The New Look-And Taste-Of British Cuisine

By Jones, Richard | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

The New Look-And Taste-Of British Cuisine


Jones, Richard, The Virginia Quarterly Review


In the summer of 1997 readers of the serious-minded British newspaper The Guardian were startled to find a front-page story about a new, ultra-chic London restaurant that had taken delivery of chips, (aka pommes frites, French fries) from the delivery van of the firm that supplies suitably sliced, frozen potatoes to restaurants and fish-and-chip shops all over the country. In the second paragraph we were told that the restaurant, the Bluebird, in Chelsea, was trying to head off a PR catastrophe and the debate that followed centred on the question were the chips fresh or frozen? Eminent figures in the restaurant business had their say: "We take our chips seriously," said one implying that they were sliced up by patrician ladies wearing tiaras and the editor of a food magazine said the irony of the news was that the owner of the Bluebird made serving fresh produce a great selling point at all his many restaurants.

I had a limited personal interest in the story as we had visited the Bluebird supermarket below the restaurant a short time before and had left believing we had wandered into a time capsule of the worst days of the Weimar Republic; the prices of food were out of sight and one item remained the symbol of the over-fancy, over-priced marketing: a smallish fruit cake, deemed suitable for nursery tea, was "just like nanny used to make- with a little sherry added" and cost the unheard of sum of 28 ($47).

Later, it became clear that the real reason for the front-page treatment of a footling story was that the owner of the restaurant, Sir Terence Conran, had become a figure to watch, criticize, envy, and sometimes praise. He was-and is still- both a leading designer and the colossus of the London restaurant world; he makes news: the more negative the better.

Placing such a news item on the front page of a serious newspaper was, everyone agreed, another stage of what one writer had called "the tidal wave" of writing and talking about food, the new British obsession. To those with long memories all this seemed like an invention. What had happened, people asked, that the British, for so long the most despised cooks in Europe, had changed so much?

British foodyism really started in the 80's, and writers still ask whether this was the result of foreign travel, the influence of the European Union, the influx of immigrants since World War II, (especially those of Indian and Pakistani origin), the effect of a painful educative process by official agencies, more nutritionist than gourmet, or the influence of a galaxy of food writers especially Elizabeth David? Enough to say that the English are themselves astonished by this change of heart and never seem to grow bored with articles and features, in all branches of the media, about food politics, chefs and restaurants. Cynics said that British food was so uninspiring that it could only go up-and not before time in a country where tourism is a major industry: self-interest called for improved standards. Agreed; yet this does not quite fit the bill since one of the aspects of British interest in food is that it is as much directed at other people's cuisine (Indian, Chinese, Thai, Italian, French, Spanish-you name it) as in a revival of what there might be of a native tradition. In fact the favorite British food, according to market research, is chicken tikka masala, an Indian dish that only exists in Britain.

In London only a handful of well-known eating-places serve English or modern British food, but there are more than 3,000 Indian restaurants. Their owners often resent local snobbery which refuses to distinguish between styles and regional recipes and assumes that because Indian food is cheaper than, say, French cuisine, it is thus less worthy of respect.

II

The hallmark of English cooking used to be plainness: vegetables and meat without sauces except for the ubiquitous brown gravy, fish and chips-the first convenience food-and an endless variety of desserts and puddings. …

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