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Long the target of jokes, it’s arguable that all aspects of British food are misunderstood.
“One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad,” Jacques Chirac famously said at an international meeting in 2005, when he was serving as France’s president.
“The only thing they have ever done for European agriculture is mad cow disease,” said the former French prime minister. “After Finland, it is the country with the worst food.”
Chirac’s jibes at British food didn’t end there. He apparently joked with other world leaders, including Vladimir Putin, about the time that former NATO Secretary General Lord George Robertson, who hailed from Scotland, served him some of the local cuisine.
“That is where our difficulties with NATO come from,” quipped Chirac, as reported by BBC News.
But those who joke about British food probably haven’t been eating it.
International food authority and television personality Andrew Zimmern acknowledges that the reputation of British foods has had its ups and downs, but says today’s English food hearkens back to a grand tradition.
“Two hundred years ago,” Zimmern said, “the phrase ‘a fine English meal’ was considered high praise.”
Then, during the last century, English cooking’s status took a nosedive.
“Twenty years ago,” said Zimmern, “the food of the British Isles was universally considered to be among the world’s worst—boring, bland and boiled.”
Many observers say that British cuisine’s fall from grace had much to do with the residual effects of two world wars and strict rationing.
“But today,” says Zimmern, on his food show’s 2007 trip to England, “the foods of the United Kingdom are back on top of the food chain, thanks to a populist heritage foods movement and a keen appreciation for their traditional foods.”
So let’s take a look at some of the myths about British food:
Myth No. 1: British food is boring, like roast beef.
We mention roast beef here for a reason. For centuries, Britain was known for its beef, though for much of that time most of its population couldn’t afford to eat it. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Britain became renowned for its breeding of cattle, which it exported around the world through its empire.
Hogarth’s famous painting and popular engraving The Gate of Calais or O, the Roast Beef of Old England, is a testament to the fame of England’s beef – and perhaps a preemptive rejoinder to Chirac’s condescension. In Hogarth’s rendition, it’s the French who appear scraggly and underfed. Hogarth himself wrote that he meant to “display to my own countrymen the striking difference between the food, priests, soldiers, &c.” of the two countries.
Myth No. 2: British food is bland.
Ever had hot English mustard? Seriously, British spice artistry goes back centuries. The Norman Conquest brought spices into England in the middle ages, says Colin Spencer in his book British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History. Britain was a major player in the spice trade, which introduced the country to exotic flavors from all around the world. Of course, the influence of India, a former colony, on the British palate probably can’t be overestimated.
Myth No. 3: British food is either boiled or overcooked.
It’s probably true that there were periods in British history where cooking methods sapped food of its taste. Historian Spencer argues that British cuisine’s decline began not with 20th century war rationing but with Victorian attitudes about health and style. Spencer says that the Victorians sabotaged their own palates because they were scared of raw foods, contemptuous of simple preparations and in excessive awe of French food.
But at the same time, the British had a long-tradition of flavorful cooking techniques, dating back to early Britain, which developed spiced roasting and stewing techniques before they were widely used in Europe. Those traditions are once again being revived by modern-day chefs, Slow Food devotees, and foodies.
Myth No. 4: Because it all comes from the same small island, British food lacks the diversity of other cuisines.
Wrong, and here’s just one example: in 2010, Britain made roughly 700 different kinds of cheeses—100 more than France. Not only did England produce more cheeses than France, but, according to statistics cited by the Financial Times, it produced more cheese on a per capita basis as well: its “innovation score” of 11.4 cheese “variants” for every one million people bested the French, who scored a mere 9.2.
Myth No. 5: After the previous cheesy comparison, there’s no way you could come up with another culinary statistic in which the English outshine the French.
Wrong again. Also in 2010 (obviously a big year for British food victories over the French), a survey revealed that Britons spent more time in the kitchen than the French. The poll, conducted by the BBC’s food magazine olive and the French magazine Madame Figaro, found that 50 percent of British readers spent more than 30 minutes cooking each night, while only 27 percent of French readers did so.
And if that last questionable statistic didn’t impress you, this one certainly won’t: people in southern England eat more garlic than people in southern France. That “splendid fact,” wrote the Independent quite a while ago, came from owner of a 30-acre garlic farm on the Isle of Wight.