There are few better ways to irritate the British than to suggest that our food is revolting. These days, we like to think of ourselves as an island of gourmets. If anyone implies otherwise, we become dyspeptic.
When Jacques Chirac, then the president of France, told President Vladimir Putin of Russia at a Group of 8 summit in 2005 that “we cannot trust people who have such bad cuisine,” the comment nettled Prime Minister Tony Blair. The food critic Egon Ronay spoke for many when he said, “There’s no other country in the world whose food has improved so greatly and more quickly in the last 15 to 20 years than this country.”
Last month, when a writer for this newspaper suggested that London’s palate had only fairly recently evolved beyond a taste for porridge and boiled mutton, his article was met with resentful laughter across social media and responses in The Times of London, The New Statesman and The Guardian — to name just a few. Did he not realize that the city’s food has for many years been the envy of the world?
We are so sensitive about this because for much of the 20th century, British food was pretty atrocious. The diet of my grandparents’ generation was defined by postwar rationing and vegetables and meat that required a can opener. For my parents’ generation, the options were slightly more sophisticated: maybe a curry house or an “haute cuisine” joint doing an unconvincing French impression.
In the past 30 years, things have changed. It used to be regarded as uncouth to talk too much about our appetites, a bit Gallic. Now many Britons talk of little else. An interest in food is seen as the mark of a civilized, progressive person, somebody who is open to the world. Thanks to this new obsession, London — and much of the rest of Britain — has tremendous food, ranging from the fancy to the no-frills. Sundays are no longer for church, but food festivals and farmers’ markets. We worship celebrity chefs and devote hours to watching cooking shows like “The Great British Bake-Off.” The British restaurant boom has been well documented, mainly by the British. We love nothing more than explaining to foreigners how our food outstrips that of New York or Paris.
But now it appears that Brexit could put our relatively new foodie confidence at risk. On issues from immigration to economics, the 2016 vote to leave the European Union has prompted insecurity about who we are as a nation and what we have become. Food has not been spared.
Even the most hardened Leave supporter would probably admit that British food has improved since 1973, when we joined the European Economic Community, the Union’s predecessor. Once we joined the club of Europe, we became bewitched by European eating habits, and then aped (and often improved) them. Easy trade with the Continent has filled our supermarket shelves with an increasingly rich display of produce. Fifty years ago, olive oil was a medicinal product most often found in Britain in a pharmacy. Nowadays, it is the country’s best-selling cooking oil.
And so, the argument over Brexit has often turned into a fight over food. Immediately after the vote in June 2016, an image began to circulate online showing a table: On one side, German beer, French pastries and Spanish oranges; on the other, a solitary can of baked beans, that classic British store-cupboard staple. “This one picture perfectly sums up what Brexit could mean,” said a tabloid newspaper.
There are practical concerns about how Britain will eat once we leave the European Single Market. For all of the bluster about our brave island going it alone, it is difficult to ignore the reality: We can’t feed ourselves on our own and everybody — whichever way they voted — needs to eat. Given that we import 30 percent of our food from the European Union, it is hardly surprising that on the cusp of Brexit, we are becoming nervous. The prospect of new global trade deals hasn’t calmed the discussion: There have been frenzied reports of how Britain will be awash with chlorinated chicken from America and hormone-soaked beef from Australia.
The government hasn’t helped quash worries that we will soon return to a regime of canned food and ration cards. Over the summer, the Conservatives unveiled their plans for a “no deal” Brexit, or leaving the European Union without a new trade agreement in place. If that happens, customs confusion will disrupt the fresh food supply. According to the BBC, the sandwich would be one of the first casualties of any supply-chain problems. “Stockpiling” is the sensible option, said Prime Minister Theresa May. If the situation becomes really grim, the army will deliver rations.
The anti-European Union side says this is hyperbole, part of an elite campaign to scare voters off Brexit. To an extent, that is right: Most people don’t believe that without the European Union, Britons will go hungry.
The deeper anxieties about Brexit are more cultural than practical. We worry that the Britain that opened up to European tastes will start to fade away; that we will revert to being insular, backward, porridge people. This explains a degree of vicious snobbery in many newspaper reports when it comes to food. Fatter people were reportedly more likely to vote Leave than Remain: for “fatter” read also “poorer.” Greggs, the mass-market bakery known for pasties and sausage rolls, has experienced a “Brexit boost,” while chic London restaurants are said to be at risk of closing if they lose European staff. The Remain side will never forgive the Leavers if Brexit destroys our budding culinary prowess.
One consolation is that our appetites are today more global than European. Our food revolution was not just continental. It may not be fashionable to be wistful about the British Empire but it’s certainly popular to enjoy delicacies from former colonies, as well as from countries Britain never even came close to invading. If you had to define our national dish, it would be as accurate to say chicken tikka masala or pad thai as fish and chips, which, by the way, is believed to have been introduced to Britain in the 19th century by Jewish refugees.
Nobody is quite sure what Brexit will mean for our diets. Our taste for world dishes may help, as we start to forge new trade links and wean ourselves off cheap European goods. But a food culture, much like food itself, can perish. Much as it pains us to admit it, we owe a lot of our confidence to our European cousins. So will we go back to where we once were — the laughingstock of the culinary world — or can we prove the critics wrong?
Lara Prendergast is an assistant editor at The Spectator.