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July 6, 2010

How and why the British food culture has changed

I remember some months ago my girlfriend making a business trip to Brussels and returning with a coffee mug for me emblazoned with various legends as to how anyone could become the “Perfect European.” It referred in some disparaging way to every member country of the European Union and included reference to such qualities as being, “As sober as the Irish,” having, “The sense of humour of a German,” being able, “To drive like an Italian,”…and being able, “To cook like a Brit.” It is a well known fact that British cuisine and the cooking abilities of the average Briton are widely mocked, especially on Continental Europe, but is this attitude justified?

Without a doubt: yes, I believe it most certainly is. There are of course many historical reasons for British food becoming bland and unadventurous, the most recent unquestionably being Britain’s virtual total isolation in the darkest days of World War II and the food rationing which occurred, not only for the duration of the war but well beyond. However, can this really be used as an excuse considerably more than sixty years on from the end of that conflict?

During World War II, Churchill promised the British people that come what may, they would always have access to their fish and chips. This is essentially served as white fish dipped in batter and deep-fried in saturated fat, along with chipped potatoes, similarly cooked. This has been a staple of the British diet ever since and in fact recently reclaimed its position as the Number One fast food in the UK from Chicken Tikka Masala.

As immigration increased in to Britain and particularly the likes of Chinese and Indian people arrived in the country, it seems to be the case that in a large number of instances, those cultures have not only failed to impart their vastly superior cooking techniques on to the British, but worst of all, have actually compromised those same techniques and recipes to appeal to the British appetite for stodge! Dishes which would generate blank stares in either China or India are now sold in their millions each week to greedy Brits hungry for some “traditional” Asian cooking.

The next phase on the perpetual downward spiral of the British culinary craft was the popularisation of the American fast food chains, selling simply different varieties of equally unhealthy concoctions. Suddenly, instead of fish and chips five or six nights a week, the discerning Brit can enjoy fish and chips twice, burgers twice and “Asian” food perhaps the other three nights!

So why has the introduction of similar fast food establishments not similarly affected the likes of Germany, Spain or Italy, where traditional cooking methods are still practised and revered on a daily basis? Yes, the burgers and take-aways are still occasionally “enjoyed” but not to the exclusion of good, home-cooked fayre. I believe that the difference is in the culture and in the fact that British society in general has simply got out of the habit of cooking at home.

So what is the answer, if the British are ever to get out of the rut in a culinary sense and lay to rest this unenviable reputation? The answer probably lies, as in so many other instances, with a careful and meticulous re-education of the youth of the day in the dangers of excessive junk food consumption and the delicious, nutritious and fun alternatives so readily available. Sadly, when British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver went out of his way to attempt to start this bandwagon rolling, his efforts were met in too many quarters with ridicule and disdain.

The chances therefore of a speedy solution to this problem? Possibly slim…probably nil.

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