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.”
And for a couple of decades, her predictions seemed accurate. During the Findus Crispy Pancake years, going out, for the majority of people, meant overdone steak with a parsley garnish at the Berni Inn, and staying in was oven chips, battery chicken and tasteless forced vegetables. Simple, delicate food, the food that Elizabeth David enchanted us with, was simply impossible to reproduce at home in a food culture where you had a hard time buying a tomato that tasted like a tomato.
But Grigson would, I think, be delighted to have been proved wrong. Two generations later, we do live in a world where everyone knows what feta tastes like, where basil and olive oil are no longer confined to foreign holidays, where concern for seasonality and ethical sourcing have immeasurably improved the quality and flavour of the ingredients available to us. One of the pioneers of this revolution was Mark Hix, who opened his first independent venture, the Hix Oyster and Chop House, in Farringdon in 2008, after nearly two decades of rigorously re-educating diners’ palates in the possibilities of British food during his tenure at Caprice Holdings. It might seem old hat now, but there was a time when Portland crab was a more exotic proposition in London than ris de veau en bouchées à la reine. Hix deserves eternal credit for allowing the unpretentious clarity of British produce to sing, but a recent visit to Hix Soho (one of his seven London holdings, along with an hotel and restaurant in Lyme Regis) was just — blah.
We ordered the Portland crab and a dozen Carlingford rocks to begin. The oysters were decent, the crab tasted of nothing but fridge. Then a Dublin bay prawn burger and a Porterhouse steak with fat chips and peppercorn sauce. Nothing particularly wrong with either, except that the kitchen was clearly phoning this stuff in. It was, you know, fine. OK. The meat could maybe have been a bit more on the rare side, but it was unobjectionable, the prawn burger had obviously had a neglected childhood but was bravely overcoming its issues. We drank a squidgy Argentinian Malbec, the only aspect of the dinner which was better than bog-standard.
Unless you are Mr Hix, however, this review is a reason to be cheerful. If good British ingredients are now so well incorporated into the repertoire that they have become unexciting, it can only be a good thing. Standards have been absorbed and surpassed. What once would have seemed exceptional is now just normal, which is actually fantastic. Collectively, we are unimpressed by creamed feta and spinach because we are so accustomed to it, unthreatened by unsmoked fish roe because we expect it.
The comedian Peter Kay used to do a great running gag on the arrival of garlic bread in Bolton (“It’s the future!”), but the achievements of Mark Hix and his peers have given it a limited shelf-life. The idea that garlic could be suspiciously exotic just won’t make sense for much longer. But now the bar is so brilliantly raised, Hix’s restaurants will need to start trying a little bit harder.
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