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British Chefs

I have a confession to make: I am a relative newcomer to British food. I didn't grow up here so I have no memories of Sunday roasts with two veg and a yorkshire pudding, or granny's victoria sponge and bread and butter pudding. I can't even remember the arrival of the first fast food outlets or the battle for supremacy between the supermarket and the high street - all that was decided long before I arrived on the scene. But there's one thing I can tell you: Britain is currently in the throes of a food revolution, and where it's all going to end is anyone's guess.

Food & drink

Flying the flag

Britons have always embraced foreign cuisines, but it is only recently that we have begun to discover the gastronomic treasures on our doorstep. In the first of a two-part investigation, Robin O'Sullivan talks to chefs to find out what's behind our newfound interest in all things British

I have a confession to make: I am a relative newcomer to British food. I didn't grow up here so I have no memories of Sunday roasts with two veg and a yorkshire pudding, or granny's victoria sponge and bread and butter pudding. I can't even remember the arrival of the first fast food outlets or the battle for supremacy between the supermarket and the high street - all that was decided long before I arrived on the scene. But there's one thing I can tell you: Britain is currently in the throes of a food revolution, and where it's all going to end is anyone's guess.

For a while now the UK has been becoming increasingly interested in food. People are eating out more than ever before, and when they do they're as likely to go for a Thai, Vietnamese, Moroccan or Mexican as they are French, Spanish and Italian. These days Britons are famous for being adventurous eaters abroad, keenly seeking out local specialities, and at home they lead all of Europe in their consumption of ethnic ready meals. But until recently, British food wasn't at the top of anyone's list.
The popularity of television programmes like the BBC's Great British Menu is just the noisiest piece of evidence pointing to a sea change. The series has been commissioned for a third time, and according to the producer, Nicola Moody, it is tapping into something that really excites audiences. "It's an incredible and interesting time," she explains. "Britain has never had a tradition of brilliant techniques. We're a younger nation in that sense but our produce is unparalleled right now. British chefs are happy to experiment and we're open-minded about food. Our culture reflects that and there is no simple definition of what is modern British food."

Exciting though British food might be at the moment, then, most chefs, producers, food writers and aficionados - let alone the average person on the street - are hard pressed to describe what modern British food actually is. Part of the problem stems from the fact that there never has been a coherent, fully understood national cuisine in Britain. Sure, if asked, most people could rattle off a list of well-known dishes like fish and chips, steak and kidney pie, Lancashire hot pot and sticky toffee pudding, but few, if any, could say what it is about them that expresses a unified food culture, a way of shopping, cooking and eating that approaches the fervour of the Italians and the French.

According to the food historian Laura Mason, that's because the French attitude towards food was something actively constructed over 150-200 years. She says: "The idea that certain areas produce very good things was encouraged because it was good socially and economically to do so. This is something that we haven't really done in this country because we've concentrated on producing as much food as cheaply as possible."

Even though Britain hasn't had a longstanding tradition of valuing food, there is still undeniably something that makes British cuisine distinctive. Molly O'Neill, the New York Times food columnist, once quipped that it was the heady use of fantastically flavourful butter and cream that distinguished dining in London from Paris and New York. If you trawl around chef circles in the capital these days, however, you get the sense that there's something more than mere animal fat that sums up the essence of British food.

In my search to find out what this might be, it seemed like a good idea to talk to Mark Hix, chef-director of Caprice Holdings and author of British Regional Food. According to Hix, British food is having a major renaissance and people who think it's just stodge have got it all wrong. As he explains, British food is simple and straightforward just like the best of Spanish and Italian cooking: "In my book I've done a take on very, very classic things, adapting them slightly. I've also made some new British dishes out of seasonal ingredients very simply matched together, like seashore vegetables with something fishy for example. That's British food!"

Like most chefs of his generation, he wasn't trained to be interested in British food. It was only when he turned to food writing that he discovered a whole world of produce that he hadn't known existed. When asked about British ingredients, he can get a bit evangelical: "I think suddenly we've all realized, especially our producers, that we're able to produce very good chickens, cheeses, meat ... and we're able to grow lots of different vegetable that have been forgotten about, like Jerusalem artichokes and that sort of thing. I think people are suddenly realizing that we don't need to import all this food anymore, that we've actually got it on our doorsteps. It hasn't been flown halfway around the world and at the end of the day you're throwing money back into English businessmen's pockets."

If Hix's take on British combines nostalgia with lashings of nationalism, across town at the Anchor and Hope, the acclaimed gastropub, chef Jonathan Jones has other thoughts on the subject. He gets a bit impatient when people try to pin down his food. He doesn't see the food at the Anchor and Hope as being particularly British, even though it often described as a fine example of 'British bistro' and there's no possible way that the combinations he creates (celeriac and apple soup; smoked mackerel with lentils; beetroot, horseradish and watercress salad; grilled lemon sole with samphire) would grace a menu in say, New York, Paris, Rome or Barcelona.

According to Jones, he works with what's in season and fresh, which naturally means looking to British producers: "I've never been on a crusade to fly the flag for Britain in any way, shape or form but it would be ridiculous to live here and not cook what's on your doorstep." Jones writes a menu twice a day after he's reviewed what tasty things he's got on hand. When it comes to influences he cites the doyenne of the American food revolution, Alice Waters, as surely as he does Fergus Henderson, Simon Hopkinson and Alistair Little. What's important, he thinks, is keeping it simple and working creatively with the very best you can get your hands on.

According to the chefs, the new interest in British food is about the rediscovery of British produce rather than classic dishes. By now we're all used to hearing celebrity chefs and food writers bang on about the virtues of eating seasonally and locally, but for lots of us, living as we do in the age of the large supermarket monopolies and enormous food miles, it's pretty tough to get real farm fresh produce on a regular basis. Suggestions that there is a resurgence of British agriculture can seem a little out of touch with reality, frankly. But the headlines would have us believe exactly that - that there's a new breed of small producer out there, fuelling this new interest in British food. Is this really true?

Henrietta Green, author of the Food Lover's Guide and the driving force behind London's Borough market, has been lobbying for British produce for decades. She has observed that the average consumer seems more interested than ever in buying British. But while there is cause for optimism, she's a bit cynical about this trend as well. She's quick to point out that among the chattering classes, a lot of interest in trophy foods is not because of how they taste, but because of their cachet: "If you sit down at a dinner party in London, the joint you're eating may well come from the Ginger Pig, but just how much the people who bought that joint know about it remains debatable. Britain is still far from being a culture where people know and care deeply about food ... We've got a long way to go

Although Green might have a bee in her bonnet about the average consumer, she perks up when asked about the new crop of producers. "There's a new breed of farmer in Britain and it's an exciting time," she explains. "The new farmers are young entrepreneurs. They're going back to the land and taking the savvy that they acquired in their City jobs and applying it to farming, in the process bringing new talents, new energies and shaking things up. This is a big change from the old guard who didn't even have answer phones. Hello? How can you take orders if you can't be reached?" When asked why it's such a good time for small producers, Green provides a cautious response. "There's no one factor. Certainly more disposable income plays a large role, and the fact that people are beginning to realize that you get what you pay for in food."
The public's interest in supporting small producers has been growing steadily since the late 1990s. The massive growth of the farmer's market movement spiked immediately after the foot and mouth epidemic in 2001, when the public wanted to support British farmers and also began to demand more traceable food. According to Jim Twine, the business and development director at the Soil Association, although 80% of the British public do their shopping in supermarkets these days, there's a tidal wave of interest in the story behind the food. Even the national supermarkets have had to accommodate this interest by stocking more locally produced foods and changing their labelling. The media, he thinks, has played a huge role in getting people more interested in food and cooking, and by extension they want to know where their food comes from.

Since he started at the Soil Association in the 1990s, it's grown by leaps and bounds, and while the average age of a farmer in Britain still hovers around 60 years old, he agrees with Henrietta Green that there are changes afoot: "The new generation of farmers getting involved are very entrepreneurial, coming up with all sorts of news ways of marketing themselves and getting the word out."

One young mover and shaker is Thomas Jones of Llanevan Hill Lamb, who several years ago gave up a media career in London to manage his uncle's hill farm in Radnorshire and his father's farm in Herefordshire. Although he'd grown up in the countryside, he had little interest in farming until one day he started supplying his father's beef to the chef at the restaurant where he worked to subsidise his ambitions as a screenwriter. Since then he's built up an impressive list of contacts in London, supplying places like St John and the Anchor and Hope. He's quick to admit that he's still in the process of learning the craft of animal farming from his father and uncle, but the marketing and management of the business clearly bear all the hallmarks of the younger generation.

For one thing, he rejected out of hand selling beef at market, as his father had always done, in favour of trading directly with chefs in London. Top chefs pay well for the privilege of purchasing an entire carcass of the best quality meat, raised for flavour rather than weight, and can use the whole animal. Jones gets animated when talking about the London scene: "I just think in London the catering business is just so much more intensive. You get a lot of talented chefs coming together, sharing ideas ... to run a restaurant in London is quite a difficult thing to do. You really have to pick up the cheapest cuts and turn them into good money. There are a lot of chefs who are doing that who are exploring food, different ways of cooking food. It's very good for us."

At the opposite end of the spectrum is another young producer, Rob Haward, who packed it all in after seven years at the Soil Association to manage an organic box scheme dedicated to bringing farm fresh produce to homes in the Midlands. River Nene Organics took the successful business model of Riverford Organics in South Devon and ran with it in an area where most people said it couldn't be done. "The majority of farming around us is largely arable," Haward explains. "On an arable farm today it is estimated that you can't make it work financially unless you have 1,500 acres and employ 1 person ... any more than that and you have too much labour and it isn't going to be economic. Our growers group farms around 700 acres and sustain the livelihood of well over 100 people. What we've done proves that you can sustain the livelihood of an awful lot of people if you do it in a commonsense way throughout."

In just under three years, River Nene has grown astronomically. Haward is encouraged by this, but is under no illusions. The overwhelming majority (97-98%) of all fruit and vegetables purchased in Britain are still grown conventionally and sold through the supermarkets, who have a stranglehold on the chains of distribution in the UK. He sees the growth of River Nene as a beacon of hope: "The British public are fed up with the offering they're getting from the supermarkets. They want something different. They do genuinely care about good food and the environment. And they do care about how people are treated."

Even though the British public are starting to wake up, Haward believes that it is up to the new generation of growers and producers to get out there and market themselves: "Where there's a will there's a way. I mean with the demand that is so clearly there - that we've just scratched the surface of - there's lots and lots of potential, and I suppose you could say that British agriculture hasn't been quick enough to respond. We can fairly be criticized for complaining too much and expecting the market to come to us, expecting the customers to come knocking on out door wanting our products, and that's not going to happen. We have to get out there and shout about why we're doing great things and how fantastic our products are, and then I think we'll find that there's a responsive British public to buy what we produce.

"We're moving in the right direction but we've an awful long way to go."


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