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The menu of a Berni Inn, c.1984


Unsurprisingly, I read a lot about food — memoirs and recipe books, stuff from the web to keep an eye on what the kids are doing, restaurant reviews to keep an eye on what Giles Coren is doing, breathless press releases, PDFs of menus. Recently I came across the following, from Tony Turnbull in The Times magazine: “The palest taramasalata, made with unsmoked roe as is the most authentic way . . . and the spinach and feta cream was — well, you know what creamed spinach and feta taste like.”

Not all that exciting, by the sound of it, but the sentence itself was arresting. The quiet reference to the correct ingredient in taramasalata, the assumption that readers did know what feta cheese tastes like, was a quiet testament to a little revolution. As a nation, we Brits tend to cling affectionately to our prejudices long after they are superannuated. A part of us still believes that the French are better at sex, for example, or that the US is a classless society; and despite our national obsession with celebrity chefs, TV food shows and glossy cookbooks, there remains a lingering conviction that British cuisine is somehow a bit awful, perhaps because most of us born before 1990 can remember when it really was.

The conventional historical wisdom is to blame the war (our other failsafe default setting), when a combination of rationing and a lack of domestic help marooned a generation of women in the kitchen with no idea what to do there. The distinguished food writer Jane Grigson, however, in the preface to the second edition of her 1974 collection English Food, identifies the 1970s as the real nadir for British eating. She had finished the first edition “full of hope”, but five years later she declared herself overcome by pessimism. Industrialised farming and frozen food had exacerbated the endemic weakness of our native cookery, which was that it was unprofessional and essentially domestic.

In France, the concentration of power into his own person by Louis XIV at Versailles had an interesting effect on the professionalisation of cooking. Separated from their estates and required to dance attendance on the king, the aristocracy depended on chefs to serve their tables, while the first serious restaurants opened after the Revolution, in part to absorb the dispossessed skills of the nobility’s staff. The most influential woman in the history of the French kitchen was arguably Madame Guillotine.

In contrast with French food, which thus evolved in the discrete strands of haute cuisine and cuisine du terroir, Grigson argues that the best British food had never been found in restaurants, which only imitated, more or less skilfully, continental trends, but in the home. When the moorings which bound home cooks to good ingredients and often laborious preparation techniques were loosened, it produced a generation reared on trash, who expected only trash. Grigson concluded despairingly: “Will we be able to buy fresh young peas, better-hung beef at the supermarket counter? Will shoppers become more resistant? I suspect [they] will not.”
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