I think this month I should address the nation’s eating disorder — not the alleged fact that half of us are anorexic and the other half morbidly obese, but our understanding of food. When traces of horse were found in certain convenience foods it was for a few days as though the world had ended. Eating horse, however — something continentals routinely do, and something I believe even the occasional Englishman does, with the same embarrassed discretion that might normally be reserved for reading a novel by the late Barbara Cartland — never killed anyone. The practice does, though, raise the issue of where we think food stands in our life.
If you are paying pence rather than pounds for a burger, it is probably sensible to ask yourself what is likely to be in it. It won’t be best fillet steak. It may well not be steak at all, but something that has been mechanically recovered from scraping meat left on bones if you are lucky. Indeed, next to that, a decent cut of horse is almost certainly superior. But, except for those eccentric types who like a bit of equine bresaola, Britons have a cultural resistance to eating horse. Indeed, on occasion in France, I have felt on the verge of having to restrain Mrs Heffer from an act of violence as we pass a chevaline.
We have a cultural resistance to eating dogs and cats too, which I imagine is just as well, and I recall as a child of about five or six other children at my little school becoming hysterical because, in a fit of honesty, the cook had told them that what appeared to be the mince we were having for lunch was in fact rabbit. We often anthropomorphise domestic pets, and those children who had only seen a rabbit as a pet, rather than a pest who with its friends and family would happily demolish much of a garden, saw eating such a dish as cannibalism. Our Jewish and Muslim friends abjure pork, denying them one of the most enjoyable things on earth, the bacon sandwich. Hindus will not eat beef. Food is full of cultural taboos.
But we seem, in our culture, to have acquired a greater taboo still: that food should not be expensive. Food took a far higher proportion of weekly income half a century or a century ago (it now seems to have been displaced by the cost of running a car in the weekly budget). I know that many families are financially pressed and simply cannot afford the best cuts of meat from the most reliable butcher; yet many convenience foods are hugely expensive. It is then said that working women lack the time to prepare non-convenience foods. That may be true: but something has to give. I do not doubt that affording good food is a serious problem for a substantial minority of the population, as it always has been. What worries me more is that those who have money to spend find it objectionable to spend it on good food.
From about the mid-1980s until the present day we have apparently been through a golden age of food in this country. Inspectors award clusters of stars and chestfuls of rosettes to restaurants that have interminable waiting lists for a table. The staple British dining — out experience of prawn cocktail, steak and Black Forest gateau (which still has its aficionados, radiating guilt and shame in the way of those who eat viande de cheval) was shunted off the cliff of fashion in favour of nouvelle cuisine, then the cuisine of Indo-China, then something called “fusion”. Supermarkets competed with each other to supply exotic fruits and unheard-of vegetables. Sainsbury’s started to stock ostrich. Supermarkets would not, though, routinely offer healthy British staples such as pheasant or partridge, in case a customer cracked a tooth on a piece of shot.
Food then developed its own pornography. We reached the stage, early in this century, when a different celebrity chef was on television each night offering his or her “take” on what to do with the richer-than-ever selection of goodies now to be found in your supermarket. Naively, I wondered at the popularity of these programmes, given not just the expense of (and, quite often, the difficulty in finding) some of the ingredients, but also the time and effort the dishes took to make. But then I realised that the people watching the programmes with such pleasure were usually not following through and making the dishes themselves. They were watching Delia, or Nigella, or Jamie, or Gordon with much the same attitude that some elderly men watch programmes featuring Miss Kelly Brook.
So here we have a paradox. We are more interested in food now than we have possibly ever been in our history. We seem to have an insatiable demand for television programmes, books, magazines and internet sites devoted to the subject. And yet we happily buy salt-packed, gristle-minced ready-made foods that may or may not contain what used to be someone’s little pony — and yell in terror when the possibilities of what it contains are exposed to us. We have patronised supermarkets that retail this filth in a way that has driven butchers in some parts of the country almost to extinction. Many of our people do not blink at paying £8 for a packet of cigarettes but would be horrified to pay anything like that to feed themselves or their children.
This column tries to avoid politics — God knows there is enough of it out there — but the iniquity of the Common Agricultural Policy is preventing our farmers from doing the best job they can, and from providing the best food they can. Food standards, much talked about in recent weeks, are an EU competence, not a British one. We import more and more of our food, not just so we can eat strawberries in February and broad beans in November, but because economies of scale allow the retailer to sell his imports to the public at a price that satisfies their obsession with food. As the Victorians knew, and as we are now learning again, cheap food sooner or later equals adulterated food. We would do well to forsake the pornography of food, alter our economic priorities, and start creating reliable and edible dishes of our own.