthy of respect.
The hallmark of English cooking used to be plainness: vegetables and meat without sauces except for the ubiquitous brown gravy, fish and chips—the first convenience food—and an endless variety of desserts and puddings. A cookbook drawn up by Good Housekeeping and published in the 1950’s, showed the national passion for desserts: three-quarters of a 600-page compendium is devoted to cakes, tarts, puddings, and other delicacies while salads get six pages, savory sauces two.
The variety of cakes and sweetmeats is astonishing: from scones cooked on girdle-stones to the elaborate tiered cakes provided for weddings, and taking in such all-time favorites as hot cross buns, Yorkshire parkin, and Bath buns.
Although the classic Victorian cookbook by Mrs. Beeton contains a wealth of recipes for fish and meat dishes, the rule of thumb behind much English thinking about food seems to have been that everyone knew how to cook a joint of meat or a chop, that elaborate sauces were meant to disguise poor quality and the real proof that hosts loved their guests was manifest in the traditional tarts, pies and confections often elaborately decorated with whipped cream, flaked chocolate, hundreds and thousands of glace fruits and nuts.
The new interest in food has produced a generation of amusing food-writers (many of them able to write provocatively about the island race at table while showing off their knowledge about architecture, languages and more recondite matters). Television is crowded with programs about food and the celebrity chef can pull in viewers and crowds like a well-known film star and some of them are listed in “Who’s Who.”
A sympathetic outsider, impressed by this revolution in taste, this foodie overkill, must ask how it came about that a society that shows so much fervour for eating could have allowed its standards to sink to the point where the phrase a leading French chef, Michel Roux, could call the English culinary barbarians. What did the English people eat in past times?
The historical records take note of the conspicuous and profligate eating habits of the very rich but few writers were interested in the food of ordinary people and most of the evidence is anecdotal or incidental. Present-day writers on the subject say the English reputation as the home of the beef, beer and bread diet was well-founded and that for long periods the English were better fed than their continental counterparts, Harrison’s “Description of England” in 1577 states that vegetables were widely grown and popular in the 13th and 14th centuries but later fell out of favor and were regarded as “food more meet for hogs and savage beasts” than for human beings. Fruit was plentiful but limited to varieties grown in the country.
It is not easy, given the range of foodstuffs available today, to try to imagine the dining-tables of a society without potatoes, rice, pasta, tea, coffee, chocolate, sugar, and citrus fruits—to name only some basic commodities—and we have to accept that for centuries the average family’s diet was limited and monotonous. With this knowledge we can appreciate the impact of spices from the Middle and Far East and the Europe-wide concern when the Turks prevented spices reaching Europe. Columbus set sail to find a new route to Asian gold and spices (which were often used as medicines) and discovered America instead.
In due course a range of products from the Western Hemisphere reached Europe including potatoes, maize (known in England as Indian corn), tomatoes, and cocoa, not to mention tobacco. For long it was claimed Sir Walter Raleigh introduced the potato (said to have come from Peru via Virginia) to his lands in County Cork some time between 1586 and 1588. It made a good story until someone realized that, at that time, the potato was unknown in Virginia. Whatever the date of the first potato in Ireland, it took time to be appreciated. By the end of the 17th century, however, it had become the staple food of ordinary Irish people and their dependency on it led to a national catastrophe in the mid-1840’s when blight wiped out the potato crop and out of a population of eight million an estimated million starved to death.
We have many more windows into the way the upper classes lived and ate. Only this year (June 2002) what is thought to be the earliest printed cookbook in English was discovered in the vaults of Longleat House, the seat of the Marquess of Bath in Wiltshire. Entitled “A Noble Book of Royal Feasts,” this 80-page compilation of royal and aristocratic feasts was, apparently, intended for the aspiring merchant and gentry classes who wished to know what Top People were eating and how they cooked and served it.
The accounts of royal feasts show that almost all that ran, flew, or swam got eaten at the same meal. Fish was very popular and one recipe reads “To make pyke or els in ballocke brothe, splatte your pyke and scale him clene.” When the pyke was ready social distinctions emerged: “Serve an hole pyke for a lord and quarters of pyke for comons.”
If, on the other hand, you were King Henry V you got served 31 swans, the most expensive of mediaeval meats, roasted and often redressed in their skin and feathers. At the last moment declarations of loyalty and praise for the king would decorate the birds. Conspicuous consumption was a way of life in these royal and aristocratic households with the money to buy everything and servants to do the work.
Although our knowledge of what the lower orders ate is mostly anecdotal, a theory has taken root that everything was as good as could be until the industrial revolution at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, and it is at this stage of English history that we first get detailed descriptions of lower class domestic life.
The classic account of English food habits since that time is John Burnett’s Plenty and Want: A Social History of Diet in England from 1815 to the Present Day published in 1966 and revised in 1979 and 1989. It is as much a sociological and historical account of how the English have lived and, one has to say, that after Burnett’s account of the often pathetic regimen of the poor along with the widespread adulteration of food, it seems a marvel that so many English are now alive to appreciate the joys of our newly-found foodyism.
Burnett finds a fundamental link between the actual food available to the English and their numbers. At the opening of the 19th century there were nearly nine million English people of whom a fifth lived in towns. This meant that England was self-sufficient in all basic food needs. By 1850 the population had doubled (18 million) and half lived in towns. This population could still be fed with home-grown food; but by the end of the century, four-fifths of the people were urban and needed more food than the one-fifth still in the country could provide. It followed that, gradually, England imported more and more wheat, dairy products, and frozen meat.
There were other important changes during the second half of the 19th century: communications improved and the first milk train reached Manchester in 1844. The new railways brought fish caught in the North Sea in the morning to Birmingham, in the centre of the country, by the evening. People had learned how to make ice so that Scottish salmon, suitably packed, reached London in perfect condition in all seasons. There was a huge expansion of choice.
The mystery is that, at the same time, adulteration of food was so prevalent that it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the English spent more time doping their food than in finding new dishes or improving existing ones.
Another essential text on this subject is The Englishman’s Food by J.C. Drummond and Anne Wilbraham (1939) which gives recipes for faking everything from beer and wine to pickles. Here is a recipe for gin from the 18th century: “oil of vitriol (sulphuric acid), oil of almonds, oil of turpentine, spirits of wine, lump sugar, lime water, rose water, alum and salt of tartar.”
Wine-fakers managed any variety from a hock to a malmsey with the help of a book called The Retail Compounder and Publicans’ Friend by John Hardy, probably published in the last decade of the 18th century. This gave tips on providing color by using burnt sugar, sassafras, logwood, cochineal, turnsole, blackberry juice with orange peel and terra japonica for flavour, sugar for sweetness and hops or oak chips for astringency. The basis for this hellish brew was a thin solution of spirit of wine prepared by fermenting molasses imported from the West Indies. Plaster of Paris, chalk, and alum might be added to make the “wines” less crude. In these particular ventures the grape, it will be seen, was optional.
Lead preparations were believed to be helpful in clearing muddy white wine while, presumably, contributing to the ill health of the drinker.
In 1820, a German chemist resident in London, Friedrich Christian Assum, published a treatise on the problem of food adulteration that caused a furore. Assum was so reviled for his painstaking work that he returned to Germany, and it took several parliamentary reports and agitation by scientists and the medical profession to stop these practices.
It could be this was the time when the English acquired their taste for piquant sauces (like the universally used HP) to help down the plaster of Paris and other unspeakable materials in their basic foods.
As for the poor, especially those living in rural areas, the situation was dire. Burnett gives tables of expenditure on food which showed that millions of people lived on a diet largely composed of bread and potatoes with occasional servings of bacon. Not only were many foods, items that we now consider staples, beyond the reach of most country people, they were also faced with the problems of heating and cooking it. The enclosures by large landowners of the common lands had cut off the usual supply of wood and scrub and coal was far too expensive.
There are many eye-witness accounts of the state of the rural poor—the southern counties were especially afflicted by low wages and near famine conditions—from orphans stealing food out of pig-troughs to the rapacity of the landowners who even claimed the apples in the gardens of their workers’ cottages.
Passing through Wiltshire, Cobbett noted that “The labourers here look as if they were half-starved. . . . For my own part I really am ashamed to ride a fat horse, to have a full belly, and to have a clean shirt upon my back when I look at these wretched countrymen of mine; while I actually see them reeling with weakness; when I see their poor faces present me nothing but skin and bone.”
There were, of course, the Pecksniffian writers on domestic economy who believed that what really was amiss was not the lack of money but the failure to spend what little there was wisely. Burnett quotes Esther Copley, a popular writer in the 1820’s and 1830’s, who suggested that labourers should drink infusions of rue and strawberry leaves rather than tea; that they should save fuel by inserting a lump of chalk into the fire since chalk retained the heat for a good time. In a book called “Cottage Cookery” she gave recipes for simple dishes such as potato pie, stirabout (a stew), stewed ox-cheek, sheep’s chitterlings, and skilly (a gruel made with oatmeal).
In the towns there was, undoubtedly, more variety but some special problems. Under the truck system, workers were obliged to buy their food from shops owned by the management of their place of work often at inflated prices. These were the truck or tommy shops and some believe that the term “tommy-rot”—to describe anything poor—originated in this system.
Trade cycles were another threat to the urban dweller’s standard of living. During one of the depressions in the 1840’s dinner for an unemployed Colchester silk weaver and his family was skimmed milk thickened with flour.
Burnett sums up this underfed period: “Almost half the children born in towns died before they reached the age of five, and a high proportion of those who did survive grew up ricketty, deformed and undernourished. The long-term effects of this physical degeneration were only demonstrated many years later in the Boer War and the First World War, when medical examinations revealed the mass unfitness of urban recruits. The “C3” nation, which so disturbed the public conscience in 1918, had its origins in the dietary inadequacy of the early 19th century.”
While the poor starved or survived on whatever came to hand, the upper and middle classes began to be influenced by French cuisine. It was generally acknowledged that the French had become the leading gastronomes in Europe and as early as 1747, Robert Campbell, the author of “The London Tradesman” denounced the French influence: “In the days of good Queen Elizabeth, when mighty roast beef was the Englishman’s food, our cookery was plain and simple as our manners; it was not then a science or a mystery, and required no conjuration to please the palates of our greatest men. But we have of late years refined ourselves out of that simple taste, and transformed our palates to meats and drinks after the French fashion: the natural taste of fish or flesh has become nauseous to our fashionable stomach; we abhor that any thing should appear at our tables in its native properties; all the earth, from both the poles, the most distant and different climates, must be ransacked for spices, pickles and sauces, not to relish but to disguise our food.”
After the French Revolution in 1789 when aristocratic society was destroyed, many chefs of the great houses moved to England where they were in demand and began the influx of French chefs into English mansions and eating places that gave French cuisine its supremacy in England for more than two centuries.
The fancy French dishes were viewed with suspicion by the middle classes and two authorities on plain cookery, Dr. Kitchener and Mrs. Rundell, popular in the 1820’s and 1830’s criticized the elaborate meals served by what Dr. Kitchener called “the Great, the wealthy and the ostentatious.”
It was a period when mealtimes changed and the old pattern of two meals a day was modified. The development of luncheon (or nunchon or noonshine) into a sit-down meal was partly the innovation of ladies of leisure and partly the response of professional and business men to earlier starts and longer journeys to work. Tea had long been a fashionable drink but it was the Duchess of Bedford who made afternoon tea a light meal with cakes at her houses in London and Woburn because (she said) at five o’clock she had “a sinking feeling.”
While the English came to terms with superior French cuisine, Europeans visiting England were usually dismayed by the low standard of food available. Charles Moritz, a Swiss visitor, writing in 1782, deplored the overcooked cabbage and the watery coffee and the French Almanach des Gourmands once described Christmas pudding as “a bizarre and indigestible mixture.” The most famous comment on English food, often wrongly attributed to Voltaire, is that of the Neapolitan ambassador to London, Francesco Canacciolo (1752—99), who noted that the English had “sixty different religious sects and only one sauce.”
Drummond sees in these scathing reflections the beginning of that bad reputation that “has made meals in our hotels and boarding houses a by-word the world over.”
He accepted that English domestic cookery, apart from roasts, had never stood in high repute but declined further in the 19th century “probably because when we acquired from the continent the knowledge how to grow garden vegetables we did not trouble to learn how to cook them properly. It is one of the major tragedies of English domestic life.”
It was not all gloom and indigestion. Nathaniel Hawthorn’s travel notebooks reflect his pleasure in the heartiness of English food and no one who has enjoyed Dickens will have forgotten his description of Christmas at Dingley Dell.
In The Oxford Companion to Food (1999) edited by Alan Davidson, an Elizabeth David protégé, it is stated that by the 1690’s British puddings were praised by foreign visitors such as François Maximilien Misson who reported that a pudding was difficult to describe yet was very good. In 1814, Beauvilliers in his “Art de Cuisinier” included a recipe for what he called “Plumbuting.”
There was no lack of good cookbooks and the Victorian classic, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management first came out in monthly parts in 1859—1861. Although the 1112-page volume contains nearly 2000 recipes it is also a manual of instruction for the socially ambitious middle classes. The book devotes much space to the running of a house, the planning of dinner parties, suggests menus according to the season and gives advice to the mistress of the house (who is compared to the commander of an army) on how to dress, how to hire servants, and how to receive morning callers: “occupations of drawing, music or reading should be suspended on the entrance of morning visitors. If a lady, however, be engaged with light needlework, and none other is appropriate in the drawing-room, it may not be, under some circumstances, inconsistent with good breeding to quietly continue it during conversation, particularly if the visit be protracted.”
Mrs. Beeton accepted that English cookery “was greatly indebted to the gastronomic propensities of our French neighbours” and because of this used many French terms; she gave a list of the most common ones used in what she called “modern household cookery.”
She showed, too, that while she was offering advice to the newly prosperous middle classes she was aware that there were plenty of poor people about and offered a recipe for “A useful soup for benevolent purposes.” In a footnote she stated that in the winter of 1858 she made eight or nine gallons of this soup each week for distribution amongst about a dozen families in a village near her home. The villagers, she wrote, liked the soup, which was warm, comforting food, in place of the cold meat and piece of bread which would have been their usual meal. The poor, as the saying goes, “are always with us” and the problem of what the French protesters against McDonalds called “malbouffe” (poor food) might have been lessened had the English learned from the Scots whose traditional diet of oatmeal, milk and soups made from barley and root vegetables, was more nutritious than anything available to ordinary folk in England. In 1863 the medical officer to the Guards observed that while English recruits tended to be undersized and ill-fed the Scots were healthy and of good physique.
The end of the 19th century saw England receive its greatest blow to self-esteem when it was found during recruitment for the second Boer War (1899—1902) that up to 60 per cent of volunteers in some areas were rejected; the national average was 40 per cent. When the war was over and after the publication in 1904 of a report on the health of the nation a law was passed allowing local councils to provide meals in schools for poor children. This was at a time when malnutrition, according to some authorities, was as widespread in England as it had been during the famines of medieval times. In World War I the number of fit but puny recruits inspired the setting up of so-called “Bantam Regiments,” for men under five feet five inches, chiefly drawn from the male populations of the industrial areas.
There were serious food shortages in WWI and when rationing was introduced an attempt was made to use scientific findings in the feeding of the nation, but the system was not as well developed as it was a quarter of a century later when WWII broke out. By this time enough was known to make it possible from the outset of rationing to use the knowledge which doctors, scientists, and dieticians had amassed over the century and a half since Antoine Lavoisier (1743—1794), the French scientist, laid the foundation of the knowledge now used in calculating what each individual needs for a healthy diet.
In Britain it is a received truth that the people never ate so healthily as they did during WWII and much of the credit for this goes to John Drummond, one of the authors of The Englishman’s Food, who was scientific adviser to the Ministry of Food from 1940 to 1946. The wartime diet was monotonous but balanced and the rationing system a model of fairness. Recently there has been some revisionism about wartime rationing, the suggestion being that it was a blueprint for social control. This is simple-minded and ignores the grave shortage of essential foodstuffs. Rationing was the only way to make sure everyone had a fair share. Naturally, there was always room for getting extras either through contact with people-in-the-know or farmers or by dining out in restaurants where only the prices were controlled.
In her 1939—45 diaries A Pacifist’s War (1978), the last of the Bloomsbury writers, Frances Partridge, gave three glimpses of how people ate. The first described a lunch with a friend in The Ivy, a leading London restaurant in 1941: “Our lunch was smoked salmon, cold grouse, chocolate mousse and Nuits Saint Georges.” The second was inspired by a stay in a farmhouse in Pembrokeshire: “Huge meals are set before us, with home-cured bacon, eggs and plenty of butter. There is no war here.” The third is from Swindon where she ate in a vast British Restaurant, one of the many establishments of that name designed as neighbourhood canteens: “. . . thousands and thousands of human beings were eating as we did an enormous all-beige meal. Starting with beige soup thickened to the consistency of paste, followed by beige mince full of lumps and garnished with beige beans and a few beige potatoes. Thin beige apple stew and a sort of skilly. . . .”
Rationing of all foodstuffs only ended in 1954, but a much more important event, in the long history of the English and their food, occurred a few years before when a young woman who had spent the war in Cairo, returned to an England bled white by five years of sacrifice, and sought refuge from the chill and gloom of London in a hotel in Ross on Wye, which offered good rates and warmth. The young woman was Elizabeth David and while staying in this hotel— never named by her—she had what a recent writer has called an epiphany. The wretched food put before her made her think of meals she had eaten in Egypt: though simple they had had “some sort of life, colour, guts, stimulus; there had always been bite, flavour and inviting smells. These elements were totally absent from English meals.”
She began to “work out an agonized craving for the sun and a furious revolt against that terrible, cheerless, heartless food by writing down descriptions of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking.”
There followed a period of uncertainty and discouragement since Elizabeth David had, at that stage, no confidence in her talent as a writer, but two men of genius, the publisher John Lehmann and the artist John Minton, helped her create A Book of Mediterranean Food, published in June 1950, that was received with great enthusiasm. Her career as a serious writer about food—”a gastronome of rare integrity,” said one reviewer—was launched.
The public which bought the book and its successor French Country Cooking were given, during the last years of scarcity and at a time of restrictions on overseas travel, the assurance that a freer, more sensually satisfying life might be possible. Other titles followed as well as regular articles in up-market magazines and then, in 1965, Elizabeth David and a group of friends opened a shop under her name selling the sort of kitchen equipment, mostly of French origin, not available in the ordinary stores.
Nobody now doubts that Elizabeth David’s books changed forever English perceptions about how to eat, and she is thought to be the greatest and most scholarly writer about food in the second half of the 20th century. Many of the leading English chefs of the present time speak of her influence not only as a compiler of recipes but as someone much more rare and vital: a woman who delighted in the history and fine detail of food and food production and one driven by the need to make her own country wake up and appreciate the importance of well-prepared and imaginative meals in everyday life.
Since her death in 1992 two biographies have appeared: the first by Lisa Chaney, the more recent one by Artemis Cooper. Laura Shapiro, in reviewing Cooper’s book for The New York Times, observed that although everyone accepts Elizabeth David’s cardinal role nobody has quite worked out what precisely was her influence. Was it, Shapiro asked, “confined to writers and chefs or did she actually reach the woman in the kitchen? Those heady, beautifully written recipes can be followed by any cook with good instincts, but they’re nowhere near precise enough for the rest of us.” All the same, David’s books made their mark on chefs as well as on home cooks.
Naturally, it took time for David to make a serious impact on the commercial forces that control the supply of food and its marketing. The food she advocated was more delicious than the home product and about that time doctors and dieticians maintained it was also healthier. The public took note and as travel restrictions eased and millions of English tourists tasted the Mediterranean diet in situ: olive oil, fresh fruit and vegetables, wine and, even, garlic, they were convinced. They returned home with their perceptions changed—or at least modified—and the cult of what we call the Mediterranean diet was born.
At the same time as new ideas about the comparative values of foodstuffs were beginning to be felt, a great admirer of Elizabeth David started his career as a designer and restaurateur. Terence Conran opened a small restaurant called The Soup Kitchen in 1951 and also started the vogue for designed kitchens. His Habitat stores influenced the way a generation designed and furnished houses and when he had made his mark he founded the ground-breaking Design Museum. As a restaurateur he altered the London scene by opening very large eating-places and brought in the new class of eater-outers. At the present time he owns 18 restaurants in London, three in the provinces and four overseas, in Paris, New York, Stockholm and Tokyo. And it is quite likely that new ones are planned.
In the same period, of course, contrary influences were at work: the arrival of fast-food chains, many American-owned (whose staples are now being questioned in the law courts by customers who claim their food had undermined their health). In England, surveys have noted a slow decline of established eating habits in large sections of society. The hearty English breakfast of bacon, sausages, eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes and fried bread is still served especially in what are known as working men’s caffs—the equivalent of the American greasy-spoon eatery—but the so-called continental breakfast of coffee and a croissant or tea and toast is considered more suitable for those engaged in sedentary work.
At home, the well-established ideal of the family seated at the dining-table eating the legendary meat and two veg dinner has been undermined by the arrival of television and about five years ago the makers of a well-known British brand of tablets to cure indigestion carried out a survey which showed that 49 per cent ate their evening meal while watching soap operas. Would this research lead to the creation of different colored dyspepsia tablets for different shows? It seems not.
Social observers also noted the decline of the home-cooked Sunday lunch as the weekly meeting point for families kept apart on workdays by professional demands and travel to work. It found that a substantial number preferred to eat out at restaurants or pubs. Those who stayed at home often ate convenience foods and surveys revealed that a minority liked to tell guests the food was home-made since this is the food all real foodies prefer.
Many writers faced with these facts and the evidence from TV and bookshops of the incredible vogue for cookbooks wonder whether the English actually follow the books or set them out on coffee-tables to impress guests. Other writers on food suggest that cooking has become a spectator sport, and reading the weekly columns of restaurant critics or looking at TV cookery shows are a form of entertainment. How many of the readers or viewers could afford the high prices demanded by many leading restaurants? Dining at top-flight restaurants is essentially an elitist activity. Opinions are formed and reputations made within very limited circles.
TV changed that. The first TV cookery series began in 1955 when an essentially bogus couple, Fanny and Johnnie Cradock, gave the English their first glimpse of how superior people prepare food. The tone was snobbish and absurd; Fanny usually wore a ball-gown, spoke in an upper class accent, and treated Johnnie as a mindless sidekick only there to fetch and carry. The program ran an incredible 20 years. Older people still like to recall its more extraordinary moments: the time when a guest invited to the show noticed that part of a seafood dish was still alive. “Oh,” said Fanny, unperturbed “they’ve resurrected.” Or the evening when making coq au vin, the bird kept floating to the surface of the wine. Fanny prodded and pushed, licked her fingers and prodded and pushed but the bird resisted immersion and bobbed up to show its uncooked derriere to astonished viewers. Years later it was revealed that not only was Fanny a double bigamist but that she and Johnnie, when at home, lived on tinned sardines and cornflakes.
In 1978, a very relaxed and unpretentious woman started a new TV series called “The Complete Cookery Course.” This was the debut of Delia Smith who is still very much in demand and the most successful TV chef ever. Not only do her books sell by the million—thus making her a multimillionaire—but she has the ability to create a demand for ingredients and kitchen utensils that take the supermarkets by storm. Her sales power first showed itself in 1990 when she stipulated five tablespoonfuls of liquid glucose to make a truffle torte. Within days there was a nation-wide shortage of the ingredient. In 1995 she gave a star role to cranberries and sales rose by 30 per cent. Then, in 1998, she praised a heavy-gauge aluminum frying pan which, she said, was “a little gem” for making omelettes. The small family firm that makes the pan revealed later that in pre-Delia days they sold 200 a year but four months after the TV show orders were reaching the 100,000 mark and the firm had taken on extra staff. Other kitchen utensils received the Delia boost but none on such a scale.
Naturally the success of her shows and that of other TV chefs such as Gary Rhodes, Keith Floyd, and many others vexed the old guard and one of London’s most influential chefs, Michel Roux (Michelin three stars) said the TV programs reduced cooking to a pantomime. He claimed—this was 1998—that there were 45 food programs a week on British TV and “we have become the laughing stock of the world.”
This was considered to have been ill judged, but foodyism has created a mild backlash especially among women journalists who try to debunk the craze. One wrote that recipe books promise to change lives and that’s why “we read them in bed, not in the kitchen.” A mocking article entitled “Finding Your Inner Cook” came out the same week as another with the banner headline, “Now we can do orgasms but have to fake mince pies.”
In 1984 Ann Barr and Paul Levy published The Official Foodie Handbook with “Be modern—worship food!” on the cover. The authors maintained that foodies were children of the consumer boom who put food on a level with painting and the theatre. They claimed that “It takes several things to support a foodie culture: high-class shops, fast transport bringing fresh produce from the land, enlightened, well-paid eater-outers who will support the whole expensive edifice, lower-paid workers to make the food. Suddenly they are all present.”
Barr and Levy also launched the phrase “gastro-porn” which referred to “luscious photographs of food, as well-lit and posed as a girly magazine.”
The 80’s restaurant boom which inspired Barr and Levy goes on, but many of the younger chefs are looking to wider horizons than a good review in the weekend supplements: they have global ambitions for British cooking. Gary Rhodes, a brilliantly successful TV chef and restaurant owner, said in the preface to one of his recipe books that he hoped to make British cuisine among the best if not the best in the world: “I’m still looking at British classics and trying to put them on a new plane, with more refinement and more exact flavours. I also hope that, somewhere amongst all of these recipes, we’ll find a new classic, a dish that will be cooked and talked about for years to come.”
About the same time another cookbook appeared, The Best of Modern British Cookery, by Sarah Freeman, which was in part a collection of recipes from many of the younger school of chefs (one or two awarded Michelin stars). By way of introduction, Sarah Freeman regretted that British cookery had been so out of fashion for many years—the French influence including la nouvelle cuisine— that many people had no idea what it is. She offered three reasons for this state of affairs: the employment of foreign chefs by the rich and by restaurants, the difficulty of serving, in a restaurant context, English traditional dishes, such as roasts, which take a long time to prepare and, finally, the problems created by the British obsession with cheap food. This is unlike the majority of European peoples who do not resent paying for quality.
She also raised the sticky question of the quality of the ingredients available. “Today, economic pressures have led farmers and market-gardeners to raise produce which undermines the basis of traditional cooking as it evolved. Recipes, which only 15 or 20 years ago would have given pleasing results, are now obsolete because of the tastelessness of ingredients as well as horror on humanitarian grounds of the way in which the majority of calves, pigs and chickens are reared.”
Sarah Freeman’s cri de coeur was published in 1995 in the middle of one of the most embarrassing periods in British agricultural life when outbreaks of animal and poultry diseases revealed the extent to which British farmers had sacrificed quality and safety in the pursuit of quick returns. This is not the place to discuss the sad details of this disaster, but nobody who lived through it can forget the price paid to control the outbreaks and restore the reputation of British meat— beef especially, whose export was banned by the European Union after BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis) or Mad Cow Disease, was diagnosed among cattle in the mid-80’s in England and, later, in other countries. It is thought that recycling dead sheep and cattle meat as animal food—in the form of pellets—was the chief agent for the disease. This process was forbidden in 1988. The British meat export trade was ruined. The European Union has lifted the ban on exports although France maintained an embargo after the others.
At the height of the BSE epidemic in 1992, 43,000 cattle were culled. The figure in 2001 was 1,152 and the National Farmers’ Union is confident the disease will be virtually eradicated by this year.
The government and the farming industry have taken action to prevent further outbreaks, and in 2000 a Food Standards Agency came into being. The government has also legislated to ensure that since 1996 all cattle have had passports that correspond to tags on their ears and since 1998 there has been a centralized computer system to record, births, movements, and deaths. The positive news is that beef farmers have won back the confidence of shoppers and beef sales in the United Kingdom are now above pre-BSE levels.
The salmonella outbreak in 1988 caused the slaughter of millions of birds and the resignation of a junior health minister. Although, generally speaking, salmonella in meat and eggs can be harmless to humans if the food is properly cooked there was continued concern in 1991 when researchers found that one egg in every 650 contained salmonella and in 1998, 32,000 cases of salmonella poisoning were reported in England and Wales and 48 of them were fatal. Since that time the incidence has decreased sharply.
The third outbreak was of hoof and mouth disease, which affected large parts of the country in 2001. Although humans are susceptible to the disease—the symptoms are said to be like a bad cold—the real damage was to the rural economy as wide areas of countryside were sealed off to prevent the spread of the disease. These measures disrupted rural life and also badly affected the tourist industry. The debate still continues on the way the outbreak was handled.
These events affecting the Englishman’s beloved beef might have been even more traumatic had the nation’s tastes not changed so radically. Surveys had shown that the popularity of Chinese and Indian restaurants had altered people’s eating patterns and the favorite dish was found to be an Indian dish or perhaps more accurately an Anglo-Indian dish known as chicken tikka masala— diced chicken with a curry sauce. Purists claim this is not a genuine Indian dish at all, but the public likes it and it is now served in restaurants in India.
The concern about the state of the food offered for sale in shops and markets intensified the British awareness of organic farming and the pros and cons of genetically modified food. The British government has given official support to organic farmers in the form of grants and loans and there is a growing demand for the food they produce. There is, of course, some sales resistance because of price since organic food is much more expensive than conventional items and is not likely to come down in the near future.
The debate on GM food is made acrimonious by the fear that the food industry is being taken over by conglomerates, and this has led to a certain amount of anti-American feeling. The division of opinion between Europe and the United States is such that a few years back an American government spokesman said GM food was “the greatest single trade threat that we face systemically with the European Union.”
Europeans complain that the American government has allowed hormone-stimulated and GM food to enter the market because of lobbying by the food conglomerates. Britain’s leading investigative food journalist, Joanna Blythman, in The Food We Eat (billed as a book “you cannot afford to ignore”), urged her readers to ask supermarkets to label clearly all transgenic food. The Consumers’ Association found, in a survey, that 94 percent of those asked thought food containing GM ingredients should be labelled as such. This has not yet happened and the food industry maintains that it is an impossible task especially if the GM element cannot be detected in the final product. In the meantime, the European Union has refused, so far, to allow the planting of GM crops.
Despite the setbacks in the farming industry and the doubts and concerns about the purity of some common items of food, the English obsession with eating out, restaurants, and celebrity chefs is as marked as ever. There are also signs that the outside world has begun to take notice of developments, too.
The biggest surprise came late in 2001—a sort of Christmas present for the new wave of English chefs—when Anthony Bourdain brought out his latest blockbuster, A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal, and praised the English chefs “who in recent years completely reversed the widely held perception that English food was crap.” He then made the statement that produced a banner headline in The London Times: “Suffice it to say that most of these guys could kick their French counterparts’ asses around the block.”
Bourdain, as his name shows, is of French origin, and he first came to understand the importance of food while on vacations in France. He went on, “Wherever in the world you pick up a chefs hat you must acknowledge your debt to the French, and spending time with the French gave me that much needed sense of arrogance. Nowadays I feel more comfortable in England than anywhere except New York.”
The English who have grown used to being derided by the French as culinary barbarians are certainly in a combative mood about their food and in 1998, the all-powerful Terence Conran went to Paris and opened a 200-seater restaurant, The Alcazar, which still flourishes. Marks and Spencers opened branches across France and built up an enthusiastic clientele for their food section where the French developed a taste for English specialties such as muffins, puddings, English cheeses, and tea. Sadly, all the French M and S stores—20 in all—were sold to a French company in 2001 and nobody now sells Marks and Spencer’s food in the country.
The most daring development of all was in 2002 when British publishers brought out French editions of cookbooks by two celebrity chefs, Delia Smith and Jamie Oliver, the young wunderkind known as The Naked Chef. The two were sold, as it were, to different markets. Delia (the Smith has been dropped in France) was brought in to revive French cooking skills undermined by fast food, long working days, and the general decline in traditional home cooking. Jamie Oliver, suitably translated into contemporary French youth-speak, has already established a TV following, and his fans enjoy his no-nonsense approach.
Of course there has been a great deal of mockery about “les Rosbifs” (the name some French use to describe the English as some English mock the French as “frogs”) trying to teach the French about cooking. The usual attitude is that the French invented serious cooking; the English are mere upstarts. They are baffled that the English should take on such airs when their discourse about food is, to the French, so lacking in substance. It is true that there is no equivalent in London of those restaurants whose food is based on lively regional traditions. The English have individual dishes attached to a county or a town—Yorkshire pudding, Cumberland sausage, Bakewell tart, Eccles cakes, Cornish pasties, to name a few—but no regional cuisine in the way the French understand the term. There is a feeling among the old French hands that this new wave of English chefs and food is something of a publicity stunt or a joke in bad taste.
The French are themselves aware that their tradition is undermined by fast food (pronounced “fas’food”), by changing eating habits, and by the interest in oriental and other cuisines but it is doubtful if any French chef would accept Adam Gopnik’s statement in his book Paris to the Moon that “the early seventies (. . .) were, I realize now, a kind of Indian summer of French haute cuisine, the last exhalation of a tradition that had been in place for several hundred years.” Many English chefs, including Marco Pierre White (who handed back his Michelin three stars when he changed from cooking to management) do not think so.
So many of these categorical statements about food are based on hearsay, snobbery, and hype (see Gopnik’s own account of the very Parisian rivalry between the two St. Germain des Prés establishments Les Deux Magots and Cafe Flore) and at the higher levels of price and reputation the average diners have to accept what they read.
What the French cannot avoid accepting is that the Michelin Guide is now edited by an Englishman, Derek Brown. There were raised eyebrows when he took over in 2001 but a year later the incredulity has subsided and the guide remains the leading authority on fine cuisine in France. In London, Gordon Ramsey the ex-footballer-chef who was awarded his third star recently rejoices in the glory. He made a name for himself by ordering out the supercilious restaurant critic of the London Sunday Times even though he was accompanied by Joan Collins.
Earlier Brown, who has been with Michelin for nearly 30 years, took over the guide and created a special section for what were called gastro-pubs in recognition of the huge strides made by English publicans in upgrading the food served in their places.
And so back to England in the last days of summer 2002 and the press has produced some interesting headlines about food in a way that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. The conservative Daily Telegraph gave half a page to the news that the London branch of the Parisian bakery Poilane had launched a 4-lb sourdough loaf that was “taking Britain by storm” at ten pounds ($16) a go.
The Sunday Telegraph devoted another top-of-the-page story to “Pret a Manger declares crayfish war on the EU.” Pret a Manger the highly successful sandwich chain launched in London and now branching out in New York and Tokyo, had invented a winning formula for a sandwich using crayfish imported from China with avocado and mayonnaise. The European Union, worried about food coming from China because of serious flaws in Chinese food export controls, wants to ban their import and the firm has asked its customers to petition Brussels to save them and the sandwich of which 50,000 are sold every week—on the grounds that the EU has confused farmed crayfish with the ones they use—which are freshwater.
A third banner headline in the same week highlights the experience of a food writer who went to the Ritz in London, as she had to know what a Caesar salad costing £17 ($26) tasted like. The article turned into an assault on the Ritz’s standards perhaps sharpened by pique at having to pay £80 ($124) for a bottle of (unspecified) wine.
The paper gave space to a report on a new book brought out in Paris called A Table Avec Les Politiques (Dining with Politicians) which contains the thoughts and favorite dishes of 30 of France’s political leaders. Foodies will be delighted to know that the new Prime Minister, Monsieur Raffarin, says food is the centre of his life and “the last religion of our faithless times.” He claims that the healthiest people are those who eat well “and that does not just mean not leaving anything on your plate but also having seconds.”
It would be hard to imagine a British publisher being brave enough to publish a book about what home-grown politicians like to eat. It might well be said that despite the stories about the decline of standards in French restaurants and the newly-found confidence and excellence of English chefs, French food culture still reaches parts closed to the rest of us.
Although there is no doubt that London is now one of the gastronomic centres of the world, it still inclines its head before the traditions, expertise, and excellence of French cooking. The award of a Michelin star or stars is still the most sought after glory, and those English chefs who really want to create an impression translate their books into French.
The French publisher, Hachette Pratique, is planning to translate three TV celebrity chefs Delia Smith, the man billed as The Naked Chef, Jamie Oliver, and Rock Stein, the seafood specialist. Delia Smith’s first book, a selection of recipes from two of her books has been published with the title La Cuisine Facile d’Aujourd’hui and the author is simply “Delia.” It was thought the “Smith” would put people off since news of the new wave of English cooking seems not to have reached Paris. For the French the English remain “Les Rosbifs” and for the English the French are often “The Frogs” or “The Froggies.”