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Once a source of derision, British cuisine has become a mainstay of London’s thriving restaurant scene. Joanna Wood charts the reasons for its increasing popularity
Imagine you’ve been working abroad for a few years, have just come back to London and want to check out the city’s restaurant scene. One thing is going to hit you smack between the eyes: there are an awful lot of places doing the ‘Brit thing’.
Of course, that’s an all-enveloping term with more than one interpretation. However, it’s fair to say that there are two main camps: those restaurants that are putting out modern versions of authentic British dishes – think pies, hotpots, braised oxtail and classic comfort puds; and those that are adding a touch of French, Italian and other Mediterranean culinary techniques to the mix, but using artisan British ingredients to create their dishes.
Food purists, naturally, prefer the former approach. But this overlooks the fact that all cuisines, at some stage in their history, absorb foreign influences, adopting ingredients and cooking methods until they become considered as their own. ‘Food is like language; it never stands still. Don’t forget, chickens originally came from Asia, tomatoes and potatoes from South America, and piccalilli is an Anglo-Indian condiment,’ says chef Tom Pemberton of Notting Hill’s Hereford Road restaurant.
Pemberton reckons that between 80-90% of his produce is sourced from the UK, and this is probably one of the most crucial factors fuelling the current revival of fascination with all-British food. There has been a gradual build-up of interest in our national cuisine and ingredients over the past 15 years, but over a decade ago, when Gary Rhodes first hit the headlines for championing classic British dishes, British artisan food products were distinctly lacking in quality, not to mention quantity. This is no longer the case.
‘British produce is 150% better than it was five years ago; 10 years ago there wasn’t any consistency,’ says Christian Butler, who opened West Country-leaning Northbank in EC4, overlooking the Tate Modern, in October 2007. ‘Any chef relies on the quality of the produce he cooks with – it’s key – and UK produce is definitely getting better,’ adds restaurateur and judge on BBC2’s Great British Menu, Oliver Peyton.
When he opened British restaurant Inn The Park in St James’s Park in 2004, Peyton was anxious that his chefs wouldn’t be able to source good seasonal British produce on a 12-month cycle. ‘It was a big concern and I was scared about pulling it off,’ he admits. He needn’t have worried; Peyton had made the decision to go full-on Brit at precisely the right time, when there was a huge growth in the volume of carefully produced British fruit, vegetables and meat.
The whys and wherefores for this burst of quality produce are complex and hotly debated. Food scares, like BSE and the major foot-and-mouth outbreak of seven years ago, pushed British farmers to the brink of financial ruin. A knock-on effect was to make entrepreneurial farmers look at alternative sources of income, including growing specialist crops and rearing specialist livestock, and also be more responsive to what chefs were demanding in terms of fresh ingredients.
‘Ten or 20 years ago, everybody got everything at Rungis market in Paris. Now British producers are coming to chefs and saying they can grow specifically for them,’ says restaurateur and TV chef Brian Turner. He also believes that because there are now more young British chefs cooking at a higher level, there’s a confident evolutionary process that makes them want to cook within a British culinary context. Pemberton backs this theory: ‘I’m British, so it’s always made sense for me to do British food – I’ve always felt insincere cooking Italian or French food,’ he says.
The food scares of the 1980s and 1990s undoubtedly made diners more aware of what they put in their mouths, and this fuelled the push towards artisan farming methods for the niche restaurant market. Provenance and traceability, especially of meat, became important, bolstered by the new buzzwords of ‘local’ and ‘seasonal’.
‘Those food crises absolutely had an influence on food culture. They were a catalyst and made people rightly suspicious about things like intensive factory farming,’ confirms Tom Norrington-Davies, chef and co-owner of 32 Great Queen Street restaurant. However, Norrington-Davies is wary about listing too much food provenance on his menu for fear of writing an essay on each dish. Mark Sargeant, head chef at Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s and the culinary force behind the Ramsay group’s three London pub restaurants, The Narrow, The Warrington and The Devonshire, echoes this: ‘If you list everything, you’d end up with a menu the size of War and Peace.’
That said, Norrington-Davies admits that customers regularly ask him where his produce originates. ‘They want to know where the fish is caught, where the meat comes from. Provenance is not just something I push on them.’ It’s a view shared by Pemberton, Peyton et al. Clearly, there is a balance to be struck between knowledge and information overload, but the message is clear: the dining public are increasingly well-informed and want to learn more about British produce.
The BBC’s Great British Menu series, Rick Stein’s Food Heroes, and the chicken campaigns of Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have all played their part in establishing a ‘good food’ culture in the UK. The internet has played a part, too. ‘It’s made artisan produce accessible to the home market. The discerning housewife can buy half a Middle White pig direct from the farmer,’ points out Norrington-Davies.
Unlike Gary Rhodes’s restaurants in the 1990s, today’s Brit-focused establishments are not at the fine-dining end of the spectrum. Gastropubs and high-street brasseries are more the pitch, reflecting the fact that much of what we regard as classic British fare originates from peasant cooking. Food presentation, however, is in tune with the times: simple but done with flair. The same applies to the restaurant design, which is often sleek and modern.
If you want to experience a seminal contemporary take on British food first hand, pay a visit to Canteen in Spitalfields. It does unfussy, gutsy food, regards high-street chains, such as Pizza Express and Wagamama, as direct competition and has a chic, clean-lined dining room. ‘The design was key for us,’ says Canteen co-owner Patrick Clayton-Malone. ‘We wanted to get away from the stodgy image of British food and we knew if we delivered a sense of cleanliness and a quality environment, we’d communicate that the food was “cool”.’ Launched in 2005, the restaurant was so successful it was asked to open a second site in the newly refurbished Royal Festival Hall, which re-opened last year.
The current vogue for British eateries should be seen as part of the wider revival of interest in ‘authentic’ regional cuisines and classic French bistros – think River Café Italian, southwest France at Bord’eaux, and Parisian chic at Galvin Bistrot de Luxe and Racine. The Slow Food Movement (www.slowfood.org.uk) is adding to this desire for unadulterated cuisine, and there is also a hunger for the food that granny used to make, which the time- and culinary skill-starved public no longer cook at home.
Whatever the reasons, there’s no denying the fact that doing Brit food well is currently a recipe for success in the restaurant world. And the defining characteristic of modern British fare is the use of predominantly local produce. For ‘local’ read the British Isles; limiting suppliers to just one single county doesn’t make sense and isn’t always possible in practical terms either.
Will the flag-waving trend last? Probably. Why? Because the chefs and restaurateurs backing Brit food are passionate about the cause and already looking at ways of pushing forward – seasonal British cocktails anyone? If you want to delve further into our culinary past and eat modernised versions of heritage dishes, head for any Mark Hix restaurant (see panel, facing page) or Heston Blumenthal’s Bray pub, The Hinds Head, which has quaking pudding, a 400-year-old classic, on its menu.
One thing is certain, when the likes of Ramsay and Blumenthal launch pubs, you can bet it’s a trend worth following. Sargeant explains the Ramsay group’s venture into the Brit food scene: ‘I’d been a big fan of British food for a long time, and wanted a place where I could put dishes on a menu. Don’t get me wrong, Claridge’s is my pride and joy, but what we do is classically made fine-dining food with a real international feel, and the idea of being able to cook simply made dishes, executed well and using great local ingredients at a price anyone could afford was just too tempting.’
There’s no doubting Sargeant’s enthusiasm for Brit food, but for him, and all London restaurateurs across the culinary style divides, the next 18 months could prove to be a testing time. The current credit crunch may force people to cut back on dining out as 2008 progresses, but the competitive pricing of the new breed of British restaurants should strengthen their position on the capital’s foodie scene. And don’t underestimate the role of patriotism. ‘I definitely think the interest in British food will continue to get stronger,’ says Butler, ‘as people really want to support British farmers and producers.’
Peyton agrees: ‘The critical thing for me about Great British Menu is that it elevated public opinion of both British cooking and British chefs and I don’t think that feeling will disappear quickly. People want to get back to eating in a traditional manner.’
Time, as they say, will tell.
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Summer 2008