The English, their Food, and their Cooking Pt.1

I love food.

I love cooking. I love good eating. I love figuring out how to cook food which is ruthlessly healthy and intensely tasty. I love cooking for friends. I love cooking on big occasions for lots of people. And I love cooking for myself. I love buying food. I love talking and arguing about food. But I truly hate something about the way we the English relate to food.  

I use the term English advisedly here: I cannot really comment on the other nations of the UK. Anyway, any Sassenach discussion of Scotch cuisine always starts with haggis and descends ultimately into gasping about deep-fried mars bars. Look, the Scots just enjoy them. And having heart-attacks. 

I grew up in quite fortunate gastronomic circumstances. My family is fairly cosmopolitan. My parents used to live in Italy, and we used to drive all round Europe for our family holidays, which meant I got to eat loads of different types of cuisine at source, as well as get a feel for the produce of slightly more demanding cultures. At home, my parents always cooked amazing food, for which I shall always be indebted to them. 

I became aware of the horrors which lurk in English cooking when I started going to school. I went to my local state school which I loved. However, I was one of those kids who brought a packed lunch (like the international kids of whom there was a good number). I was traumatised by the sight and the smell of the slop being dished out. There was hard oily pastry covering some weird sweet meat-jelly (as a main course). The boiled potatoes smelled of dishwater and were lousy with wretched black lumps. Dessert? Think saccharine pink biscuits doused in a sputum of watery custard. I could describe more of the horrors but I should move on to the merciless dinner ladies. They wore thick glasses which distorted their eyes (honestly, they all did) and, while I am sure they were all perfectly nice people, they forced the poor children in the care to finish every last festering lump on their plates. My god, why? Why did they think I did not want to eat it? Because I had an eating disorder at the age of five? Because I was evil? Because I was trying to give them more plate scraping work to do, just despite them? 

Incidentally, my uncle (who went to the same primary school as me) was so traumatised by one session of a dinner-lady bullying him to eat some putrid fish that he never has been able to eat fish ever since. 

What was strange to me was that so many of the kids thought the food was fine, even better than what they got at home. And I don’t think my school was unusual. Nor have things changed much, if Jamie Oliver is to be believed. Kids are still getting used to eating swill. 

Interest in food has changed in England over the last 20 years or so. People want to eat and cook stylish, healthy, and what they deem to be good food. But here is the problem. ‘What they deem to be’. 

In Italy, I would say that people generally know what a good pasta sauce or tomato tastes like. They know because they have grown up eating good sauces and good tomatoes. The English have not. The tomatoes we get in supermarkets here are for the most part laughably poor quality. If any of you know any Italians, ask them. Even better, go to Italy and look at the produce. And weep. Farmers and retailers have to supply Italians with good produce because if they do not, it will not get bought. 

Let me put it like this: an Englishman cannot for love nor money find a satisfactory cup of tea outside of Britain. It is always wrong somehow. These bloody foreigners just don’t get it, right? For all their poxy coffees and fine wines, they don’t know what a good cuppa should taste like. That is what English food is like to foreigners. 

In England we have been getting a bit more clued up about food. We WANT to learn. We look up to Delia Smith, Hugh-Fearnley Whittingstall, Gordon Ramsey et al. We adore the holiness of organic food and decry g.m. farming as Satan’s cruel machination to kill our children. We watch interminable cooking programmes on the cancer-box. But these good intentions are nothing if when it comes to buying good produce, we take more interest in a ‘taste the difference’ label than the smell, taste, and feel of the food. We talk the talk well enough, but are yet to walk the walk. 

We wrap our food in rubbish. Next time you go to the supermarket, take as much food as possible out of its wrapping and make a pile. Bags, boxes, cartons, cling-film. It is staggering what supermarkets do. Not only is the amount of packaging an achingly avoidable environmental problem, it more importantly separates us from the sensual experience of the food. All those subconscious senses which have evolved over tens of thousands of years so that we can quickly determine the best, safest and tastiest foods are cut off by the plastic. 

Some may say that this is the fault of supermarkets. However, I would say that they get away with all their crap because we let them. We will pay more for a product just because it has been pre-sorted. We trust that taste-the-difference food will taste, well, different. We do not demand it. We do not say ‘these tomatoes have clearly been ripened in a lorry, I shall take my custom elswhere!’ or ‘this beef has been clearly butchered by an epileptic monkey and that pork I had is more water than meat, I am not coming here again!’ or ‘raspberries in December? no wonder they taste like tramp’s piss! Good day!’ or ‘fuck me, Jamie, those mussels smell like a dog’s gall bladder! Go see a doctor!’ 

I think we English are obsessed with getting a good deal when it comes to food shopping. We clearly love these patently mendacious 2-for-1 offers (supermarkets still use this pricing ruse so we clearly have not grown wise to it). But still we seem to pay so much more for our lacklustre vittles than other European countries. Maybe this is the trick. Supermarkets universally overcharge, making their customers desperate for a bargain. 

I was chatting to an onion farmer recently who was telling me all about his view of supermarkets. Essentially, he said supermarket purchasers know nothing and care less about the quality of food. They are ruthless in their price demands. That is all that matters to them. They are no different from stock-market commodity brokers. Farmers are squeezed, and standards go down. These unscrupulous purchasers can get away with it too because the majority of their customers cannot tell the difference. 

Similarly, people complain about the rights of battery chickens. But the English have been buying scrawny, tasteless chickens and watery, nasty eggs because we think they are perfectly edible and fairly priced (judgments with which I would disagree). The battery chicken is the result of these two elements: the English consumer’s economic priorities and their ignorance of quality. I was in Switzerland recently, and even the least expensive chicken in Migros was better than anything I have found in Tesco or Sainsbury’s. 

[I shall continue this directly in another post. This needs to be spread over several posts for mercy's sake if nothing else]