How a culinary backwater like Britain became a nation of foodies

You're never quite sure what you'll get with Will Self, but he's right about this

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Despite the studied impression he gives as one of Britain's grumpiest old men, I know for a fact that the novelist Will Self is an entertaining, generous soul. His erudition and command of the English language are not in doubt: I usually need a dictionary at hand for a conversation with him, and he once seemed to have a one-man campaign to bring the word "plangent" (loud, with a plaintive sound) into common usage.

You are never quite sure what you'll get with Will – I was once in his company when he used a banana to measure distances on a street map of London – but you can be sure he has thought things through before committing himself to an opinion. So his latest counterblast, about the unhealthiness of Britain's obsession with food, fuelled by TV cookery shows, demands consideration.

It would have struck a chord with many of a certain vintage, who can recall a time when The Galloping Gourmet (aka Graham Kerr) was the only telly chef, and a Berni Inn was as good as it got in terms of dining out. "Over the past 30 years, " he wrote in a blog for the BBC, "we have, as a nation, been transformed from a culinary backwater... into a foodie's paradise". He welcomes this change, but believes that we have become food-obsessed bores. I would go even further: there is something fetishistic about our interest in food.

Every minute of the day, your TV is showing a cookery programme, or a cooking-based reality show. Each of the grande fromage chefs – Jamie, Gordon, Nigella etc – has an army of middle-class disciples aching to put on the Cath Kidston pinny and get cracking in the kitchen.

When I hear my 23-year-old daughter and her friends discussing the relative strengths of upmarket burger restaurants, I have to resist the urge to break in and say: "It's only a bloody hamburger!" Self bemoans (the standard verb of the grumpy old man) the way that food has not only become part of our culture, but now dominates it: "It [is] no longer necessary to read Boccaccio, only to munch on focaccia."

Even those who wish to preserve British culture, he added, would be "appeased by a truckle of highly palatable Dorset Blue Vinny, in lieu of folios full of indigestible Warwickshire Shakespeare".

Just how far we have gone was illustrated yesterday by a survey by Waitrose. It found that most people have a repertoire of 10 dishes they can cook without reference to a book, but what struck me was this: "Only three in 10 people knew how to prepare risotto unaided." Only? Only? Doesn't that tell you something?

A good risotto requires a relatively high level of skill, and it's not an indigenous dish, so why should we be expected to know it off by heart? Better, perhaps, to be able to recite a poem by Wordsworth.

Yes, I'm with you, Will. Your views resound, plangently.