Over the last 25 years or so, I’ve been lucky enough to have spent many happy holidays in rural France, sampling the various regions’ wines, their local dishes and making the French feel superior when listening to me attempting to speak their language. At first, as far as my hosts were concerned, none of this made me particularly memorable because they often met odd people from across the water who knew nothing about French wine, food or the language and spoke English in a peculiarly slow, and very loud, fashion.
However once I became a restaurateur some 15 years ago the locals began to show greater interest in me. They assumed that I could enlighten them as to the vast range of traditional culinary delights that must exist in the UK but which rural French folklore contrived to prevent them knowing about. Unfortunately, I couldn’t. It seemed the folklore was right. Obviously the UK had no dishes other than roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, fish and chips and steamed puddings – all cooked with loving carelessness and ignorance as if to punish ourselves and remind us there’s a war on. But how was I to know then that I’d soon find out that I was wrong?
Food in the UK, particularly in the better parts of the restaurant sector, began to go through a revolution some years ago, standards began to rise with imagination and flair abounding. But while this was great, it wasn’t really what one could call British Food. While good and exciting and raising the bar a lot, dishes such as a blancmange of Thai lemongrass on a mound of Peruvian goats cheese fondue were not exactly indigenous to Yorkshire or anywhere else within our borders.
However, in recent years, things began to change and for the better. On the back of a renaissance of good, recognisably British local produce, some chefs and other professionals within the industry started to re-examine our traditional offerings. After all, we must have had some good food in this country of ours once. Otherwise, how could we have had the strength to sail off around the world invading and conquering?
But I’ve recently carried out a small unscientific survey, asking friends and other associates what they consider to be British food. It’s possibly a reflection on the type of friends I have but almost all of them got stuck after the obvious fish and chips, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and, er, that’s about it. This is despite the Great British Menu TV series and numerous other programmes and newspaper articles raving about our culinary quality. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised because you see the anomalies such as, despite there being more books, magazines and TV programmes about food than ever before, fewer people cook at home in the UK, as a percentage of the population, than ever in our history.
It’s why, at Oldfields, we concentrate on our basics; British cooking using local, seasonal produce. It’s why, early last year, we commissioned a map that’s made up of dishes from around the British Isles – and that includes southern Ireland – that we had made into wallpaper for the restaurant (and also available in A1 poster size over the phone from us!). And you know what? As a result I’ve found I could talk for days, weeks, months on the subject, on the wealth of dishes and ingredients. In fact, with our experience of colonising the world, the British unique use of exotic spices alone says so much more about our creativity and imagination than any list of standard dishes ever can. While not bottomless, it’s a pit so full of variety that it’s a wonder we Brits ever came to get such a bad reputation. I can only think to blame the two world wars.
With the Olympics being staged here and with this being Jubilee year, we should now, more than ever, celebrate our Britishness, our culinary history (if not our relatively recent one) and shout loud and proud about what we can call our own.