Michelin-starred and celebrated chef Angela Hartnett recently claimed that Britain still lacks a genuine food culture, and that we’re still nowhere near being a foodie nation.
She adds that eating well in the UK is all about money, that we don’t make time to shop, cook or eat and we lack respect for food.
Is she right?
I used to live and work in Toulouse, the fourth largest city in arguably the culinary capital of the world, France. I was a chef in some incredible restaurants, where staff and customers alike shared a love of well-prepared, beautiful presented, delicious food. So far, so similar to any good restaurant in the UK. It’s outside the restaurant environment that the different attitude to food is so noticeable.
Take a look at your typical French town. As independently owned butchers, cheesemakers and bakeries disappear from the UK’s high streets, they are still prominent in even the smallest towns in France. And they’re filled with people – average people, not well-heeled foodies – asking about the best cuts, trying new delicacies and being advised how best to serve their cakes. The same people support their twice-weekly local markets, which are an integral part of life and no big deal. These same markets would be promoted as “Artisan Farmers’ Markets” here in the UK, with people coming far and wide to buy overpriced pies, pulled pork and pastries. Locally sourced, organic produce is more affordable in France, and furthermore, it’s expected. Sub-standard doesn’t cut it! The care, attention and respect shown for food is astounding.
I used to spend time with a fellow chef in the small village where he lived. He was appalled by the Brits’ attitude to food, calling what he saw them eat as “just grub to fill their stomachs rather than food to be savoured and enjoyed”. He told me that when the one and only hotel in his village changed their lunchtime offering to more of a fast food, self-service affair, there was an outcry, especially from the workmen who relished their 2-hour lunch break, relaxing over a 3-course lunch washed down with local wine. No £3.95 lunch deal for them. “A la poubelle” they would probably scoff!
Eating at your desk in France is a distinct no-no. A proper lunch with colleagues is the norm, and a key part of workplace socialising. Both the mental and physical health benefits of eating a proper meal away from your desk are well documented, but are simply not part of British culture.
The French don’t eat much less than us, and their diet is famously rich in butter, sugar and fat. But they eat in a more respectful, healthy way. They don’t snack – there’s no need to when you’ve eaten a hearty lunch or dinner, and they certainly don’t eat in the street. Restaurants close at 2pm, and it can be almost impossible to find a casual eatery after this time apart from in the biggest cities. No mid-afternoon coffee and cake for them!
So are things at least improving in the UK? Images of parents handing their children chips through the school gates after the implementation of healthy eating policies are sadly still recent, but the artisan food movement has taken hold in the UK, and we’re celebrating chefs and great cooking more than ever. Some of our produce is world famous – I’m thinking great exports like Scottish salmon, whisky, gin and Welsh lamb, and we have a lot to be proud of.
We in the hospitality and catering world can help facilitate change by using local products wherever possible, and shouting about it. Let’s not be embarrassed to charge fair prices for home produced dishes and let’s be proud of the provenance of our food. Let’s make every eating experience as enjoyable as possible by using the best quality ingredients, being creative and providing fantastic customer service.
But I feel it will take a few generations for the population as a whole to care more about food, and, sadly, I’m not sure that a genuine food culture will ever be part of our national psyche.
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