We're screwed up about food (and sex)

As long as good eating in Britain is measured in terms of snail ice cream, things won't improve
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The Independent Online

Ironic, really, that on the day a British chef is voted the best in the world by 600 of his foodie peers, Cherie Blair hits the headlines with her concerns over little Leo's school lunches. The nation where a new restaurant opens every day is also the country where it took a foul-mouthed, cheeky young man in a television series to alert us to the fact that our children were being fed modified non-nutritious muck and that dinner ladies no longer needed to be able to cook. The outcry that ensued couldn't disguise two important facts: the first being that school meals had been rubbish for years with few parents complaining, the second that we are still happy to feed hospital patients, prisoners and the elderly the same pitiful slurry in spite of Loyd Grossman's efforts to change mass catering.

Ironic, really, that on the day a British chef is voted the best in the world by 600 of his foodie peers, Cherie Blair hits the headlines with her concerns over little Leo's school lunches. The nation where a new restaurant opens every day is also the country where it took a foul-mouthed, cheeky young man in a television series to alert us to the fact that our children were being fed modified non-nutritious muck and that dinner ladies no longer needed to be able to cook. The outcry that ensued couldn't disguise two important facts: the first being that school meals had been rubbish for years with few parents complaining, the second that we are still happy to feed hospital patients, prisoners and the elderly the same pitiful slurry in spite of Loyd Grossman's efforts to change mass catering.

When it comes to haute cuisine - or even basic cookery - we really have the same attitude as we do to sex. My goodness, we love watching television programmes featuring food. We buy hundreds of thousands of books and magazines about it. We love drooling over gorgeous photographs of artfully arranged glistening roasts and pilaffs, and we have secret, smutty thoughts about its various stars from Nigella to Jamie. But do we actually get mucky and do it? Surely the fact that our waists are expanding, our salt levels soaring and our consumption of junk food gargantuan is proof that most of us are voyeurs, rather than enthusiastic consumers.

When it comes to catering skills, most of us are still stuck in the missionary position with little enthusiasm for change to regular tried and tested routine. We might tune in to radio shows about vegetables, but how many of us know how long to steam broccoli and then how to persuade the family to eat the stuff? Even Mr Blair, for all his healthy eating "initiatives", emerges as a refuser of this particular healthy option.

It's well known that fruit buying is something the British do to make them feel virtuous, like buying deodorant. Eddie Izzard's one-man show used to contain a hilarious sequence about buying a whole bowl of the stuff, and then never actually getting around to eating it. All over Britain, kiwi fruit, pears and bananas are sitting in kitchens going mouldy while we pass up the opportunity to eat fruit in favour of shovelling down a bar of Fruit & Nut.

Analyse any middle-class refrigerator and what do you find? The healthy choices and the mucky nestling cosily side by side. Crisps and carrots, porridge and oven-ready chips, apple juice and cola. At my local newsagents, the number of magazines on offer about food has meant the porn shelf has been greatly reduced.

If I switch on the television, I can see Hell's Kitchen, with Mr Novelli and Mr Rhodes slugging it out every night for the benefit of millions of viewers who wouldn't know what do with a sun dried tomato and probably think that crème brulee is something you smear on your thighs after too much exposure to the sun. But television chefs have very little to do with the actual business of improving the general level of cooking in this country and everything to do with promoting their own brands. Jamie's production company made the School Dinners series, in which his restaurant Fifteen also features. His association with J Sainsbury has earned him millions. For all the brilliant evangelising, Jamie is primarily in the cooking business for the money.

Have you noticed that cooking on television has to be turned into competitions, reality shows or crusades? Something that you have to do for £5 or in five minutes or to lose five kilos? An activity that generally involves ritual humiliation or gorgeous travelogues? Ainsley Harriott ran a catering company before he presented Ready Steady Cook for the BBC. And, like all television chefs, Ainsley inevitably turned from cooking to endorsements. One minute, he's writing books about low fat meals and barbecues, the next he's telling us what spray to clean our ovens with, and kissing hobs. In Ainsley's world, there's little difference in desirability between a bleach-based cleaner and a really good hamburger. Both have made him a millionaire.

As we no longer bother to teach cookery skills at school, it's not surprising most of our young have no idea where peas come from and what you do with a wok. To them, food is something you place on your lap while watching the entertaining Mr Novelli lose his temper and hurl plates on prime-time television. Meals aren't eaten at tables, but grazed when convenient during commercial breaks.

If a large number of children are leaving primary school unable to read, why do we think they'll want to follow recipes? If mum opens packets and shoves them in a microwave, why should we expect them to start cooking from scratch? Yet as we evolve into a leisure-based economy with tourism an important source of income, there's little chance of finding a suitably skilled and interested workforce because school leavers don't have any idea of what is required.

I should be thrilled Mr Blumenthal has won such a prestigious award, but I'm not. He's a wonderfully enthusiastic, committed, charming man, besotted with his oddball concept of molecular gastronomy. Somehow it's appropriate that a nation that eats Turkey Twizzlers in their millions can spawn an eccentric genius who devises leather chocolates and sardine sorbet. Mr Blumenthal's ideas are like the Emperor's new clothes - concepts so rarefied they appeal to food critics desperate to fill column inches and to fellow chefs anxious to celebrate complex techniques and craftsmanship.

But stop for a moment and imagine that your nearest and dearest was planning a romantic dinner for two - and offered you the chance to feast on bacon and egg ice cream and pine sherbet, a meal constructed in laboratory conditions, finished with blow torches and sprayed with perfume. Sounds about as sexy as sitting down to a death-row meal with Anne Robinson.

How we laughed when Delia told us all how to boil an egg on her BBC TV series all those years ago. But she was right - we'll never be a nation that appreciates good food if most of us can't cook, don't want to cook and prefer to eat quickly and cheaply. There's no point in talking about red cabbage gazpacho to people who don't even eat the green variety. I'm not impressed we've ended up with 14 restaurants in a poll of the world's top 50. Quite frankly, we have more horrible places to eat per head of the population than any other country in the civilised world. In my rented house in Marrakech last week, the housekeeper cooked a feast for four every night for £10, full of fresh vegetables, beautifully prepared stews and healthy salads - it was second nature.

As long as good eating in Britain is measured in terms of snail ice cream, things aren't going to improve. When it came to celebrating his wife's birthday the other day, I didn't notice Mr Beckham making a booking at the Fat Duck in Bray, preferring a romantic establishment in Paris. When we can pop down to our local and get something other than microwaved cod in batter or chicken Kiev, served with a smile rather than a snarl, then I'll celebrate British gastronomy.

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