A Royal Institution lecture of 1940 demonstrated that laboratory rats fed on an Indian village diet thrived, while another group given British working-class food became diseased, distressed and, ultimately, cannibalistic. How things have changed since then – or so it would seem. Presenting a list of his favorite budget eateries, Guardian food editor Matthew Fort recently wrote that, ‘In the list below you will find Polish sledzie, Sudanese salataaswad, Indian puris, Gascon andouillette, Japanese noodles, Turkish bobrez izgara, Italian bruschetta, Portuguese cataplana and Chinese double-braised pork, to name but a few, each representing a community and a culture that have made this country the most diverse, pleasurable and stimulating country in the world in which to eat’. So has Britain successfully assimilated the vast range of cuisines that successive waves of postwar immigration have brought in? Is it, at once, a country without a national cuisine but also a terrific place for a good meal? One apparently unlikely institution to look for an answer is the great British hospital. Last year, in fact, Loyd Grossman, former host of the BBC TV Masterchef program (a cookery tournament in which budding chefs combined the most wild and wonderful ingredients to create dishes that it would be hard to put any definite label to) was commissioned to jazz up the menus for the sick and the ill. Hospital food was said to be a scandal (though whether meals for the unhealthy were more scandalous than the prevailing junk diet of food of the healthy is a moot point). Previously the NHS had been spending around £500 million a year on food, but as much as £45million’s worth was being rejected because it was allegedly ‘unpalatable’. So what did Grossman come up with? Delicacies such as spinach, tuna, egg and mung bean salad, butter bean and bacon soup, roast cod with garlic potatoes and leek and mushroom sauce, braised leg pof chicken chicken with lentils, cauliflower and very cheesy sauce, steak and kidney pie with olive oil mash; navarin of lamb with couscous and grilled vegetables. All very, healthy, all very commendable, though, save for the steak and kidney pie and the cauliflower cheese, hardly ‘British’ in conception or design (what’s a mung bean, by the way?). But if fusion can make up for loss of identity, then everything’s OK, isn’t it? Or is it? Listen to what the distinguished f&w critic Jonathan Meades has to say: ‘We lost our national cuisine after the war when we chose to go down the path of industrial farming, basically an animal feed business, the biggest amount of the least choice. And that is absolutely reflected in the standard of the food, which is appalling. It’s all cooking by numbers and prepared boil-in-a-bag exoticism. We have to be honest with ourselves: most of the British countryside is breeze-block bungalows and light industrial estates with cuisine to match.’ So what is it with the British? How come their attitude to food is so schizophrenic? The problem is that the pleasures of the table never rated high on their list of priorities. True, over the last decade food and wine have enjoyed a media boom. Few other countries boast as many TV programs and magazine supplements devoted to the subject. My view, however, is that the phenomenon is the preserve of a privileged elite and, paradoxically, reflects the reality of a country devoid of a real food culture. An Italian or a Frenchman doesn’t listen to TV chefs telling them how to eat; they just do it. Away from the bright lights and the posh London restaurants, Britain also happens to be a place where many people are frightened to eat at all? As a result of the ongoing crisis in British agriculture (BSE and the foot-and-mouth epidemic), they simply don’t know what’s safe and what isn’t any more. The disaster is the direct result of a postwar food policy which, often unscrupulously, has exploited highly intensive factory farming to produce more and more cheap food for a nation that doesn’t really care about what it puts in its stomach anyway. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say, and in the case of the British they like their eating cheap – and to hell with the consequences!
John Irving is the editor of the Slow Food www.slowfood.com website
Photo: Masterchef and hospital menu deviser Loyd Grossman