Tuesday, 4 October 2011

What's really British?

With British Food Fortnight now over for 2011, it seems the ideal time to consider just what British food really is.

It's fair to say that, in restaurant terms, it's probably never been better. The influence of the Roux brothers and Raymond Blanc in particular has had a massive impact - not simply in terms of record levels of Michelin stars held by establishments on this side of the Channel, but in an approach to cooking that has spread considerably beyond the upper reaches of eating out.

The ideas of seasonality and regional ingredients have become a mantra in the restaurant - and in the home.

But it is not something that has spread to every corner of Britain's food.

Nigel Slater's Eating for England is a collection of pithy essayettes on the cuisine of these islands.

Slater increasingly seems to be to food writing what Alan Bennett is to literature and the stage, with a sense of Englishness at it's most poignant as well as it's most ridiculous, and an understanding of memory and time and place that, in his case, can make you yearn less for a madeleine and more for a custard cream.

Like his volume of autobiography, Toast, much of this book is filled with a sense of nostalgia for the quirkily British foods that we remember from childhood: rice pudding to Murray Mints; the best biscuits for dunking and the sheer regional variety and creativity of the British when it comes to cakes.

But don't get too cosy, basking in the warm glow of nostalgia, because Slater peppers the book with withering comments on the other side of British food; the perennially grey stew; the stock cube that works against the taste of the meat; the high street butchers that are a dying breed because we shop online from our sofas ...

And that is where I start to feel depressed about the state of British food.

Watching Stephen Fry's latest series on language, another thing hit me. He was showing how the words we use have a cultural significance, describing national or regional attitudes.

One of his illustrations of this was a visit to the Basque region of Spain, looking at it's vocabulary and its food. All well and good.

But there's an even better example. Look at all those French phrases about the love of food: bon vivant, bon viveur, gourmand, gourmet and so on. We know these words because we have adopted them.

Try to think of an Anglo-Saxon phrase that describes the same thing - in general, let alone with the different subtleties that the words and phrases convey. We don't have the concept, so we have had to import the words and phrases wholesale.

I'm stymied. 'Foodie' is very recent and, for many, slightly deprecating - which tells its own story.

And that, to me, is the problem. These islands produce some fantastic food, yet most people ignore that and go to the supermarket.

Today, I bought some gilt head bream that was brought ashore in Cornwall only yesterday. If you found anything comparable in a supermarket, it would have been at least a day or two later, given the nature of supermarkets' centralised systems of distribution.

I grilled the fish for around five minutes a side. And served it with some carrot and broccoli. Simples. And very nice.

In the meantime, most people on these islands will probably have pulled something from the freezer, bunged it into the microwave and then sat and eaten while watching the TV.

And that, for me, is always going to be disappointing.

But in the meantime, I continue to enjoy a Yorkshire tea loaf that I tried out on Sunday. Lovely, as it happened! Moist and fruity sweet. And very, very easy.

So here, as an homage to British food, is my recipe for a Yorkshire tea loaf.

Take 500g of mixed fruit and pop it in a bowl with 230g sugar.

Just cover with hot tea (I used three tea bags of Earl Gray) – this should be around 570ml.

Leave overnight.

The next day, heat up your oven to 180˚C (fan oven).

Sift 454g self raising flour into the fruit and tea, together with two eggs. Mix well.

Then share the mixture out between two loaf tins that you've greased, lined, and greased again.

Pop in the oven for five minutes and then turn down the temperature to 140˚C (fan oven).

Leave for an hour – and then test with a skewer. If the skewer doesn't come away clean, then give the loaf another 10-15 minutes.

When the skewer comes out clean, remove the tins and leave for five minutes before lifting the loaves onto a rack and leaving to cool. Then eat with good butter.

This, I promise you, is British food at its best. And I think that Mr Slater would agree.

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