In the fourth and final of this year’s Borough Talks, our panellists discuss the ‘renaissance’ in British cuisine
Words: Viel Richardson
During the age of the ‘grand tours’, when the bright young things of Britain would rampage their way around in search of art and culture, Europe’s bright young things were rampaging their way around Britain in search of beef which, at the time, was considered the best in Europe. Whatever else Britain was known for in the 17th and 18th centuries, our continental cousins believed that some of us could cook.
Yet, by the late 20th century, British food’s reputation was one of meat and (overcooked) two veg, warm beer and copious cups of tea.
A distinguished panel made up of Sybil Kapoor, the multi-award winning food writer and broadcaster; Jay Rayner writer, journalist, broadcaster and food critic; Isaac McHale, a young British chef who spent time at Noma and Clove Club; and Shane Holland, executive chair of Slow Food UK and chairman of Plan Zheroes, gathered at Borough Market to discuss why a British food renaissance became necessary, how it came about and indeed, whether or not British food is definable.
Writer, broadcaster, restauranteur and this evening’s moderator Tim Hayward began by asking the panellists: which dish represents British food for them?
Nipping down to the chippie
“This is a really difficult question,” Sybil answered, “but I would have to go for something like a gooseberry fool. It is simple to make, depends on very high quality ingredients and us Brits love our puddings.” Shane plumped for fish and chips: “Rich or poor, we all love fish and chips at the seaside or nipping down to the chippie.” For Isaac, it’s kedgeree. “It highlights the history of food in this country: it has international aspects, but is essentially rooted in our local fishing industry.”
Jay Rayner took his answer from his show, The Kitchen Cabinet. “There is one dish people argue about in every region, and that is stew. Monmouth stew, Lancashire hotpot, lobscouse, Irish stew. There are myriad names, but basically they are all the same. That is my choice, because it sums up all the arguments we have about food, but highlights our ability to use the cheaper cuts.”
Tim then kicked off the discussion by stating that while the word ‘renaissance’ may be controversial in some quarters, there has undoubtedly been a huge groundswell of interest in British food in recent years. What prompted this change, he asked?
Jay was the first to answer, and not only took many by surprise but produced a distinctly audible hiss from some areas of the audience. “I’m not an apologist for these people, but it was Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Lawson, and Rupert Murdoch. Thatcherism removed our previous puritanical tendencies, saying ‘guys it’s okay to spend money’.
Suits with big shoulders
“Nigel Lawson then cut the top rate of income tax and money just flowed into the economy. We bought houses, cars, suits with big shoulders and we also started buying food”—which is where, Jay believes, Rupert Murdoch comes in.
“The new technology he fought the unions to bring gave newspapers the ability to print multiple sections. If you talk with journalists from that age, they will tell you they were suddenly presented with page after page that they had to fill. And if you look at when national newspapers hired restaurant critics, it is 1986 and 87.”
Shane Holland pointed out that this coincided with a new generation taking over British farms. “As the supermarket’s purchasing power grew, these new farm owners’ saw their income fall,” he explained. “Many of them had been to university or studied marketing and we began to see the emergence of more artisan producers and the growth of the farm shop, as they looked for new ways to increase their income.”
“Suddenly chefs were regularly getting this amazing produce and that was a revelation,” Sybil interjected. “There was this wonderful British produce to get excited about. But another important thing that often gets overlooked is our love of technology. It is a very British thing and it has defined much of our cooking—that openness to new ideas.”
At that point Shane Holland introduced a rather unexpected technological aspect of cooking to the debate: microwave meals. “They were genuinely horrible, but they introduced enormous numbers of people to new flavours, without a great deal of expense—flavours you would have had to go to a restaurant to try before,” he told a somewhat startled audience. “You didn’t have to buy 50 different ingredients to try an exotic dish, so you have to credit them with extending many people’s culinary horizons.”
This led neatly on to the topic of the decline of cooking in Britain. “For a long time we had two classes who had cooks: upper class and middle class,” explained Sybil. “After the First World War, suddenly nobody was cooking, because all the available manpower headed off into other industries that were better paid.
“Also, the government decided it was more efficient to feed people in canteens wherever possible, so swathes of people simply stopped learning to cook. So while there were still pockets of good cooking, a lot of skills were lost.”
Shane Holland, who grew up in rural Cornwall, agreed. “My family would fish, catch crabs and hunt rabbits for the pot. That’s what people did. When I go back there now, no-one is doing that. People have lost the confidence.”
A defining British dish
When it comes to leaders of the resurgence, the panelists agreed it has been a complex collection of forces and therefore difficult to credit individuals, but they each pointed to people they see as important players. Jay Rayner name checked Fergus Henderson, “Not least because of his roast bone marrow and parsley salad, which is seen as a defining British dish”, as well as for his commitment to using the cheaper and less popular cuts.
Isaac McHale, as one of millions of people who grew up watching this national culinary treasure every week, cites Nigel Slater as a big influence. “I would say the initial band of producers that came here to Borough Market—people like Peter Gott from Sillfield Farm and Randolph of Neal’s Yard Dairy,” Shane Holland added.
“They brought a real care and passion to their food, which they were committed to sharing with others. I would also say Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, because he made food sexy for men. Before then, the only people who I remember talking about food were myself and women I knew.”
Sybil pointed to Andrew Whitely, whose books on bread “really started a revolution” and an interest in bread up in Northumberland. “But I would also add people like Isaac here on the panel,” she continued, “because whenever you get a generation of new chefs coming through who are experimenting, the ideas that they create spread. The supermarkets and restaurants look at what they are doing, as well as the critics, so you get a real spreading of their ideas into the wider world.”
So has this activity led to a definable British culinary canon? “That’s a genuinely good question,” Sybil replied. “When I first wrote Modern British food in 1995, I was condemned for including pizza and curry, because they were not ‘British’,” she told the audience. “But we have loved things like cinnamon, cloves, sugar, lemons—none of which are British—for centuries. I think our open-mindedness in terms of our approach to food is a fundamental part of us.
“In Hannah Glass’s The Art of Cookery, published in 1747, you have Turkish, Indian, Spanish, Portuguese and French influences and recipes. I believe this comes from the fact that we were a naval trading nation. We lost that openness and creativity for a while, and its return is an important part of what we call our present renaissance.”
Jay Rayner agreed, pointing out that while the French also had a global empire and were exposed to myriad culinary influences, their cuisine has for the main stayed resolutely Gallic. “This afternoon I got a press release for a new book by Coleman Andrews, a very good American food writer. It’s called The British Table and looks at traditional cooking in England, Scotland and Wales.
“Some of the recipes included are: foragers soup and goat’s cheese gnocchi, cullen skink, grilled mackerel, cucumber and dill, monkfish curry, Lancashire hotpot, venison and beef pie, bakewell tart, potted rabbit, crispy prawn shells, steamed venison pudding and, of course, roast bone marrow and parsley sauce. Weirdly, with all those diverse influences, I think he might be on to something.”
For Isaac McHale, this British culinary curiosity has helped shape his career. “I started off in kitchens with people cooking British versions of French and Italian food. Then came molecular gastronomy and that was what the young chefs wanted to copy and learn from. Then, at Noma, there was this interest in foraged food and smoking and pickling things. Then we had the whole Nordic cooking thing going on. Each time there was something new, we would take a look and see if it excited us. But what we end up with is always our own.”
On opening up the floor to questions, a member of the audience asked what the panel think are typical British ingredients. “It is basically defined by the British landscape,” Jay Rayner answered. “The upland areas are brilliant for cattle and sheep. We have a brilliant dairy industry. Below them we have the peas and potatoes fields. What is typical is very much defined by the local geography.”
“Bacon. I like the crispy bits,” said Sybil. “Also oats. I’m half Scottish and I love my porridge and apples. And our berries—raspberries, blackberries. But then there are those things that aren’t actually British, like lemon and nutmeg, which we have to import but couldn’t imagine doing without.”
Shane Holland chose beef: “Our climate means we have wonderful grazing lands and beef is something we have always been very good with.” For Isaac McHale it’s our milk, cream and butter, “which are part of all our larders and are exceptionally good”.
Sybil summed the debate up nicely with her observation of Coleman Andrews’ book. “His approach may be ingredient as opposed to recipe based, because there are ingredients that we see as intrinsically British, even though many come from foreign shores,” she said. “I look at Jamie Oliver and Nigel Slater and some of what they are doing would not be called typically ‘British’, although they are undoubtedly modern British cooks.
“So that begs the question: what is typically British in this hugely multicultural country? Today, you will see tourists in a huge variety of restaurants taking pictures and sending images and ideas back home, saying ‘this is modern British food today’”—that, and of course those copious cups of tea. Some things will never change.