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The British Way of Eating


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#1 Jonathan Day

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Posted 25 May 2003 - 02:03 PM

In a recent Symposium thread we discussed "The American Way of Eating". I would now like to propose a discussion on "The British Way".

British food is a topic that has seen some prior discussion on eGullet, mostly on its origins and on the forces that have shaped it over the past few hundred years. I would therefore suggest that we focus this thread on British cooking and dining as it exists today. Let's not debate whether British food has been bad in the past or whether it lost touch with its peasant origins as a result of industrialisation. Instead, let's look at the current dining scene in Britain, both at home and in restaurants.

My two propositions would be that Britain has seen a revolution in its attitude toward food and dining, in a way matched by almost no other country in the world, and that there is more to like than to dislike in "The British Way of Eating".

Start with attitudes toward food. M.F.K. Fisher tells of the young Walter Scott, who, exceptionally hungry, exclaimed to his father, "Oh, what a fine soup! Is it not a fine soup, dear Papa?", whereupon his father instantly a pint of cold water into Walter's bowl, "to drown the devil". There was unquestionably a time when it was considered vulgar or coarse to talk about food, when chefs were regarded as menial servants. Today's chefs, whether loved or hated, are national celebrities -- and they are British chefs, as opposed to the (imported) French chefs who once were seen as the only source of culinary skill. At least amongst the middle classes, people talk about food without shame.

Britain has a deep and high quality vein of academic and "serious" writing about food, including Elizabeth David, Mary Douglas, the Oxford Symposium on Food, Petits Propos Culinaires and Alan Davidson. Many British universities offer courses on food and nutrition. Food is both serious business in Britain and a serious topic for conversation.

The availability of ingredients in Britain has undergone a similar revolution. It is possible to find tired, tasteless vegetables and industrialised meats and cheeses in Britain, as it is in France and Italy, but for the most part the quality available is very good. Even within the supermarket chains, a wide and high quality range of ingredients can be found if you are willing to be selective. Britain's farmers' markets and open-air markets can offer outstanding produce, and there is a large number of artisanal producers offering cheeses, meats, smoked goods and the like. Unusually within Europe, British shops also offer a wide range of imported ingredients. A top French supermarket or épicerie will stock many French foods, but will be weaker on Italian, Asian, Spanish and Mexican ingredients: not so the corresponding shop in the UK.

The revolution gathered momentum as early as the 1980s with chefs such as Anthony Worrall-Thompson, Alistair Little, Stephen Bull and the young Marco Pierre White. We look at British television chefs as a modern phenomenon, but Gary Rhodes first appeared on the screen at least ten years ago. The revolution may be moving quickly today, but it has been underway for a good while.

I have deliberately stopped at this point, leaving open the debate about British restaurants, as well as whether the many positive experiences that I have had in London would translate to other parts of the nation.

What do you think? What is the current state of British dining? Whether as a visitor or a resident, what do you like and dislike about "The British Way of Eating"?

* * *

Thanks both to Simon Majumdar and to Wilfrid for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this post.
Jonathan Day
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#2 Fat Guy

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Posted 25 May 2003 - 08:28 PM

It would probably be sensible to start out by drawing some distinctions between different categories within the modern British food scene:

- London v. the rest of the UK
- Home v. restaurant cooking
- Ingredients v. skill in preparation
- Quality of available dining v. desire for quality
- The foodie/gourmet subculture v. what regular folks eat
- Upper- v. middle- v. working-class eating habits
- The state of indigenous v. imported cuisines

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#3 John Whiting

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Posted 26 May 2003 - 12:29 PM

Jonathan, although you have wisely suggested that this discussion not recap the arguments about British food history, the last chapter of Colin Spencer's _British Food_ closes with an optimistic prognosis subtitled "The Rebirth of British Cuisine". It relies on the paradoxical fact that those countries without a strong continuous culinary tradition are those most likely to evolve a dynamic synthesis of the ever-changing foods of other countries.

In the words of Sri Owen: " ... food habits are changing all the time, often fast. 'Traditional' foods are embedded in time as firmly as they are in place. When I came to live in the west, I soon realised that its inhabitants were avid for change and the food scene was an agitated kaleidoscope."
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#4 Lord Michael Lewis

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Posted 26 May 2003 - 01:58 PM

There is no 'British Way of Eating'.

#5 Jonathan Day

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Posted 26 May 2003 - 02:18 PM

LML, perhaps you could expand on this last statement.

Do you mean that the majority of Britons hold no shared beliefs or prejudices with regard to the foods they enjoy eating or the ways they like to eat them? Or that Britain is so diverse (north vs south, recent vs less recent immigration, wealthy vs less wealthy, older vs younger, etc.) that any generalisation makes no sense?

Or something else?
Jonathan Day
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#6 Lord Michael Lewis

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Posted 26 May 2003 - 02:43 PM

What I mean is that, the fact that there is no 'British Way of Eating', is at once its defining feature.

Fat Guy has it right with his categories, to which many, many more could be added.

Once agreed on a suitable definition of 'Briton', then better to ask about 'British Ways of Eating'.

#7 Elissa

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Posted 27 May 2003 - 04:31 AM

I'm curious as to the extent that Indian, Caribbean and other (past and present) colonies appear to influence the advance of British fine dining. Novelists who write in colonial Englishes, pidgin and second tongues seem to be so creative with language. Is there a sense of this in the UK's culinary arts too?

Edited by lissome, 27 May 2003 - 09:28 AM.

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#8 Tonyfinch

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Posted 28 May 2003 - 03:27 AM

Good food and good eating in Britain has developed since WW2 via two routes:

1) British going on foreign holidays en masse and experiencing "Mediterranean" food for the first time and demanding it back home via the likes of Elizabeth David.

2) British tolerance and liberal attitudes (relative to our European neighbours) to multi culturalism and our receptiveness to imported foreign cuisine, especially Chinese and Indian.

Ironically 2) could only happen because of the poverty of our early 20th century indigenous cuisine. Places like France, Italy and Spain have been far more resistant to foriegn influences.

So Britain began re-discovering its own cuisine through an appreciation of the delights of other cuisines and I would contend that we now eat more "broadly" than any other country.

However, eating is still a class issue in Britain and breadth doesn't necessarily imply quality. The truth is that most Chinese and Indian restaurants in Britain are crap. The food served up in 99% of pubs is crap. Many Brits still like eating crap for reasons which I find myself mystified by.

#9 britcook

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Posted 28 May 2003 - 04:08 AM

LML's comments are simultaneously astute and facile. If one were to look almost anywhere in the world there is no (insert national adjective here) Way of Eating, be that nation France, Italy, America or India. However we do know that the eating experience in any of these countries is going to differ from that in any of the others. What the original post posits is that there are certain shared characteristics in the British Way of Eating which distinguish it from other nationalities. Of course there will be regional and other differences as pointed out by Fat Guy but what I think we are looking for are those things we have in common rather than those in which we differ. Tony quite rightly points out that there is still far too much crap served (which is a point to dislike), but on the other hand standards in general have improved over the past 20 years, as has the choice of ingredients and repertoire of restaurants. So nowadays if you go in to a pub you will at least have a choice of meals, most of it may still be crap but it wasn't that long ago when your choices were nothing, a packet of crisps or a stale cheese roll.

#10 Lord Michael Lewis

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Posted 28 May 2003 - 04:49 AM

Good food and good eating in Britain has developed since WW2 via two routes:

1) British going on foreign holidays en masse and experiencing  "Mediterranean" food for the first time and demanding it back home via the likes of Elizabeth David.

2) British tolerance and liberal attitudes (relative to our European neighbours) to multi culturalism and  our receptiveness to imported foreign cuisine, especially Chinese and Indian.

Ironically 2) could only happen because of the poverty of our early 20th century indigenous cuisine. Places like France, Italy and Spain have been far more resistant to foriegn influences.

So Britain began re-discovering its own cuisine through an appreciation of the delights of other cuisines and I would contend that we now eat more "broadly" than any other country.

However, eating is still a class issue in Britain and breadth doesn't necessarily imply quality. The truth is that most Chinese and Indian restaurants in Britain are crap. The food served up in 99% of pubs is crap. Many Brits still like eating crap for reasons which I find myself mystified by.

Tony is right of course, but I think one must take when talking of foreign cuisines. Britain today is a multi-cultural society, therefore these cuisines are British.

#11 balex

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Posted 28 May 2003 - 06:09 AM

2) British tolerance and liberal attitudes (relative to our European neighbours) to multi culturalism and  our receptiveness to imported foreign cuisine, especially Chinese and Indian.

I think there is a general process here -- European countries (and I guess the same holds true for other parts of the world) tend to have, for obvious reasons, a lot of restaurants serving the cuisine of their former or current colonies. So England has Cantonese food, derived from Hong Kong, and Indian food. We even have some American restaurants.. :raz:

France has North African and what was French Indochina; Indonesian food in Netherlands etc...
Italy's imperial past was too long ago to have any real influence -- in more recent times you have Ethiopia, and sure enough you can find some Ehtiopian restaurants near Termini in Rome and so on.

#12 Tonyfinch

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Posted 29 May 2003 - 12:20 AM

France has North African and what was French Indochina;

Balex, North African restaurants in France are a minute and insignificant number compared to Indian restaurants in Britain. They are almost totally confined to Paris and Marseille and, more importantly, have had little or no impact on French cuisine or on what the vast majority of French regard as good food. And a handful of Ethiopian restautants around a run down part of Rome does not make for a significant and influential cuisine. IMO Italian cuisine in Italy is the most conservative and the most resistant to change of all.

By contrast, in the UK Indian food is now the most popular cuisine of choice and every one horse two bit town has its Light of Bengal curry house and its Chinese take away.

This tells us three things:

1) Indigenous British cuisine was not strong enough to resist powerful Eastern influences for a major share of the market.

2) Brits are far more open and receptive to multi culturalism and foriegn influences than France/Italy/Spain as well.

3) The Brits still like to eat crap, especially outside of London. Its just that its now Indian and Chinese crap, rather than British crap.

#13 balex

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Posted 29 May 2003 - 08:41 AM

Let me rephrase because we don't really disagree. Italy basically had no colonies 100 years ago -- and this might be a contributing factor to its extraordinary insularity. In spite of this you can still find some impact of its limited colonial heritage. Whereas Britain had a whole stack of colonies up until quite recently (1997 for HK) and that combined with our lack of a strong indigenous cuisine is probably what accounts for this general effect being so pronounced here.

I think if we look at wine as well we can see an amazing openness to wine from all over the world, fostered by our lack of any wines worth speaking of. (Though someone was sticking up for English sparkling wine the other day).

But the striking thing to me, coming back to England after 8 years abroad is the variety of food -- both in terms of range and quality. So I guess we need to narrow it down if we want to make any progress. High-end London restaurant dining would be one option, but I am more interested in what people eat at home -- people who care about food.
Are there still any real regional differences? Do gourmets in Scotland eat haggis once a week?

#14 fresco

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Posted 29 May 2003 - 03:06 PM

It's very hard to make general observations about cooking in the UK, because, as George Orwell observed long ago, the best English cooking is found at home. But if supermarkets in London are any indication, the level of cookery is pretty impressive. As a Canadian who visited fairly often, I was struck by the range and quality of produce, meat and other foodstuffs available to the average Londoner in Tesco, Sainsbury, etc. And I believe that the UK was years ahead of Canada or the US in offering a complete range of, say, eggs, in ascending price from the battery version to organic free range in supermarkets.
Here in North America, eating habits are studied extensively--one often quoted conclusion being that Canadians are far more likely than Americans to cook their meals from scratch. There must be similar research extant for the UK and if so, I, for one, would love to hear about it.
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#15 britcook

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Posted 03 June 2003 - 04:23 AM

lack of a strong indigenous cuisine

I might take some issue with this, possibly to rephrase it as no strong indigenous peasant cuisine. The English have a strong tradition of cookery, from the earliest known English cookbook "A Forme of Curye" way back in 1390 through to Eliza Acton and Mrs Beeton in the 19th century, but this was for the upper classes, eventually coming down to the burgeoning Victorian middle classes. This domestic cuisine has always readily taken in foreign and exotic ingredients, every large house had its kitchen garden with fresh herbs, spices, although expensive, were surprisingly common. The far flung parts of the empire were used as sources not only for ingredients but also new recipes and methods of cooking.
This all rather fell apart after WWI when the social order disintegrated and domestic servants, like cooks, were no longer used (or affordable). WWII and its shortages completed the social disintegration and also seemed to take the interest out of food for a while, but once decent food became available in reasonable quantities in the 50s people like Elizabeth David and the Cradocks showed how people could produce this themselves without needing a cook. Elizabeth David took the peasant cuisines of Europe and the Mediterranean and made them acceptable while the Cradocks showed how more traditional fare could be produced without needing major talents. OK so it took a while to recover, and some British food is still crap, but it doesn't mean that we (or at least the artisan and merchant classes) never had decent food.

Do Scottish gourmets eat haggis every week? I doubt that. They probably never eat it if they have a choice. Like the English equivalent, faggots, this was simply a way of making the rather more unpleasant parts of an animal palatable, because you couldn't afford to waste them. Yep, the peasant, or working class, diet was pretty dull because our climate doesn't give us the wonderful flavours of fruit and vegetables that you get further south in France and Italy, so that never developed as any sort of cuisine. We also industrialised earlier and more heavily than most of our European neighbours which also tended to discourage the development of quality in agriculture but did encourage the use of mechanisation and the like to feed the growing industrial centres. This is probably the origin of our crap food - fuel for the industrial machine which we just kind of got used to.