I'm flying over Russia with Air New Zealand, travelling from Hong Kong, having just had a lovely meal of passion fruit and vodka-cured salmon, followed by braised beef short rib with garlic mash, and a blueberry almond cake.
The dishes are delicious – and exactly what we consider to be a perfectly acceptable meal these days. What I mean by this is that even though it's a mixture of styles, with ingredients from all around the world, it is, simply, food. Yet it is certain kinds of food like this that seem to upset so many chefs and critics. Increasingly, the prime concern is not how well cooked or sourced the ingredients are, but the provenance of the ingredients and the nationality of the person cooking them.
It appears to me that we are now closing culinary ranks in Britain, deciding what we are prepared to accept and what is unacceptable. I have a sense of a growing tide of culinary xenophobia. I'd hazard a guess and suggest that a lot of British chefs and the foodie media are trying desperately to establish a nationalistic culinary legacy such as most European nations (and those from Turkey to Thailand) have had for centuries. And to do this, they have unconsciously set boundaries and rules which say that in this new wave of so-called Britishness, a chef must not experiment by mixing foreign ingredients – at the risk of exclusion from a secret gastronomic club to which so many chefs aspire.
But in all honesty, what constitutes a foreign ingredient these days? We've been baking cakes and desserts with exotic spices for centuries, but for some reason we seem to have an aversion to introducing foreign cooking techniques and flavours in our savoury food.
I'm sure we're all familiar now with 'food miles' – the term used to denote how far an ingredient had travelled from source to plate. We are led to believe (by economically interested parties) that buying locally will be good for the planet, for our soul, and for the British economy. The reality of it is, though, that many imported foreign foods have a lesser carbon footprint than local ones.
The term 'food miles' was popularised, however, grabbed the headlines, and then, almost disappeared. It was proven that tomatoes grown outdoors in Spain were usually more sustainable than hothouse-raised British ones, and that roses from Kenya made a prettier vase than fossil-fuel grown Dutch tulips – even though they are air-freighted from Africa. It was shown that where something came from wasn't as important as how it was produced. Supporting local producers is key to keeping our rural economy growing, and provides employment and a sense of worth to millions, but it isn't always the best for the planet even if the 'buy local' brigade would like us to believe so.
But that hasn't stopped the rise of ongoing prejudice towards foreign foods. As a country that itself exports produce (Scottish langoustines to Michelin restaurants in France, Hildon water to New York, Welsh lamb to Spain and Maldon salt to New Zealand to name a few) it's amazing how powerful the buy-only-local brigade is.
For the past decade, I've been gently rolling my eyes at the growing phenomenon of modern British cuisine. Back in 1996, the food I was cooking at The Sugar Club restaurant, on Notting Hill's notorious All Saint's Road, won Time Out's 'Best Modern British' gong. That same week we also won an Eros award from The Evening Standard for our Pacific Rim cuisine, which made it all the more confusing.
Also latterly, every time I hear the words "seasonal regional cuisine" I cringe a little. It seems that you can't open a Sunday supplement without seeing yet more recipes for turnips and mutton, chicken and chestnut pie, soused mackerel, blackberry crumble and custard. It's as though the powers that be, the editors, have lost the ability to celebrate the wonderful world that we live in, the rich tapestry of Britain's inhabitants from all around the world. Unless, of course, they're writing about the latest authentic Japanese or Italian cookbook, at which point the use of miso or cime di rape becomes acceptable.
It seems we've closed the doors on experimentation and innovation (with the exception of molecular gastronomy, which seems to happily slip beneath the radar) unless it's firmly rooted in something grown in the Pennines or Tewkesbury. We are clearly given the message that we mustn't mess with tradition, although I notice many recipes based on old British favourites often replace lard and butter with "healthier" olive oil these days – hardly a seasonal regional ingredient (unless you happen to live in Liguria).
However, as someone with a love for the exotic (being of Scottish and Maori descent, raised in coastal New Zealand and trained in one of the worlds best culinary centres – Melbourne) the thought of having to create and produce food that stays close to my roots (whatever they are) would be like telling a painter not to use blue or red.
Perhaps we should tell Michael Nyman only to use tunes from Stratford, east London, and let Vivienne Westwood and Gareth Pugh know that they can only use fabric woven between Tintwistle, Derbyshire and Sunderland. Damien Hirst can only pickle cattle from Bristol and perhaps Hussein Chalayan should only be allowed to use computer chips from Nicosia, Cyprus, for his next cat-walk show. Picasso should never have played with African influences, and as for Annie Leibovitz's obsession with capturing images from around the world – it's complete madness. We celebrate the way these artists are innovators, borrowing from nature and other cultures, and yet in the kitchen we say, "Stop! Do not mix cultures, cease this melding of nationalities and stick to tradition. Customers may line up at your doors, the public may lick their lips at your creations, but you must stop. NOW!"
Historically, the British have always celebrated the foreign and the new. They've welcomed the arts, music, fashion and – crucially for 'British' cuisine – ingredients from the rest of the world. And yet now, amongst much of the professional cooking fraternity at least, regarding food this is not acceptable. Yet historically we've likewise embraced many ingredients from other cultures. Where would Britain's cultural fabric be if we didn't drink tea (Chinese in origin) and didn't mash potatoes (from the Andes)? We happily slosh HP sauce (rich in tamarind, which originates from Africa) on our sausages, put saffron (Crete) in our Cornish cakes, nutmeg (Indonesia) in our custard tarts, and basil (Indian) in our pesto (Italian).
When many of these ingredients first made it to our shores, we were sceptical; but we were, as is the British way, intrigued. Gin sits on our shelves as something entirely traditional, yet contains a myriad of exotic botanicals originally sourced from the old Empire and the nations we traded with. When you take any of these ingredients by themselves, most people wouldn't know what to do with them. What, for example, is the local Yorkshire housewife going to do with a block of tamarind, or the Wiltshire bachelor with grains of paradise (used in Samuel Adams Summer Ale and some gins)? What I'd suggest, at risk of upsetting the current foodie trend, is that they play with them – let their hair down and experiment.
A few years ago I was judging the now sadly defunct Glenfiddich Food and Drink Awards – celebrating excellence in two of my favourite fields. However, when it came to judging the various categories, one of which was 'Best Cookbook', as I worked my way through the Italian cookbooks, it occurred to me that in many ways they were all too alike. I read version after version of risotto Milanese, chickpea and cavolo nero soup, panna cotta and tiramisu. After the eighth book, I realised I was no longer learning anything new. I was simply reading tweaked classics written by different hands.
This, in turn, led me to think about what it is I actually love about the food of Italy (and other food-rich nations), and what I love about the possibilities of fusion cuisine. The former is steeped in tradition and you know that there will be villages where exactly the same dish is made year after year, following the seasons, and by the same family, generation after generation. What I love about the latter is the potential to inspire and excite, when done properly, and with knowledgeable hands.
In 2008 I attended a cooking demonstration led by one of Italy's most famous chefs, Gualtiero Marchesi. I was excited to see him and to learn his take on classic Italian dishes with a twist. Almost from the beginning, he talked of the furore surrounding ravioli he'd made that included an ingredient so outrageous that many food snobs in Italy still hadn't forgiven him for using. Fresh ginger. Hardly something to accuse of culinary terrorism. He said that Italy had always been known for innovation in its automotive, movie and fashion industries but it was archaic in its approach to its cuisine. He felt that it was time that the classic European cuisines began to adapt and accept foreign flavours and ingredients.
The year before, I'd been at Europe's most influential gathering of chefs, Madrid Fusion, hosted by none other than Ferran Adria from El Bulli. The name of the annual conference says it all, really, and Ferran's opening speech focused on how the classic cuisines of Europe really should look to the East to enliven themselves. You have no idea how it felt to hear respected voices validate what I've been quietly doing for years.
The year I judged the Glenfiddichs there were a lot of Italian-themed cookbooks, but only a few celebrating British cuisine. Thankfully there are now many more hitting the shelves celebrating Britain's and also Ireland's local artisan cheese makers and rare-breed farmers, the apple orchards saved from urban sprawl and the langoustine fishing folk of Scotland. We can now buy Orkney Lamb and Welsh Black Beef, Durrus washed-rind cheese, and even world-class sparkling wine from Nyetimber in West Sussex.
So things have moved on, to the point where we celebrate all things British, in season, and as local as we can get. But, I have to ask, how many winter meals around the country, in pubs and taverns, restaurants and homes, are now becoming versions of the same? Is it right that we only encourage the pursuit of a national (albeit regional) cuisine? Are we really in a position to say that we have nothing to learn from any other nation, and nothing to gain by the use of ingredients from distant places? We have taken the potato to our hearts, but I think we can gain even more as our British cuisine evolves by opening our pantries, even occasionally, to even more foreign foods. Pot-roast pigeon with Chinese liquorice root and star anise, or Bramley apple and guava crumble with lemongrass custard anyone...?
'Fusion: A Culinary Journey' by Peter Gordon is out now, published by Jacqui Small, £25Reuse content