We’ve come a long way since the BSE scandal of the 1990s and the ban on British beef. In fact, the British culinary landscape has changed beyond recognition since the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001, with its spectral images of millions of slaughtered livestock. These, along with other more minor contaminations of the food supply, such as the recent horse meat debacle, have raised permanent questions in consumers’ minds about provenance and health, and the agriculture behind what lands on our plates. As for London, in 2005 it may have been a bustling metropolis with great ethnic cuisine, but it was far from being recognised as a major player on the international restaurant scene. Now even American chefs admit it rivals and perhaps outpaces New York. In the last 15 years Britain has not only claimed its place on the international culinary scene, it has raised the bar when it comes to artisanal and small-scale methods of production.
So what has changed? Some of this is due to a general shift in consumption patterns in the Western world: the BBC and Waitrose both report an increase in healthier eating patterns and a growing concern for the “story” behind the food. Another important factor is rise of the celebrity chef: Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal, collectively, have probably done more to raise Britain’s food self-esteem in the last decade than any other figures. In 2005, Blumenthal’s flagship The Fat Duck topped the famously discerning World’s Best 50 Restaurants list, an honour usually conferred to perennial favourite el Bulli. Other surprising factors have also come into play: warmer temperatures have opened up the chalky soils of Kent to wine cultivation and local vineyards are finally being taken seriously, especially when it comes to fizz. English sparkling white wine producers are beating Champagne houses in blind taste tests conducted by French experts, and French investors are eyeing the home counties. This year Taittinger became the first French Champagne House to buy up English orchards to convert to vineyards. And weirdly, the global economic collapse and lack of traditional pathways to employment in the professions and finance, have led to a boom in small business entrepreneurship, especially when it comes to food.
Indeed, behind the big faces and their brands, it’s the small producers who have been the real driving force in our changing plates. And we must champion them. Despite an EU ban prohibiting the sale of so-called “wonky” veg (thankfully now lifted), farmers have nurtured orchards and brought back heritage varieties of apples that we thought might be gone forever. Despite the stranglehold of loss-leading meat packs sold in supermarkets, producers have reared rare breeds such as Gloucester Old Spot pigs and Red Poll cattle and in doing so have created a demand for these breeds on the market. The UK cheese market is booming with producers such as Hampshire Cheeses, who produce Tunworth, a suitable rival to Camembert and now more cheese producers in the UK than in France. A convergence of health and environmental concerns and gourmandise mean that England’s poised for a full blown food revolution. No one knows what an exit from the single market might mean in terms of tariffs. But if foreign imports become pricier, this might encourage a Buy-British focus, hitherto forbidden by the EU, which will introduce British consumers to the wonderful array of new found products now being made in factories and kitchens around our country. And for a time, the competitive exchange rate may also tempt others from around the world to look to Britain for its outstanding produce. In terms of our food, Britain has never had it so good.