In 2005, when former French President Jacques Chirac said “one cannot trust a people whose food is so bad”, little did he know that, a few years later, London would have more restaurants than Paris on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List.
Go to Las Vegas and you will see Gordon Ramsay’s latest restaurant advertised on billboards; travel to Dubai, Hong Kong, Sydney, New York or Shanghai and dine at restaurants by former Ramsay protégé Jason Atherton; visit a bookshop in France and you can buy recipe books from Jamie Oliver.
This is quite a transformation when you consider that the food and cuisine of Britain spent a large part of the 20th century being the butt of culinary jokes the world over. Today, events such as British Food Fortnight (17 September-2 October) serve as a reminder of just how good the UK’s produce and cuisine are and how much things have changed since the end of World War II.
In 1939, the Ministry of Food was created to oversee food production and distribution during the war. Although necessary to keep the nation fed, the Ministry ended up shaping Britain’s relationship with food well into the 1990s.
One of the Ministry’s most impactful decisions was to limit the manufacture of cheese to varieties that were easy and quick to mass produce. The result, nicknamed “government cheddar”, was bland and rubbery. And — with restrictions on cheese production remaining until 1954 — the consequences for traditional cheese-making were huge.
“In 1939, Wensleydale had 146 farmhouse cheese producers,” says Andy Swinscoe, owner of award-winning cheese shop The Courtyard Dairy in Yorkshire. “By 1957, it was down to one. The figures are similar for Lancashire, Cheddar, Cheshire… You can see the obliteration of the industry all over the country.
“It’s not just producers, recipes were lost, too. There was a Blue Wensleydale made in the 1930s and many people say it’s the best cheese they ever tasted. This particular recipe was lost and we will never truly know what it tasted like.”
Rationing remained in Britain until 1954, with staples such as sugar, cheese, flour and butter in limited supply. In the 1960s, in direct response to rationing, the government promoted mass production of food to ensure no one would go hungry ever again. Many believe this played a major role in developing the reputation of British food as bland and uninspiring.
Andy Swinscoe explains: “Britain’s food policy in the 1960s and 1970s was about making things efficient. It’s the era that saw the rise of tinned food, Spam, sliced bread… It was about making mass produced food that’s as cheap as possible.”
In the 1980s, the UK public discovered the microwave oven and, with it, ready meals. Cheap, mass-produced food was still top of the agenda, but there were signs things were starting to change.
The 1990s boom
As disposable income increased in the late 1980s, so did interest in quality food. Many factors combined to increase demand for better food. Among them, the mad cow disease scandal that shook Britain and the world in the 1990s did much to convince people of the importance of a transparent food chain.
In 1994, the Government deregulated the price of milk, causing it to plummet. This was the cue for many dairy farmers to turn their attention to cheese production, which allowed for better revenue. This started a process that would eventually lead to Britain producing more than 800 varieties of cheese (for reference, France counts fewer than 500).
Also in the 1990s, London’s Borough Market reinvented itself as a foodie venue. Originally a wholesale market, it had all but disappeared in the 1970s, before rising again 20 years later, thanks to the growing popularity of artisan food.
At the same time, organic food started to spread from specialist food shops to the shelves of supermarkets, reaching more of us. Food programmes also started to rear their heads on TV, and the Good Food Guide and the Michelin Guide gained popularity.
Fast-forward to the present day and fine-food retailers are back in fashion. Research by insurance broker Simply Business shows that between 2012 and 2013 the number of bakers grew by 31%, fishmongers by 28%, delicatessens by 25% and greengrocers by 24%.
Andy Swinscoe has witnessed this first-hand: “I opened my shop three and a half years ago and it’s a bit in the middle of nowhere. I wanted to open the best cheese shop in the UK, but I also thought there was a good chance it might fail due to lack of demand. But we now have five members of staff and are looking to take on another one – it really surprised us how successful the business has been.”
Brave new world
The UK is increasingly a nation of foodies. If in doubt, just turn on your TV. There are more variants of “MasterChef” than I care to remember: the nation’s excitement for “The Great British Bake Off” is palpable; and people are still mourning James Martin’s departure from “Saturday Kitchen”.
Restaurants have also experienced a boom, with research from business insight companies AlixPartners and CGA Peach showing that the number in the UK increased by 1,770 in 2015. There are now more licensed restaurants than drink-led locals.
It’s not just about quantity, either. The quality of food on offer is also on the up. This year’s Michelin Guide has 157 UK restaurants with one stars or more — a 16% increase since 2010.
But there’s still room for improvement. The UK is still incredibly reliant on supermarkets and imported food. Despite living on a land ideal for food production, 46% of what we eat is imported and the four main retailers (Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons) control over 70% of the grocery market.