Defining the characteristics of our national cuisine is something most British chefs prefer to avoid. Norfolk-born Tom Aikens, for example (who has just been awarded London Restaurant of the Year at the Restaurateurs' Restaurant of the Year Awards), seemed quite miffed that I considered his Michelin-starred food British. According to him, truly British cooking is much more likely to be found in gastropubs than in his restaurant - despite the fact that he employs British staff and uses plenty of seasonal, home-grown produce.
"British food can be quite good," he says, "but I think it's really a comfort style of cooking with dishes like tomato soup, shepherd's pie and rhubarb crumble. My food is more French than anything." However, when I ask if the French would really consider his food French, he refuses to answer, preferring to say instead that he thought they would appreciate his cooking more than us Brits.
It is true that, at first glance, his menu might seem more French than English, with dishes including, "Braised snails with cured bacon, frogs-legs beignets, lemon and truffle honey". However, you then also notice a surprising number of references to Italian foods as well, such as risotto, lasagne, pannacotta. You'll also find a rather British play on seasonal ingredients such as beetroot: "Beetroot tart with beetroot ravioli, goat's cheese and beetroot jelly". A closer study reveals a hotchpotch of different influences typical of British haute cuisine.
In contrast, Fergus Henderson, chef-owner of the St John restaurant in London, typifies * what many today would regard as classic British cookery. At St John, you can dine on nettle soup, followed by Ox heart and chips, or cold roast middlewhite and celeriac, and lemon posset and shortbread.
Henderson is happy to acknowledge his roots: "Obviously, we're serving British food because we're all British, cooking British ingredients in Britain - but I prefer to see myself as a modernist, who happens to be cooking good, indigenous food." He points out the somewhat bizarre situation in this country, where restaurants are represented as " British ", whereas no establishments in Italy or Spain would dream of stating that they were "Italian" or "Spanish".
"People tend to fall into two camps with British food," says Henderson. "Either they have a rose-tinted, olde-worlde, sticky-toffee view that everything must have an ancient validity or they believe that anything that is cooked in Britain is British. I prefer to see British cooking as an on-going thing that is constantly evolving. Hopefully, mine respects the past, but also responds to new influences."
The fashion for combining several different culinary ideas to create a uniquely British style of cooking has a long and respectable history. It can be seen in England's earliest cookbooks and became commonplace between the time that Robert May wrote The Accomplisht Cook in 1665 and William Verral wrote his Complete System of Cookery in 1759. In his introduction to The Accomplisht Cook, May explains his sophisticated approach. He says that he hopes his fellow chefs can use his first-hand knowledge of French, Italian and Spanish cookery to help master the whole art of cooking. In particular, he describes his technique of only taking notes from the most skillful French chefs. Verral, meanwhile, adds Dutch and Portuguese recipes to his French, English, Italian and Spanish dishes.
As British trade spread around the world, so too our national taste became increasingly adventurous, with the likes of Mrs Randal in A New System of Domestic Cookery (1824) giving recipes for curries, which she suggests should be served with fresh chillies; to Mrs Roundell explaining how to create aubergines à la Provençale in her Practical Cookery Book (1898).
Some, myself included, have argued that one simple way to define British cooking is to look at the type of ingredients that are being used. Bacon, beef, leeks, blackberries and apples, for example, are all considered to be typically British ingredients that have coloured our diet for years. However, over the past 20 years, there has been an increased interest in using artisan-produced British ingredients. Several chefs, including Henderson, now choose to source flavoursome rare breeds of livestock, including Large Black pigs and Devon Red cattle. But it's not just chefs: domestic cooks are also increasingly seeking out locally made or grown produce, such as Greek yoghurt or gooseberries.
However, as new foods become available to us, our taste and cooking methods change. Just as potatoes replaced bread as our favourite starch in the 20th century, so rice or pasta may well be regarded as more typically British than tatties in 200 years' time. After all, bear in mind that it would have been inconceivable to those ale and small-beer drinkers of the early 17th century that, by the 19th century, everyone would be drinking an infusion of imported tea leaves or coffee beans.
There is yet another side to modern British cookery, which can be found in several small restaurant-cafés across Britain, from Petersham Nurseries Café on the Thames to the remote Skoon Art Café on the Isle of Harris. One that prepares locally sourced, seasonal ingredients simply, but without the nose-to-tail philosophy that typifies Henderson's cooking.
Skye Gyngell, the chef behind Petersham Nurseries Café, explains. " My kitchen is in the garden, so every time I step outside, I feel inspired. I can see when the broad beans are coming to an end and when the quinces will be ripe enough to pick. It's as though I am only now beginning to understand the seasons." Having spent much of her life working in dark basement kitchens, she feels that many chefs cannot help but be alienated from nature.
An Australian by birth, Gyngell was thoroughly grounded in French cuisine before developing her own food in the UK. "When I arrived here 20 years ago," she says, "the British didn't really respect their own food, and they had adopted a rather magpie approach to cooking. However, these days they are beginning to find their feet and develop their own style."
Although Gyngell doesn't say it, I suspect that this is expressed in a peculiarly romantic way that typifies British cooking, whereby the cook captures a sense of the glorious countryside on the plate. Just now, it is impossible not to think of early autumn while eating Gyngell's dishes, which include wild mushrooms on toast (foraged from Richmond Park), beef with slow-roast tomatoes, freshly grated horseradish and green beans or quince tart. So perhaps, in the end, the true idea of "British food" is actually in the taste of the beholder.
TOM AIKENS' CURED MEAT
Although he would argue that his food is more French than British, Britain does have a long tradition of potted and cured meats. This pâté is just one component of Aikens' dish, which is accompanied by selection of finely sliced meats on a separate plate: from British meats such as rabbit confit, cured duck breast, home-made foie gras terrine and cured venison fillet, to cured peppered bacon (ventrèche), Alsace back bacon, Jabugo ham, lardo crudo, and Parma ham.
Makes 15 slices
500g/1lb 2oz pork belly
500g/1lb 2oz pork liver
12g/1/4oz chopped garlic
250g/9oz chopped shallots
250g/9oz diced onion
120g/41/2oz bread crumbs
250g/9oz melted butter
250ml/9fl oz cognac
250ml/9fl oz port
8g/1/4oz chopped parsley
8g/1/4oz chopped thyme
Pinch dried sage
250ml/9fl oz double cream
Pinch milled black pepper
400g/14oz sliced smoked bacon
To serve one person
1 slice toast
50g/13/4oz celeriac, cut into a fine julienne
Slice fresh truffle
Sprig of lamb's lettuce
Preheat the oven to 170C/325F/Gas3. Medium-mince the pork belly and the liver and then add all the herbs, seasoning and spices. Mix in the alcohol, breadcrumbs, eggs, butter, onion, shallot and cream.
Grease a 25cmx7cmx7cm (10inx3inx3in) terrine mould and then line it with the bacon, cover the top with tin foil and then place in
a roasting tray. Add enough water to come halfway up the sides of the terrine and bake for 11/2 hours. Keep the water topped up.
Remove the terrine from the oven. Place a weight on top and refrigerate for 24 hours.
To serve, mix the celeriac with the mayonnaise. Butter the toast and spread
with a slice of pâté, followed by the celeriac mixture. Cut into equal rectangles. Top each with a sliver of truffle (optional) and a single salad leaf. Serve on the side of the meats.
FERGUS HENDERSON'S BATH CHAPS, WITH MUSTARD-DRESSED GREENS
Bath Chaps are a West Country speciality. They are the boned-out pig's head which has been rolled so that the tongue is in the centre, surrounded by the cheeks and their protective layer of fat, tapering to one end.
2 Bath chaps
Stock vegetables: carrots, leeks,
Bundle of herbs
Splash of red wine vinegar
To make the brine
400g/14oz caster sugar
600g/1lb 5oz sea salt
12 juniper berries
12 black peppercorns
3 bay leaves
Bring all the brine ingredients together in a pot and bring to the boil so the sugar and salt melt. Decant into a container and allow to cool. When cold, add your Bath chaps and leave for 3 days (in the fridge).
Remove the Bath chaps from the brine and rinse thoroughly. Place in a large pot with the stock vegetables, herbs, peppercorns and vinegar. Cover with water and bring to the boil. Reduce to a gentle simmer for 2 hours.
Leave until cold then slice and fry the slices. Serve with greens tossed in mustard dressing. To dress your boiled greens, mix together 3tsp Dijon mustard with 1tsp red wine vinegar and 150ml/5fl oz extra-virgin olive oil. Toss into the hot greens.
SKYE GYNGELL'S QUINCE, BAKED WITH HONEY, LEMON AND BAY LEAVES
Skye Gyngell picks her own quince and uses Royal Parks honey from Twickenham beekeeper Mike Gill. Verjuice can be bought from Petersham Nurseries Cafe, or by mail order from www.kaikitchen.co.uk. Otherwise, use a good-quality apple juice.
4tbsp good local honey
115ml/33/4fl oz verjuice
2 cinnamon quills
1 vanilla pod, split in half
4 bay leaves
Preheat the oven to 150C/300F/Gas2. Wipe clean the quinces, removing the outside furry layer with a dry cloth. Cut into quarters lengthwise - leaving in the pips and the core. Place in a non-corrosive baking tray and pour over the verjuice (or apple juice). Finely pare the zest from the lemon and mix the zest into the verjuice with the cinnamon sticks, vanilla bean and bay leaves. Cover lightly with foil.
Place in the oven and bake for 3 hours or until the quinces are soft and dark orange - turn them halfway through cooking.
Serve warm, or at room temperature with home-made custard or with a good English-made Greek-style yoghurt.
Restaurant Tom Aikens, 43 Elystan Street, London SW3, tel: 020 7584 2003
Fergus Henderson, St John, 26 St John Street, London EC1, tel: 020 7251 0848
Nose to Tail Eating - A Kind of British Cooking by Fergus Henderson is published by Bloomsbury priced £16.99. To order a copy for £15.50 (including p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897.
Skye Gyngell, Petersham Nurseries Café (open Thursday to Sunday), Petersham Road, Petersham, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627