The myth of British gastronomy

We've got Jamie and Nigella, and restaurants galore. Then there are all those farmers' markets, and gourmet food everywhere. This is a gastronomic golden age, right? Well, actually, no, says Jonathan Meades
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Consider the following:

Consider the following:

1) Every week there are 43 cook shows on British terrestrial telly. There are a further 97 on the digital channels. There are three channels devoted exclusively to food. (These figures are approximate; I can't bring myself to read the listings.)

2) Every week the London broadsheet newspapers publish between 30,000 and 40,000 words devoted to food, drink, restaurants, recipes and cook shows on television. (Again the figures are approximate.)

3) Ludlow, population 8,000 (that is accurate to within a couple of hundred) possesses five independent butchers, a weekly market selling farm butter, farm cheeses, farm eggs, poultry, game in season, non-industrial veg. Early each autumn the town stages a food and drink festival. A marquee is raised within the castle keep and producers from the Marches (and some from Ludlow's Norman twin town) sell their wares. There are bacon curers, brewers, cheesemakers, cidermakers and perrymakers, cider distillers, bakers, ice-cream wallahs, apiarists, etc. The town also supports three restaurants which have been awarded a star by Michelin.

4) Over the past decade an indefatigable woman called Henrietta Green has brought out two editions of the Food Lovers' Guide to Britain, a directory of some 750 producers and secondary sources of, say, bison, kid, elvers, samphire, pickles, damsons, chitterlings and haslet. The guide would be even more compendious were it to list as well the stores selling imported goods and those British makers of such things as samosas, dim sum, salami, and so on. Ms Green has also established Food Lovers' fairs around the country.

5) London, population 7.5 million, has about a dozen farmers' markets. Borough Market, near London Bridge, styles itself "London's Larder".

6) London is the restaurant capital of the world.

7) We live, in the journalist Simon Jenkins's phrase, "in a golden age of the table".

Golden? Jenkins wrote that in 1993. We must be in the platinum age by now. We must be, because things are forever changing, forever improving. Amelioration's momentum is unstoppable. The quality of our gastronomic life proceeds by exponential leaps for the better. Milk and honey? Unpasteurised single-herd Jersey milk and rosemary combs from hand-chosen bees? Manna – organically ground and without E numbers? Body and blood? We've got the lot.

And as for the choice we enjoy! Big tomatoes, little tomatoes, round tomatoes, plum tomatoes, tomatoes attached to green twig, even tomatoes "grown for flavour". We have spices from Orissa, Madras, Gujerat, Hyderabad; light soya sauce, heavy soya sauce, in-between soya sauce; fish sauce from Thailand; fruit from China; olive oils from named estates in Catalonia, Var, Puglia, Crete, olive oils whose virginity has been safeguarded by chastity belts of the most traditional cut. We have five-grain bread, soda bread, ciabatta bread, sundried tomato bread, country bread. We have ready-to-heat moussaka, navarin, green curry, red curry, brown curry, lasagne, noodles, paella, couscous, gratin. And so it goes. We 're blessed with abundance. We inhabit a treasure-house of the world's victuals. We should be the very model of peptic content. We never ate it so good.

Really? Am I alone in wondering whether this country's appetite for and susceptibility to the soothing nostrums of PR "presentation", spin and lies has not quashed whatever gastronomic discernment it may once have had? No, I'm not quite alone. For years Dr Digby Anderson banged on in newspapers about the paucity of quality produce available in Britain. So that makes two of us. And I have a friend who lives near Bristol who believes that one ate as well, if not better, in that city in the 1970s. Two and a half, then. I once asked the great Burgundian chef Marc Meneau what he thought of British produce. He replied with signal tact: "C'est, hein, different."

In his critique of American art, The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe took a long time to illustrate a truism; that conceptual art is only granted meaning (and comprehensibility) by a text accompanying the work. That text may be the work of the artist if he or she possesses the gift of arranging words as well as the gift of arranging rubber gloves or tampons, or it may be the work of a critic who interprets the work in a catalogue essay, a newspaper, a magazine. The text is an integral part of the work, which is bereft and mute without it, and the critic is complicit in the work, a sort of secondary creator – and not, then, a critic at all, but a propagandist, a proselytiser, an image engineer.

At an even baser level there is a similar compact between, on the one hand, the majority of the people who write and broadcast about food in this country and, on the other, the producers, the restaurant industry, the brewers, the wine trade. When I say "at an even baser level" I know what I'm talking about. Some years ago I was invited to judge the Glenfiddich Awards for food writing. I forget how many categories there are – too many certainly; I mean, "Whisky Writer of the Year"? I checked into a hotel to work my way through the submissions. This was a uniquely dispiriting experience: the vast majority of entrants could barely parse a sentence. I suggested to David Grant, of the firm that sponsored this pygmy Olympiad with such rash generosity, that there were at least three or four categories in which no award should be made on the grounds of illiteracy, incompetence, witlessness, etc. He was shocked by my presumption and explained that the point of the awards was to celebrate "writers" who celebrate food/wine/restauration. And of course he was right to be shocked. This branch of journalism may be styled a form of consumer journalism but it is the very opposite; it is producer journalism, a kind of covert advertorial, a cosy conspiracy that finds writers abandoning all pretence of independence to ghost chefs' books or to drool over supermarkets' products in magazines owned by those supermarkets.

When I began writing about restaurants I had two friends in the trade. Now I have three or four more. That may say something about my incapacity for friendship (which I am capable of distinguishing from amiable acquaintanceship). But had I been a greyhound-racing correspondent I doubt that I'd have made a special effort to party with the dogs. It's equally probable that they'd have made no effort to party with me. When I began reviewing restaurants, in the summer of 1986 I weighed 89kg (14 stone, or 196lb). By summer last year I weighed 122kg (19.5 stone, 272lb) – an increment of 2.4kg (5lb) per year, or approximately 28g (1oz) per restaurant I visited.

Eighteen months previously I had been to Buenos Aires in preparation for a telly film (which was, predictably, cancelled; a BBC contract is worth about as much as a football manager's). Day after day I had walked the rectilinear labyrinth of that greatest of modernist cities for up to six hours. On my return my right knee gradually gave out. I went at last to see a specialist, who said: "I can tell you're not a professional soccer player, but you do have a soccer player's injury." He added with a certain winning candour that the operation he could perform had no more than a 66 per cent chance of success. I'd be far better off losing weight.

By the time I ended my near 16-year stint as a restaurant reviewer I was down to 79kg (12.5 stone, 175lb). I lost a third of my body weight over the course of a year: I lost it, and I still don't know where to find it. This, surely, should have proved a task as monumental as the figure I cut. Well, no, not actually. Indeed, given Dr Jeffrey Fine's persuasive counsel, it was all too easy – after all, I reported mostly on restaurants in London and the rest of Britain. And they were in general more rewarding to write about than to eat in. Going to restaurants I hadn't been to before – that is, new restaurants – became a chore. "That I should have your chore", I can hear you say...

I have little capacity or willingness to amend my taste to keep pace with the change for the worse that has afflicted British taste. And that makes me an old fart, an anachronism, out of step with his time. It is impossible, I'd contend, to report in good faith on any craft or endeavour if you are essentially out of sympathy with it. And if it's doing you no good. It was, incidentally, my own cooking that abetted my generically determined propensity to put on weight – my mother lived on rabbit food to keep her figure. It was not due to restaurant meals, which I became increasingly inclined to leave largely uneaten. My domestic repertoire was my corporeal undoing: potato gratins, potato purées, aligot, cassoulet and, most of all, vast quantities of cheese – the economy of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon may never recover from the effects of my near abstinence. I still cook. Different things, though.

Let us return to the subjects I listed at the beginning. Ludlow is the exception that proves the rule that British provincial towns are gastronomic deserts. It is deafeningly atypical. Hence hardly a month passes without the appearance of a lazy article, based on previous lazy articles, citing its position at the vanguard of a culinary renaissance. To which the all too obvious reply is – where's the back-up? If such a broad renaissance exists, why is Ludlow the only example?

Ludlow's position in this phoney renaissance derives from an unparalleled set of circumstances, certain of which are entirely unrelated to the food chain. It is remote and unusually self-contained. Its road links render it unappealing to Birmingham and Black Country commuters. Its rail links are appalling. It has an attractive housing stock, which causes its middle class to live in the town. It is in the centre of a rare part of Britain where hill farms, orchards, hopyards and fruit holdings are still common. And until recently its only supermarket was a downmarket affair. That has changed with the advent of a Tesco.

How long the town will remain consequently unchanged can only be guessed at. Supermarkets thrive on the British indifference to flavour, freshness and quality, the British preoccupation with the appearance of foodstuffs, the British insistence on choice. Kingsley Amis warned more than 30 years ago in a Black Paper contribution on education that "more will mean worse".

What goes for tertiary education goes for foodstuffs too, especially those which are imported. Fruit and vegetables are bound to lack flavour because they are harvested too early in order to obviate loss of profit occasioned by deterioration during transit, during distribution, during shelf life. For the same reason even domestic meat is seldom properly hung. If all small British towns were like pre-Tesco Ludlow then there would be no need for Henrietta Green's enterprises: we wouldn't need to be told where to obtain proper food because proper food would be on our doorstep. It would be a norm rather than something the mass of the population regards as a phoney sybaritic indulgence, and too expensive: cheapness, which is not the same as value for money, is this nation's paramount criterion in the selection of foods.

The second criterion is that foods should not foment our squeamishness. We are a fastidious people, liable to be prompted to disgust by anything that reminds us that it was once an animal's muscle or, worse, an animal's organ, by anything that recalls the farmyard, by anything whose connection with the mucky earth is too readily discerned. Abattoir slurry is just fine if it is an unspoken component of a burger or sausage (and it is). But undisguised offal is inadmissible. What we have here is the national tendency to sweep under the carpet applied to food.

A third criterion is exoticism of the base'n'easy sort. The food industry plunders the world's larder then traduces it: the pizza that no Neapolitan would recog-nise; "fresh" pasta; "curry"; anything... So long as the packaging is appealing, Britain will swallow it. Not only fastidious, not only cheapskate, but gullible too.

But isn't London the "restaurant capital of the world"? We've been conned (see gullibility, above) into believing so. Rather, we've been Conranned into it. The inelegant epithet is Sir Terence's. He is hardly a disinterested party. There can be no question that his vast, opulently glamorous restaurants are great institutions (or may become so). They are as peculiar to London of the 1990s as bevelled glass gin-palaces were a century before, and roadhouses were to the suburbs of the 1930s. They are habitually deprecated as bridge-and-tunnel or Weybridge-and-Epping, but so what? The enduring Parisian brasseries, which Conran took as his model, have not survived on the exclusive patronage of poets who – in Cyril Connolly's phrase – were "willing to die of syphilis in a garret for the sake of an adjective". They are demotic playgrounds for anyone with the entrance fee (which is typically only half in Paris what it is in London).

But "restaurant capital", whatever that means, is one thing, gastronomic capital is quite another. Quality of cooking is increasingly incidental to the success of London restaurants. Architecture and design are of greater moment. Restaurants have merely replaced, or begun to replace, pubs as places of casual social interaction. Witness Barry Venison on Manchester United's sometime strikers Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole: "They're mates. They go out to restaurants together." Ten years before that a soccer pundit such as Mick Channon would have said of Brian McClair and Mark Hughes: "They're mates. They go down the pub together for a few lagers."

Restaurant-goers are people who eat – I swear I'm not making this up – crocodile rillettes with crostini and papaya sauce. At home they eat M&S prepared meals, which taste of nothing. Thus there exists a situation where huge dosh is spent on design-led pretension and gimmickry, on being seen, on eating novelty cooking wrought by bumfluff antipodeans and where, at home, food is something shoved in a microwave.

So what are all those tossers in telly kitchens doing if they're not teaching us to cook? Ainsley, Brian the Bluff, the whole stable run by the wretched Bazalgette, chirpy Jamie, the cheery gnome Wozza – they, and all their bathetic peers, are a) filling airtime as cheaply as it is possible to fill it, b) adhering to the British standard tradition of refusing to take food seriously, and c) turning themselves into full-fledged celebrities.

The broadsheets, meanwhile, are fostering the delusion that this country is in the throes of a culinary revolution. It isn't. An awful lot gets written about very little. The same names recur over and over again. Ludlow, evidently, Lidgates the butcher, La Fromagerie, Paxton & Whitfield, Neal's Yard... The repertory company of likely subjects is straitened. There are as many decent food suppliers in a single Parisian arrondissement as there are in the whole of London. The notion that London has somehow "caught up" is risible, born of chauvinism, Francophobia, pig ignorance and wishful thinking. Golden age? Platinum age? EPNS age, more like – you know, the way the plating soon wears thin to reveal the base metal beneath.

Our gastronomic mores may be changing for the better, but there is, really, only so far they can go. The weight of going on five centuries is a massive inhibition to improvement. This is a formerly Protestant country. It is Catholic and formerly Catholic countries (France is de jure a secular state) that eat properly in Europe. We suffered enclosures, the aristocratic theft of land that caused the flight of smallholders to cities, and which opened the way to industrial agriculture – which is founded on the basis that quality is the enemy of profit.

And it is agri-industrialists whom governments have consulted in forming policies which do not differentiate between the interests of "farms" owned by pension funds or the Mormon Church of Salt Lake City and those owned by people who work the land themselves, care for their stock and eat what they produce. We live on a crowded island yet resist the idea of density in our cities. Exurbia, merely sprawl with a fancy moniker, is pusillanimously accepted by those in power as an inevitability. Which of course it is, because governments are in the business of ingratiating themselves, and to oppose sprawl is to deny the right of every Englishman to his castle with three-car garage on a greenfield site which might be used for growing or rearing.

The absurd reduction of this process is that within the next couple of centuries Britain will be forced to import all its food. Many better London restaurants already do. Paris's wholesale market at Rungis is only four hours away. The supermarkets of Calais and St Omer are even closer – they make the most ambitious Sainsbury's or Tesco look like a Kwiksave (there's a name to lift a British heart). Perhaps we shouldn't even bother to try to emulate those countries whose implementation of European Union regs on cheese, apple size, hand-reared geese and so on is lax because the people who are charged with the scrutiny are those who will eventually eat the gear. That is not the case here. Until jobsworth inspectors are persuaded to join the eating classes there's no hope, and they won't join – won't have the wherewithal to join – until small-scale production ceases to attract a premium. It's a vicious circle.

This article is extracted from 'Incest and Morris Dancing' by Jonathan Meades, which is published this week by Cassell Illustrated at £20.00

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