Home cooking's back on the menu

The year ahead promises a fad-free return to traditional home cooking - in the UK at least. Now that's progress, says Michael Bateman
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Anew year, a fresh start. Everyone hoping for peace and good will to all. Well, that may be rather a lot for the food industry to accomplish, but thinking about culinary trends for 2002, let's start on an optimistic note: weapons technology will find a more peaceful (and tasty) use.

In a £2m project, the coffee crop of Hawaii will be helped this year by a circling, unmanned, solar-powered aircraft fitted out with Nasa equipment. During the harvest season, it will send detailed colour images to the farmers so they will know the perfect day to gather the beans. It sounds out of this world, but the plan is not without precedent – for instance, Nasa already provides California's top wine grower, Robert Mondavi, with a satellite service to identify rot among vines, pin-pointing trouble-spots to within 5cm.

But returning to terra firma, an even more unlikely trend seems to be on the horizon. Would you believe that home cooking will make a comeback? For a nation that seemed to be abandoning the art of cooking (except, of course, as armchair critics, with couch potato our most practiced dish) it really is astonishing. For decades we've been blaming everyone for the demise in standards from Margaret Thatcher, who let cookery education slip out of the school syllabus, to supermarkets, which offer easy, cheap alternatives.

But one supermarket chain, Waitrose, has come up with evidence of this resurgence, reporting that sales of home-cooking ingredients are starting to rise. Most convenience foods sell mid-week, they point out, but sales of ingredients at weekends, when people have more time, are beginning to swell.

The Flour Advisory Bureau (FAB) confirms this news. It made a discovery after commissioning a report into breadmaking, which is part of this back-to-basics boom. One in 10 men are baking their own bread (well, so they say). Some use mechanical bread-bakers, but the larger part make bread by hand.

A few years ago it was impossible to find decent bread flour in any of the supermarkets. Now there's been a complete turn-around. Sales of plain flour are declining slightly (by 2 per cent), those of self-raising flour (used to make cakes and sponges) by 5 per cent, but strong flour sales (for bread) are up a whopping 35 per cent. "It is the new generation, the 24-year-olds to 34-year-olds, who are taking up cooking – and for fun," says a FAB spokesperson. "Single men are cooking to impress their girlfriends. It's cheaper than taking them out to expensive restaurants."

So is that it? Has the threat of global recession sent us scuttling thriftily out of restaurants and back to our kitchens? Maybe, maybe not. According to the Michelin Guides people, the trade took a double knock (foot and mouth, 11 September) that sent some restaurants to the wall. But the industry has already bounced back. They say that people have become used to eating out, and nothing is going to stop that. They predict a shift towards informality, an increase in middle-level restaurants, and gastropubs moving from the cities to the countryside.

Stephen Bull could be in for a good year then. The renowned restaurateur and ex-ad man has sold his three London restaurants and moved to Ross-on-Wye, Hereford, to transfer his know-how to a country pub, the Lough Inn, Sellick. He also seems in tune with the return to old-fashioned ways, predicting an increasing demand for top-class fresh local produce, river fish and game (perhaps the fall-out of foot and mouth again).

Just so, says Food From Britain, which promotes small British producers. The silver lining to the dark cloud of foot and mouth is that local agencies such as Heart of England have won over stores like Sainsbury's. They have alerted them to the benefits of local foods, emphasising traceability in meat and providing local specialities such as Lincolnshire chine and Lancashire hotpot.

Much of this is organic produce, organic being another trend which shows no sign of faltering. Sales are up 40 per cent year on year. Farmers' markets were the first major area of growth in this sector, bringing fresh produce to the townies. But the markets don't seem to be loosing out as supermarkets follow their lead. A couple of years after they appeared, there are now at least 300 farmers' markets operating across the country.

But this return to tradition is not dull, not even when compared to Nasa satellites. And at least it's not some silly fad. At New York's 21 Club, chef Erik Blauberg is dispensing with garlic this year in favour of horseradish, arguing that it is more versatile, combining well with mustard, soy sauce and cream, and doesn't leave "a lingering after-effect".

I wonder if Blauberg knows that anther chap made this discovery first. Way back in the 19th century, a young man adopted his family's recipe for horseradish cream, put it in jars and sold it to New York stores. His name was HJ Heinz.

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