British cooking has had an awful reputation, that’s a fact. But, if you look at British food from all angles, in our homes, restaurants and on TV cookery shows, you’d see a picture that contrasts starkly with our bad reputation. Today, British cooking is world class, not always but mostly. So, how did we get our reputation for bad cooking? It’s all too easy to blame it on the French, so let’s try that first.
In 1066, England was conquered by French Norsemen, the Normans. For hundreds of years we were under the rule of a French speaking elite class, and that meant we were a nation divided by language. Those in authority spoke French while the common people spoke English. It wasn’t just a linguistic divide; it affected ever aspect of our culture. In food, the rulers ate beef (boeuf in French,) while the commoners raised oxen in the fields. This didn’t last forever but its legacy has. Even now, if we want to make something sound grander, we use a French word to describe it. Think of the words ‘cookery’ and ‘cuisine.’ Cookery sounds ordinary, cuisine sounds more refined. None of this directly affected the actual merit of British cooking, but it shows where the prejudice arose.
Let’s fast forward to the 1700s and the Industrial Revolution. In the space of about two centuries, Britain went from having an agricultural economy to a mainly industrial economy. This period saw vast numbers of people moving away from the countryside and into the towns and cities. It’s easy to see how millions of British people would have lost touch with their rural heritage, and that included their knowledge of food and cooking. Times were hard for the new industrial workers and their families, and they needed cheap food to keep themselves going. Food production itself was industrialised to provide for them. The new British diet, based on cheap carbohydrate staples, was effective but never ‘haute cuisine.’
During the twentieth century, British food fell to an all-time low just after World War Two. While hostilities ended in 1945, food rationing continued for years. British food was grim, certainly for the ordinary folk, and writers like George Orwell helped draw attention to this. There was a general acceptance among British people that our food was bad.
Maybe, in acknowledging that British cooking had become an embarrassment, we planted the seeds for its revival. Things have certainly changed a lot in the last five or six decades, and TV chefs have played a major role in this. Fanny Cradock did a lot of the remedial work. Then, Keith Floyd made cooking exiting in the eighties. Today, Britain’s TV chefs are an export industry. Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson can be seen all over the world. Why would people in America, Australia and even other European counties want to take cooking advice from a nation that can’t cook? Because I think the world has realised that bad British food is a thing of the past. British cooking used to be awful, now it’s great.