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Back on the menu

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.

Wartime diet

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.

Identity and Ration Books

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.”

Post-war challenges

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.

Borough Market

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.


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Paradise found in Iceland

It’s strange to think that, only eight years ago, the Nordic island of Iceland was going through a full-scale crisis. A hasty attempt to mould the country into a global financial capital had come tumbling down, as the fragile economy buckled under the great weight of its own rampant growth.

The 2008 financial crisis hit, and Iceland’s vision of becoming a foreign investment and trading mecca was shattered. Less than 24 months later, with the country still in economic breakdown, the mighty volcano of Eyjafjallajökull erupted, releasing an ash cloud that blanketed Europe; causing 100,000 flights to be cancelled and costing the European economy $5billion. Indeed, to the outside world, it seemed like quaint and mysterious little Iceland — home of glaciers, the world’s strongest men and Björk — had become something of an all out catastrophe zone.

Yet, eight years on, it feels like those financial and volcanic dark clouds never came at all. The country has blossomed emphatically in recent times to become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, doubling its foreign influx across the last decade, as new hotels are constructed and visitors come flocking in search of volcanoes, lagoons, black beaches, picturesque hiking, jaw-dropping glaciers, magnificent fjords, the Northern Lights, whale watching, endless natural beauty and, yes, “Game of Thrones”. In fact, tourism as an industry now accounts for 34% of Iceland’s export revenues. So how did this dramatic little rock in the North Atlantic turn itself from a bankrupt disaster zone into one of the world’s most desirable holiday destinations?

Northern Lights (Iceland)

The story of Iceland’s recovery is one other countries will be learning from for years to come. By choosing not to bail out its banks after the crisis, and instead negotiating a loan from the International Monetary Fund and implementing new reforms and austerity measures, the country rapidly turned its fortunes around. Unemployment is now lower and income higher than before the crash, and one of the main factors driving this full-throttle recovery has been a previously untapped seam of tourism.

Reykjavík, the capital, is of course the most popular destination. With its 5-star dining, colourful architecture, thriving arts, Europe’s largest whale museum and, of course, the world-famous Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, it has become a bucket-list long weekend destination. But Iceland’s sustained growth is way bigger than the story of one city. It’s about hundreds of stories happening all over the country, and while many visitors still focus on the south and west — prioritising the capital and the geyser-and waterfall-lined Golden Circle route — the Icelandic tourist board is encouraging travellers to explore further afield. And for a country with a population of only 320,000 (almost 26 times less than London) it’s quite unbelievable just how much there is to see if you’re willing to explore.

Reykjavik

At the top of the country, nestled in the haunting yet sublime vistas of northern Iceland, is Akureyri, the country’s second city, only a 45-minute internal flight from the capital. It boasts outdoor thermal pools, botanical gardens, killer-whale-watching expeditions, and proper traditional Icelandic grub: smoked lamb, salt cod steaks, plokkfiskur and strong local beers. Akureyri serves as a cosy base for those who wish to explore Iceland’s most staggering tourist attraction: volcanoes. Those with stamina can choose to drive and then hike up these geological titans, but for many who prefer to see their lava from a little further than spitting distance, local pilots offer daily expeditions from the city, flying over the Holuhraun lava fields and the extremely active Bárðabunga volcano.

And, of course, it’s also a fine place from which to take in the spectacular Northern Lights. The phenomenon is quite unpredictable, but the Icelandic Met Office does offer information on the probability of seeing them: on clear nights from September through April, the hit rate is pretty high.

While the north may be renowned for its barren landscapes, over in the east, forests, fjords and farmlands make for a different experience. Flights from London Gatwick to the small town of Egilsstaðir will be launching in October, making for a remarkable destination for people to stay as they embark on exploring the East Fjords. Here, one can find small communities of farmers, fisherman and art students living side by side, amid breathtaking mountain ranges and seaside villages. If you come to Iceland to feel closer to earth, then this is a place you can embark on adventure hiking trails and then relax afterwards under naturally hot waterfalls.

Such is the spread of Iceland’s tourism boom, there are still little secrets that are only just becoming known to visitors. A 90-minute drive south from the East Fjords takes you to Djúpivogur, a coastal town recently dubbed by travel writers the “slo-mo capital” of Iceland for its hyper-relaxed approach to life. Here, Coca-Cola and petrol signs are banned and instead life revolves around long meals, relaxing walks, pony rides, museums and local art culture. It is a town where the concept of time itself seems to be having a day off, and if you were to ever adventure around Iceland, this would be the place to end your journey.

Djupivogur

But if your reason for visiting is to sample everything this country is about at a slightly quicker pace than the folk of Djúpivogur are used to, there is one clear option. For years now, the Golden Circle has been one of the most popular tourist attractions in Northern Europe, and it’s easy to see why. This 190-mile route — which loops from the capital city towards the south — takes in cascading waterfalls, erupting geysers, national parks, spectacular lakes and rumbling volcanoes. If you’re wise, you’ll include Thingvellir National Park, where you can have the quite baffling experience of walking along the fissure where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates diverge. Braver visitors can even snorkel between the two plates if they wish.

Since the days of the Sagas, Iceland has always been a country that knows how to tell its own stories, and as blockbuster movies like “Thor”, “Interstellar”, “Prometheus”, “Oblivion”, “Noah” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” all flock to film there, it’s become apparent that many are now using Iceland to tell theirs. Where tourism in this country will go next is anyone’s guess, but with the government being forced to impose restrictions on Airbnb amid the exponential influx of visitors, it sure isn’t showing any signs of stopping. One thing is for sure, there has never been a better time to go.

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Return of the seaside resort

Of all the things Britain has given the world, the seaside resort is among the greatest. The Romans may have first embraced the beach, but it wasn’t until Victorian times that the holiday as we know it was born. Before then, the coastal towns were reserved for aristocrats whose second homes were a sign of ridiculous wealth.

But with the invention of the railway in the 1800s — and, in particular, the line that linked the mills of Lancashire with Blackpool — working-class people were able to holiday for the first time in history.

The 100 years saw the invention of the piers, promenades and sticks of rock that came to define the towns and still survive on our coasts today – and the very idea of the beach holiday was exported to the rest of the world. Yet, the British seaside fell out of favour, becoming unfancied by holidaymakers who were able to easily and cheaply reach warmer climes and turquoise waters with low-cost flights.

Until now, that is. Reinvestment, reinvention and rediscovery — by a younger (some say ‘hipster’) generation – has seen their fortunes change. Chief among them is Margate. Labelled “Shoreditch-on-Sea” by Esquire magazine, the Kentish resort is one of the most prominent examples of a British seaside town on the up and up. Tracey Emin, the contemporary artist, grew up in Margate and was a champion of the £18 million regeneration of Dreamland, the amusement park that was first opened in 1921. Margate is now renowned for its kitsch cafés and upscale stores such as Haeckels, a natural skincare brand. It also boasts the Turner Contemporary gallery, a beautiful modern building that sits on the site where the great JMW Turner used to stay when he was in town.

Further north, Whitley Bay, the North Tyneside resort, has an ambitious £36 million regeneration project for its seafront which, investors hope, will see it brought back to its 1950s heyday. Its pleasure beach, Spanish City, was referenced in the Dire Straits song “Tunnel of Love” and the centrepiece dome will reopen in summer 2018. There’s no doubting the area’s natural beauty, and the nearby St Mary’s Lighthouse fills many a pretty postcard.

St Mary's Lighthouse, Whitley Bay

Portmeirion, north Wales, is one the UK’s most beautiful and unusual coastal villages, known to a generation as the backdrop for “The Prisoner”, a surreal spy drama first broadcast in 1967.

Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, the village’s designer, took inspiration from Portofino, a small fishing town on the Italian Riviera, but Portmeirion is pretty much unique, built in what architectural critic Lewis Mumford called a “tongue in cheek” Baroque style. Since 2012, Festival No. 6, an art and music festival, has been held there each September, opening up the village to a new generation.

Cornwall is home to some of the country’s best-known and most-loved beaches, such as the perennial surfers’ favourite Newquay. But it is St Austell Bay that is subject to a multi-million pound regeneration project, with plans to rename it Clay Town in celebration of its part in the creation of the famous blue-and-white Cornishware pottery, and to transform it into a cultural hub.

With the sprawling, futuristic Eden Project, a town centre that dates back to the 13th century, pretty, sandy beaches, and plenty of opportunities for watersports, it’s a perfect, but often overlooked family holiday destination.

If you are after a bit of the British seaside that isn’t like the British seaside at all then Portree, on the Isle of Skye, isn’t a bad place to start. With its pretty row of multi-coloured houses that looks out across a breathtaking bay, the town is surrounded by some of the most stunning scenery in the British Isles. The island formed the backdrop for much of Steven Spielberg’s recent blockbuster “The BFG”, and is anticipating a huge — and deserved — spike in visitors.

Ben Tianavaig - from Viewfield, Portree - Isle of Skye Scotland

This isn’t a resort where you can lay out for hours on a shingle beach; however, it’s more of a long walk and a nip of whisky in the local inn kind of holiday. But, that’s just fine with us.

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Out of Office UK’s most isolated desitnations

The modern world ticks to the sound of incoming work emails. Even when we’re away from our desks we’re never really away from busy life. In fact, a recent study found that senior staff work 29 days extra a year by checking and responding to emails after hours. It basically means that when you’re on your iPhone, you are forfeiting your annual leave.

But, in the age of 4G, is it even possible to escape the world for a few days? To just get away from it all?

Not only do we believe it is possible, we believe it’s not that difficult to do, and you don’t need to go that far. Here, we explore the most beautiful places across Britain that are in the middle of nowhere.

Scotland

In “leafy” Islington, north London, the UK’s most densely populated area, there are a staggering 15,179 people per square kilometre. Compare that with the Scottish Highlands, some 430 miles north, where there are just nine people per square kilometre. It’s the most sparsely popular region in the UK and easily one of the most beautiful, making it the perfect place to escape the world.

It’s not easy to pick a highlight, but Glenfinnan, a tiny village in the northwest Highlands, 26 miles from Fort William, is one of our favourites. Contained in a stunning U-shaped valley, it is best known as the starting point of the Jacobite rising of 1745, an event marked by a monument that sits before the beautiful Loch Shiel. It boasts an impressive viaduct, which opened in 1901, and connects Fort William and Mallaig via the West Highland Line. It also, of course, famously appeared in the “Harry Potter” film series.

19960601 23 Glenfinnan Viaduct.

Elsewhere is Castle Lachlan, a ruined 15th-century castle that looks on to the sprawling Loch Fyne. The stronghold of the Clan MacLachlan before it was attacked in 1746, it’s set in a 1,500-acre estate. It’s only an hour and a half’s drive from Glasgow airport, but is splendidly isolated.

The Orkney islands, an archipelago off the northeastern coast of Scotland, are steeped in ancient history and have an ethereal, edge-of-the-world quality. The 5,000-year-old Neolithic village of Skara Brae and the ancient stone circles at Brodgar are particular highlights. Isolated they may be, but they are called upon by some Norway-bound cruise ships.

Wales

The Brecon Beacons, one of three national parks in Wales, is home to the mighty Pen y Fan peak, and has some of the most breathtaking views around, boasting green hills and cascading waterfalls. It stretches 44 miles from Llandeilo along the English border and, although settlements are few and far between, the protected Forest Fawr Geopark is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that helps tell the story of climate change and shifting landscapes.

Fork in the path

Snowdonia, to the north, is just as beautiful and as sleepy. Gwydyr Forest, which circles the pretty town of Betws-y-Coed, is hugely popular with mountain bikers but, with its lakes and ash and Scots pine trees, is just as enjoyable on foot. The Hafna Miners’ Trail, a relic of Britain’s industrial past, is fascinating too.

England

Lundy, a 400-foot granite outcrop in the Bristol Channel, off the coast of north Devon, is one of the UK’s most spectacular and unspoiled areas. Three miles long and half a mile wide, it is only reachable by the MS Oldenburg, which, at peak times, brings visitors across from the mainland five times a week. It means the island is never overrun with tourists.

One of the beauties of the Peak District is its proximity to Sheffield. A 20-minute drive from the busy city centre will take you as far as Hollow Meadows, with pretty Castleton not much farther. The Upper Derwent Valley, home to two spectacular Gothic-style dams, majestic reservoirs and sprawling forests, is a favourite for walkers looking to escape the chaos of city and town life.

The Lake District is perhaps the most famous national park in the UK, and the most popular. It’s also one of the largest in England meaning there are plenty of overlooked spots. The lakes of the west are wild and remote – an entirely different prospect to Windermere. Wasdale, home to Wast Water, the deepest lake in England, and Scafell Pike, the highest peak in England, is immensely beautiful. Head to the even more isolated Middle Fell which offers superb views over the Wasdale screes.

Nearing Scafell Pike

Northern Ireland

The filming location for much of The North in “Game of Thrones”, beautiful County Antrim has been given a considerable tourism boost. Yet it remains a stunning, untouched part of the UK. A beech-tree-lined road, known as the Dark Hedges, near Stanocum is one of the area’s highlights, and was featured in an early episode of the show.

Silent Valley

There is also the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge near Ballintoy, which links the mainland to a tiny island, and, of course, there is the Giant’s Causeway, which is as enchanting as it always has been. The Mourne Mountains, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty found to the south of Belfast, also regularly feature in “Game of Thrones”. Cinematic and sparsely popular, they’re a hiker’s dream.