Putting the pride back into great British food!

The French. Don’t you just love ‘em? Well they love themselves and aren’t shy about it. To have some sort of official body that keeps an eye on the language says something for a start.

If we had such a quango, the opposition, no matter who they were, would be continuously up in arms – a bit like we used to be with the French.

But while, due to modern global pressures, cracks may occasionally appear in their patriotism, they do generally tend to defend their food, their produce and their style of cooking. While we, the Brits on the other hand, have spent decades trying to pretend that we’re French; and occasionally Chinese and Indian.

I’ve nothing against the food of foreigners. I love it. But one of the main reasons we know anything about it is the pride of those born into it.

Somehow I can’t imagine some housewife in a middle-class suburb in Vietnam scouring her local markets for that elusive ingredient to make a British hotpot.

The French influence in Britain stands to reason. They’re our nearest foreign neighbours, the first place we hit when we go to the Continent and their army successfully invaded us some centuries ago.
But the main cause is a guy called Escoffier who, some years ago, taught us to cook; or, at least, how to cook his way. As is the case with most fashions, we leapt on his methods like a drowning man, such that they became received opinion.

It’s not only that we embraced Escoffier’s dishes but also his revolution in kitchen operation that, along the way, helped elevate cooking to a profession with status. But the legacy is such that we eschewed much of our tradition.Along with changing the titles of our chefs on their career ladder – sous, chef de partie and so on – we threw out much of our respect for our indigenous dishes.

At Oldfields, in order to champion British food over the years, we’ve had to go to war with the French influence so that we may serve such things as chunky carrots rather than “julienned”.

And not that long ago, I even employed a head chef who, once he got his feet under the table, threatened to walk out if he ever heard the words “gravy” or “custard” used in “his” kitchen. Unsurprisingly, I allowed him to walk but his reaction to such terms wasn’t, and isn’t, unique. Which makes this British Food Fortnight, which we’re in the middle of now, as important as ever.

No matter which style of food you cook, its success is dependent on the quality of the ingredients. But none more so than traditional British cooking where the basic components are messed about with to a minimum and are allowed to speak for themselves.

It’s because of such a principle that our cooking became derided. What hope a quality dish if war-time austerity enforced the use of old, tough or poorly-prepared ingredients?

But the modern emergence of farmers’ markets and farm shops, along with the drive for recognition of local produce, means that there’s an abundance of quality ingredients for us to use in our British dishes. It’s time we took another leaf out of the French book, and promoted our pride in our British food.

Originally posted February 2010

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