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Why British cuisine is a mash of contradictions

Eurest | Great food |  07 May 2013

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IT'S HARD TO NAIL DOWN A WORKING DEFINITION OF BRITISH FOOD.

When we look at continental neighbours — particularly the likes of France, Italy and Spain, we see countries that seem much more naturally at ease with their national cuisines than we are. While many seem to think of ours as a mishmash of cultural influences — not a true heritage.

But how do we define food heritage? Consider Spanish food — based heavily on staples like tomatoes, peppers and potatoes — it seems rooted in the mists of time. But all three of those foods were first introduced into Europe by Columbus when he came back from the Americas in the 15th Century.

So five hundred years then. But what about tea? Surely there’s nothing more British than a cup of tea; even the French would concede that. But, actually, it wasn’t widely enjoyed in Britain until the 19th Century.

Take the curry-house Balti — a British invention, and a world away from the food native to India. Rather than being hailed as a delicious British-born derivative, it’s considered by some to be a pale, inferior imitation. Why?

In a recent edition of the BBC’s Food Programme, food writer, Tim Haywood, said: “Our first recipes for British curry start appearing in cookbooks around the 1750s. Meanwhile, the first French recipe for something akin to coq au vin isn’t recorded until the 1860s.” And yet many believe coq au vin is firmly rooted in the French tradition, but our British curry isn’t a ‘proper’ part of our cuisine.

The reality is that Britain has always been a melting pot of peoples, cultures and foods. And comparing ourselves to other food cultures distracts us from being rightly proud of our own.

British food combines some of the best produce in the world, with the imagination and diversity of hundreds of different traditions. And because of that it is resolutely British, and we all get to benefit from one of the most diverse food cultures around.

As Tim Haywood said: “I’m very confident about the food of my country. Recipes from deep in our past, food that’s evolved from our amazingly-diverse culture and the things that young British chefs are dreaming up right now.

“Confidence in our food culture is growing healthily. Today I know exactly what I mean when I say British cuisine, and it doesn’t need inverted commas around it anymore.”

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