Asked for areas of life where Britain has improved in recent years, most people would scratch their heads for a bit before coming up with dentistry, music festivals, fireworks, car maintenance, BBC4, espresso bars...
It is a good bet, however, that this sparse and eclectic list would be topped by food. The default topic of conversation for the middle-aged middle class, food in Britain has improved immeasurably since the prawn cocktail era, when the Galloping Gourmet and Zena Skinner were the sole culinary presences on the box.
How we laughed at Chirac's stage whisper to Putin in the summer of 2005: "One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad." He meant us! Wasn't Monsieur le President aware that the US magazine Gourmet , announcing that London was "the best place to eat in the world right now," had just devoted an entire issue to British food? With a galaxy – OK, a sprinkling – of Michelin stars throughout the country, Britain has recovered a gastronomic pride lost since the industrial revolution.
At least that is the conventional wisdom, and in certain respects it is right. There has been a blossoming of farmers' markets, artisan bakers, farm butchers, organic vegetable growers, and – in the face of a battery of restrictive legislation – cheesemakers are enjoying a long overdue renaissance.
In other areas, however, I would question the extent of the British food revolution. Gastronomy may occupy prime-time slots in our TV schedules but, with a few notable exceptions (Rick Stein, Raymond Blanc, Nigel Slater), food shows are more concerned with depressing gladiatorial competitions than cooking. With its bullying comperes, tearful losers and nerve-shredding music, I find MasterChef repellent and unwatchable. When the hectoring Greg Wallace recently opened his own restaurant, the critical slating failed to elicit much sympathy in our house.
The British may buy glossy cookbooks by the ton but I doubt if this has produced a proportionate increase in kitchen activity. Most cookbooks are used for one recipe before being consigned to the bookshelf. I don't like the term gastro-porn, but I do feel that people acquire cookbooks for reasons only distantly connected with cooking. In some mysterious way, they are purchased in hopes of producing a happier, even a thinner, you. Just look at the beautiful faces relentlessly beaming from the covers of any cookbook display. It's a facile and irritating formula. My friend the food writer Rose Prince says that one of her rules for winnowing cookbooks is to chuck out anything with a smile on the cover.
If we have suddenly become so keen on cuisine, how come we allow much of Britain's finest foodstuffs to be sold abroad? I mean the glorious shellfish harvest from the inshore waters of this island. Of the 142,000 tons of shellfish landed in the UK in 2008, 65 per cent went for export, most of it to France, Spain, Italy and Holland. You know that dish of fruits de mer you order, for a treat, in France, with crabs, lobsters, langoustines, mussels and winkles lying in picturesque profusion? Most of it made the trip across the Channel just like you.
Bizarrely, we import pretty much the same quantity of shellfish that we export, but 85 per cent of this is prawns, often from the environmentally dubious prawn farms of the Far East.
"The average UK consumer is a mono- shellfish eater," says Dr Tom Pickerell, director of the UK Shellfish Association. "We are very unadventurous with shellfish. Most of our langoustines go abroad, but when they have had their shells removed and become scampi, usually covered in breadcrumbs, they stay in this country. It's madness."
The briefest glance in any supermarket will reveal the vast acreage of shelf space given to prepared meals and bottled sauces. It remains a profound mystery to me why we buy so much pasta sauce when it is so easy, quick and enjoyable to make yourself. The fact that one of the brands bears the name of Lawrence Dallaglio, a former England rugby captain, speaks volumes about our new-found passion for food.
Not that the endorsements of Britain's leading food luminaries bear close scrutiny. Under the copy line "Just because the world is full of compromise doesn't mean your glass should be", Gordon Ramsay's wrinkly glare promotes Gordon's Gin, a brand that uncompromisingly reduced its alcoholic strength from 40 per cent to 37.5 a few years ago.
After Marco Pierre White's ludicrously solemn TV adverts advocating Knorr Stock Pot, the glowering chef has become the "brand ambassador" for Bernard Matthews' vast turkey factory, home of the infamous Turkey Twizzler. Even the amiable Heston Blumenthal behaved oddly when signed up by Waitrose. His introductory recipe for "cold bagna cauda, a new take on an Italian classic" would be utterly baffling to Italians, who tend to be conservative where their classic dishes are concerned. How can a "hot bath" for vegetables be cold?
Though we may be patronised by its star turns, at least Britain's food revolution has come up with the goods. It is now possible to eat fine food in stylish restaurants throughout Britain, isn't it? Well, yes, as long as you add the obligatory codicil, "at a price". We may be able to entrance our palates with smoked eel with celeriac roulade, Old Spot belly pork with razor clams, or beef fillet and ox cheek in various corners of the land (respectively London WC2, Cheltenham, Langho near Blackburn) but we need to have a healthy bank balance before we work up an healthy appetite.
Restaurateurs should, of course, get a fair return for their labour, raw materials and investment, but am I alone in the weakening of the knees that I frequently suffer after opening a menu in an up-market joint?
The new Marylebone brasserie Café Luc is exactly the kind of place that provokes my symptoms. Reviewing it in The Independent Magazine, John Walsh noted that the food from chef David Collard required "a hefty wedge". That means £19.50 for a dish of red mullet. With the 12.5 per cent service charge, a meal for two would set you back around £120 for two. I once met the Belgian owner, Luc van Oostende (he launched the Pain Quotidien café chain), who proved to be a charming, hyperactive, somewhat bohemian entrepreneur. The £27 you will pay for fillet of beef explains why he lives in Provence rather than Ostend.
Of course, it is possible to keep the tab down if you're not a restaurant critic and therefore obliged to roam extensively round the menu. I practised economy last week when my wife and I went for a birthday lunch the Pipe & Glass pub in the picturesque village of South Dalton, East Yorkshire.
It is one peculiarity of the catering business that despite the significantly higher costs of operating in London, you are often equally liable to pay a hefty wedge when dining in the heart of the countryside. Since the chef-patron of the Pipe & Glass, James Mackenzie, holds the county's "first and only" Michelin star I was not expecting greasy-spoon prices, but I was determined to hold costs down. I did not want to cry on my birthday.
So no ribeye steak at £21.95 (plus £2.95 for chips). For our starter, we shared a small vitrine of potted Gloucester Old Spot pork with spelt toast, for £6.95. It was succulent, tasty and promising. My wife's main course was a piquant tart of goat's cheese served with honey-roast beetroot for £13.95. We finished by sharing a generous dessert of four ices (sorbets of raspberry and passion fruit, ice creams with thyme-infused orange and Armagnac-soaked prunes) that certainly merited Michelin's commendation for £5.95. All washed down with an interesting bottle of Spanish wine for £17.50. With a Yorkshireman holding the purse strings, the bill came in at a bearable £65, excluding tip.
The Pipe & Glass food eschews the elaborate timbales, savoury mille-feuilles and soup "cappuccinos" that tend to appear on ambitious menus. (The term for such items in the trade is "cheffed up".) This was fine by me, though I felt that my own main course, the Pipe & Glass Fish Pie, at £15.95, was excessively plain. My probing of the small cast-iron casserole in which it was served revealed that the cumulus of mash topping went on and on. When I eventually reached the fishy layer, I found two large chunks of salmon and one of white fish in a saline cream sauce. Mr Mackenzie obviously feels that restraint is of the essence with fish pies. The little brown shrimps that might have elevated the contents appeared in a good fennel salad served as a side order. The fish pie might have been OK in a pub for £7.95, but at twice the price it was a misstep in Britain's food revolution.
So did I complain when the waitress asked if we'd enjoyed everything? Well, no. It was my birthday. The waitress was charming. It wasn't her fault. I know we should complain. How can restaurants rectify mistakes if customers don't tell them? But somehow the British can't work up a sufficient head of steam. The only time I can remember doing it (about a minuscule portion of turbot costing £18.95 in Whitstable), the waitress's response was less than contrite: "Leaves plenty of room for pud, then." The mechanical nature of her response suggested that it had been frequently practised.
After missing the chance to lodge a protest, I saw something in the Pipe & Glass that rubbed salt in my wound. Mooching down a corridor lined with framed testimonials to the chef's prowess, I came across a large article from The Independent listing Britain's 50 Best Meals.
Someone had highlighted the entry for the Pipe & Glass, which advocated Mr Mackenzie's "robust version of Tyke haute cuisine". The author of the article was a certain C. Hirst. At the time of writing the article, I was in London and had never visited South Dalton, but many Yorkshire friends had recommended the place to me. They were right too, though not about the fish pie.
The other wall-decorations at the Pipe & Glass were mainly menus from chefs admired by Mr Mackenzie: Fergus Henderson, Thomas Keller, Anton Mosimann. Food heroes all, though I was bemused by the figure who dominates the display. Culinary legend Paul Bocuse, the French chef/showman whose appearance and fondness for the grand gesture are reminiscent of the late Lew Grade, features in numerous photos (in one alongside Mr Mackenzie). There is even a plate signed by him. Whether he merits this shrine in East Yorkshire is questionable.
In his book Au Revoir to All That, about the decline in French cuisine, the American journalist Michael Steinberger writes about his experience of eating at Bocuse's three-Michelin-star restaurant near Lyons. "The food was awful," he thunders. "I was dumbstruck by how bad my lunch was. Every dish was overwrought and plodding." This odd thing about his experience is that the great Bocuse was present at the lunch, though he ate nothing. "A wise decision," notes Steinberger.
Bocuse has long ceased slaving over pots and pans (he is 84), but the dire food served under his name should send a message to the much younger chefs in Britain who have deserted their kitchens for the TV studio. Steinberger offers a more significant reason for France's plummeting food standards in a single sentence: "The French economy stagnated, and French cuisine did likewise." Will Britain's stellar restaurants, feather-bedded by their clientele's fat pay cheques, survive the lean years ahead?Reuse content