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Going on a British summer holiday? Beware of the food – it's barely changed since the 1970s

Blog | By Roger Lewis | Jul 25, 2023

Fish and chips with a pint of cider, photographed by Jon Sullivan

Among the discarded Christmas gifts piled high in the charity shops are cookery books. Everybody receives the glossy tomes produced in the name of Jamie, Nigella and Mary Berry – nobody actually follows any of the recipes.

Apple and watercress salad, baked camembert pasta, coriander seeds with pig’s head in jelly: these and thousands of other dishes remain as pretty photographs, out of reach and beyond any imagining of the ordinary person, who prefers to walk along the pavement snacking on hand-held junk, such as Subway burgers and Wall’s ice cream, well-described by Elizabeth David as ‘sweetened lard inflated with air’. Jamie Oliver, who has done his best to interest us in ‘good, honest, affordable food’, who has founded catering colleges and run courses to teach the rudiments of kitchen culture, who has attempted to revamp school dinners and has launched charities to train the ‘disadvantaged’ to become chefs, says he still gets told, by those who prefer ready-meals and microwaves, ‘I’m too busy. It’s too expensive. I don’t know how.’

Veteran food expert Prue Leith has done battle with the same dismissive, grudging, lazy attitude all her life. Despite urging all and sundry to seek out fresh ingredients from a reliable local source, the general picture is grim, the cycle unbroken.

Undiscerning customers mean we have rubbish restaurants, which fail to attract tourists and so get worse or close. Jobs in the catering industry go to foreigners, because the British scorn being a waiter or being a cook as skivvying. The lack of interest, says Leith, ‘doesn’t encourage farmers; so most really good food comes from abroad’ – or else is exported abroad.

I experienced this myself lately, as I traipsed the provinces, visiting those children born to me in holy wedlock. In Pembrokeshire, I failed to find fresh fish near to the sea – only marked-up and overboiled Canadian salmon, plonked rudely on the wobbly table.

As in Scotland, any local catch is presumably whizzed away to London, where it will be served at crazy prices in a trendy, contemporary, bleak, minimalist hotspot, designed by some Scandinavian upstart in all likelihood; overlit, noisy, nasty.

The South Welsh prefer dishes from Iceland, and I don’t mean the country whose capital city is Reykjavik.

Cornwall is similar, as I know from years of searching for a decent meal in Falmouth. Rick Stein opened a place there briefly. Unlike at Padstow, which is in fairness a roaring success, it didn’t do any business.

When I asked for a lobster in Newquay, two days’ notice was required – presumably so they could ship one back from J Sheekey. Chips you can find, but the only reliable standby is Indian. Jonathan Meades, when making his splendid topographical documentaries, used to end up in a Travelodge living on crisps.

Despite the many popular television competitions, A Question of Masterchef, Strictly Come Bake Off, the shows with Jamie being laddish, Nigella being bosomy and Mary Berry being Miss Marple in oven gloves… none of this reflects what people actually want to eat. The food revolution has not taken place.

Look at the queues for fast food at motorway service stations. Drivers and their families don’t want wholemeal bread and rocket. The salad bars are unfrequented. The obese single mums, busy dads, pensioners in fawn zip-up jerkins, and the horrible teens and toddlers, can’t wait to gobble their fry-ups, pork scratchings, plastic pizzas, sachets of sauce, globules of chemical mayonnaise, confectionery and tinned soup. Everything is artificially flavoured and coloured. Vending machines do big business. The tea and coffee taste of dog hairs.

People are happy with this terrible diet, saturated with salt and sugar. The message of good health and nutrition hasn’t caught on, and the British are said to consume three times more junk food than anyone else in the civilised world. Angela Hartnett, the Michelin-starred former head chef at The Connaught, said on Desert Island Discs, ‘We’ve lost home economics in a lot of our schools’ – sexist, see, to teach girls how to cook and sew. ‘People aren’t taught to shop. People don’t have the time to shop and the time to cook.’

Angela is half-Italian, and grew up knowing about markets, where you are encouraged to poke and prod the produce. Here in Britain, it wasn’t hard for Richard Dimbleby to fool people into believing that spaghetti grew on trees.

Today, few know where anything comes from. I was appalled to hear about the school in Hampshire which, owing to a complaint from a vegan parent, had got rid of its herd of pigs. Pupils had been helping to raise and feed them, so that they’d learn about the origins of meat, and be put in touch, after a fashion, with the land and traditions of agriculture. But no, the youngsters were not to know of the connection between pigs and pork. As one parent said, ‘We can’t teach our children to be compassionate to all around them when we choose to exploit the most vulnerable.’

I am the son of a butcher, and pigs always seemed remarkably feisty to me.

What with militant vegetarianism on the one hand, and wilful ignorance or indifference on the other, it is no wonder that any reformation of dietary customs fizzles out.

Despite Rick Stein’s travelogues and Keith Floyd’s getting fighting drunk while chopping chillies, we revert immediately to condensed milk, malt vinegar, teabags and foil-wrapped, processed cheese. Because underneath everything, I think, is an innate puritanism – a disinclination to enjoy the sensual, except at a distance. Like pornography in a way: with cookery books and telly shows about cookery, one just looks at the pictures, admires the presentation.

When I was a child, growing up above the slaughterhouse in working-class South Wales, there was still the memory of Victorian malnutrition – plenty of rickety, stunted characters at large. Wartime rationing was not only a recent memory; there was also what I can only call a piquant nostalgia for the era of Hitler’s rise to power.

Our diet was high in carbohydrates, mashed spud and custard with lumps. My mother’s gravy, with its heavy load of flour, was exactly like Tony Hancock’s – ‘at least it used to move about’. I grew up on chops, carrots, stews in cauldrons, greens boiled to nothing, jam sponge, fish fingers and Penguin biscuits. I still recall the excitement among the mothers of Monmouthshire when deep-freezers came in.

No time was taken to enjoy any of it – nor should it have been. In Britain, we are not truly at ease with gastronomy; so, to this day, we bolt bad, boring food, almost with pride.

There aren’t many people, in all honesty, who are familiar with marjoram, saffron, figs or asparagus that’s not out of a can. My in-laws still squeal at the idea of garlic as pretentious foreign muck. A jar of furry olives has been at the back of my fridge for years – so I’m also guilty. Nor do I know what quince paste is, or barley miso.

French food guru Paul Bocuse, who died in January, said food is like sex (‘We devour each other; we hunger for one another’), and the British are not much good at that, either. There is a lot of sniggering talk and innuendo, but not much action.

According to a recent survey, the average couple makes love 1.9 times a month. From the moment they leave the dinner table, climb the stairs in a series of creaks, get undressed, search under the duvet, crack on, and shoot out of bed again to get some tea going, ‘the session lasts, in total, approximately 7.6 minutes’. As long as that?

Roger Lewis