Scotch Wrath

29 Jul 2009

‘Fresh prawns in UK. No can get, eh?’ This unusual question, posed to me a year ago on a cookery course in Thailand by my teacher Joe, has been stewing away inside me for many months. I sort of ignored the remark at the time, launched as it was at a critical point while I was trying to sear a tiger prawn in a wok so damn hot it was close to melting my contact lenses. I snorted in smug self-assured laughter, pitying poor Joe’s inadequate knowledge of the vibrant UK food scene.

If I remember rightly my riposte was that while maybe ten years ago our shops may well have been prawn-free, these days you cannot move for all manner of crustaceous beasties glowering back at you with those black lifeless pods they call eyes. However, since then Joe’s question has raised the, er, question of just how our culinary culture here in the UK is regarded by the rest of the world. I mean we’ve had the food Revolution haven’t we? Our restaurants rival the best the world can offer don’t they? At least one of the Roux brothers lives here don’t they?

Well I used to think so, but the fact is as a nation in which you can still find supermarket aisles containing rice labeled as ‘FOREIGN FOODS’, maybe we should re-evaluate our self-awarded status of world famous gastro-zone down a notch or two to ‘Good but must do better’. Although to be fair, if you look closely the signs of improvement are there. For example, some of you may have heard of Gary Lineker the well-known ex-footballer now sports presenter. He was recently the recipient of a mild and innocuous piece of media flak – the ‘Greedy Star’ – awarded for his regular TV adverts promoting a popular brand of crisps. UK readers may remember the complaints? ‘How could someone in so responsible a position and to whom many children still look up, promote such an unhealthy item’ they cried in anguish?

Well I don’t know Mr Lineker well, but if he’s representative of most blokes here in the UK he probably had no idea when he signed the contract that what he was about to do would irk some people so. Like most folks here he probably thought thin slices of potato soaked in oil, salted and coated in the sort of chemicals not even Saddam would touch, are, to paraphrase Tarantino, the cornerstone of any nutritious breakfast. The fact is that while this outburst (unheard of 15 years ago) will, I’m sure, have no effect on Mr Lineker’s TV career, it has hopefully drawn attention to the core issue: how much do we value food in the UK?

The cynical answer would be 99p — the current cost of a Burger King Real Deal. This is too simplistic and just a tad unfair to a large section of the British public. The Revolution is at a slightly more advanced level. For every Burger joint that opens there’s a chorizo-laden deli; for every KFC we’ve a local Italian restaurant desperately trying to woo the locals with quivering mozzarella. Who makes the money? The Megacorps of course but the point is after twenty years (give or take ten) the choice now exists and furthermore it’s widening. Are we in the U.K. choosing correctly? On the whole no, but the tide is turning ever so slowly, just ask Mr Lineker and the beleaguered bosses of Burger King.

How is the Revolution affecting the regular Joe on the street? The signs are all around us. I work in an office and like millions of others in the same situation I go out at lunchtime to get some nourishment. I skip breakfast often, so it’s a big thing for me. When we first moved here two years ago, my colleagues and I, like soldier ants scoping a new nest site, set out at midday to forage around for a suitable source of lunchtime food. For a week or so we meandered aimlessly from one place to the next with some of us opting for one of the many 3-piece ‘meal-deals’ (pre-packed sandwiches with juice and crisps costing very nearly next to nothing), some going for a superior sandwich chain’s über-priced offerings while others tried a local grill’s hot steak sandwiches.

Recently however, there’s been a radical change in our lunchtime behaviour which has caused us all, like a bunch of hungry lemmings, to veer sharply in one unified direction. The source of this inspiration? It’s a small lunchtime takeaway outlet hidden away behind our office. You know the type: small and not too salubrious, no ostentatious signs and a distinct lack of indoor heating (for punters and employees alike).

This gem, proudly discovered by myself, is run by our new Italian heroine Mrs Silvagni. Not only does she receive our business, but her produce forms a focal point of daily, pre- and post-lunch discussion. The first e-mail most of us check in the morning is ‘Today’s Menu’ from Mrs S. Hard to believe eh? But wait till I tell you that our office is in Edinburgh and that I work in an IT consultancy. “No Way, Mistah Paul!” I can hear Joe cry all the way from Chiang Mai.

But the sight of a bunch of computer geeks in the world capital of saturated fat debating the finer points of fagiolini rifatti versus Cullen Skink would warm the hearts of the harshest cynic. Hopefully I’m conveying some idea of the sheer magnitude of ‘attitude adjustment’ that’s going on here in our little microcosm and which I believe is being mirrored in the wider public.

But you might want to know just what the secret of our new lunchtime food stop is? I believe it is something so basic and fundamental that to try and express it would put me in danger of sounding like an over-romantic fool. I’ll try anyway. Quite simply it’s healthy food cooked, er, simply. On a typical day we’ll have on offer various bean salads, home-made soups such as carrot or lentil, maybe a pasta dish or freshly made vegetable risotto still piping hot from the pan if you’re early enough. All this alongside crusty rolls filled with imaginative and colourful ingredients such as chorizo and brie.

What’s really interesting, however, is not so much the grub itself, but that our shop hasn’t completely forgotten its core but dwindling customer base: i.e. the demanding Scottish population. For about the same price as the home-made fayre you can still order a pie with a macaroni cheese filling (yes, they really do exist!) or, if so inclined, you can really push the boat out and get say, a battered sausage with chips drenched in vinegar.

The thing is, at Mrs S’s the fryer’s on near permanent standby and those pies are beginning to look decidedly past their sell-by. And as the oil cools down at the back her customers’ skin complexions almost visibly brighten as we collectively wean ourselves off the gunk. Oh, and did I mention that this shop is full with people queuing out of the door on weekdays between 12:30 and 1:30? You almost feel sorry for those nearby stalwarts of British cuisine—the backstreet fry-shops.

Did we switch en masse purely because we now have a source of varied, healthy and tasty food at a reasonable price? Probably, I mean the meal deals, like all pre-packed food, tasted ok because, as Eric Schlosser explains with such clarity in Fast Food Nation, pre-prepared food is designed to taste ok — although I like to think none of us could have persevered with such a lack of variety for an indefinite amount of time.

But would any of the British public admit to this sort of food fascination as they do in say, the Mediterranean countries? I probably would, but speaking as a Scottish-Italian who still remembers childhood days when pals, afraid of my home’s home cooking, would refuse invitations to ‘go back to my place for tea’, I’ve been around this sort of ‘funny foreign’ food for a while. Scots raised in the more traditional manner would probably never renounce their love of the deep-fried saveloy even though in private, as I suspect, they’re starting to have doubts. Maybe it’s a macho thing, confined possibly only to males with shirts long since devoid of creases, straining paunchlines and overworked hearts munching away on spinach in private, too proud to openly admit their worries.

These ‘doubts’ concerning the UK’s love of all things fatty are starting to become more pronounced which means we’re making progress. Look at the burgeoning role of the higher-priced premium shelves in our supermarkets.

This seems to be a peculiarly British phenomenon. Usually named something like ‘The Best’ or ‘Finest’ they offer organically grown food at a premium price, they are at best a pretty superficial indication of the state of the Revolution, a fad indicating mere heightened awareness and nothing of real substance. We need more. To enter stage two of the Revolution I believe the Brits will have to start paying attention to the abundance of fresh produce that comes from this small island and who knows, maybe even start to become seasonally aware. Have you ever noticed how suspicious French people in the UK become when served asparagus in the winter?

And the future? Well, in my dream world, stage three of the Revolution would see us taking a leaf out of the Italian cultural pot. I don’t have to tell Slow readers about the myriad of Consorzi with their grandiose names lovingly regulating everything in Italy from prosciutto to parmigiano. Is there a stronger indication of a country’s pride in its own food supply? In the UK, if you buy a well-known typical product, say a spicy Cumberland sausage, you have at best a one in twenty chance that it came from anywhere near Cumberland. Far more likely is that the lifeless lump of cling film-wrapped pink meat you found was made from reclaimed head-meat in a factory outside Glasgow.

But we’re getting there—slowly but surely. I’ve heard it said that food in the UK used to be viewed simply as fuel. This is an old law that is crumbling. You can still see people in shops stocking up on crisps, processed cheese and chocolate marshmallows with pink icing; but each year you have to look harder and harder as fine food shops and delicatessens, under the influence of the Revolution, jostle with one another for our pounds and pence. The Revolution is continuing apace with more and more foot-soldiers joining the massed ranks. Crucial statistics are on the increase:

– Awareness of local produce
– Amount of disposable income spent on food
– Experimentation in the kitchen.

Viva la Revolución!

Taken from Slow 45, 2004

Paul Coletti is a British journalist

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