National Food Stereotypes

Posted on February 1st, 2012 by Robin Goldsmith in Food

beef burger

Every nation is justifiably proud of its culinary traditions. France, the home of "gastronomie", has a worldwide reputation for culinary excellence. Similarly, Italy is famous for quality food and drink and increasingly, the diverse flavours of Asian cuisine are winning plaudits from a global audience. British food and drink, on the other hand, have for decades been subject to negative connotations, despite the rise of award-winning British chefs and Michelin-starred restaurants, specialising in British recipes and ingredients.

Although there are historical reasons for this, including changes brought about by the industrial revolution, post-war rationing, 1970s kitsch and preferences for tinned and processed food over home-cooked, today’s reality is markedly different from the enduring global myth of impoverished British cuisine.

Update: May 2012

I received the following response from William Sitwell, editor of Waitrose Kitchen Magazine to a letter I wrote regarding British produce – "You are right in saying that Britain provides some fantastic produce, and Waitrose has acknowledged and embraced that in their philosophy of ‘Championing British’. We have such a wealth of resources in Britain and the materials which grow from them are world-class. We needn’t import where we can grow our own. I agree that beer and wine are equally delectable, and cider should certainly have a good look-in, too."

In the past, British cooking used to be regarded among the best in the world. Even now, Mrs Beeton is still renowned as one of the great authors of cookery books. The industrial revolution changed all that and the reputation of British food declined. However, there has been an undeniable upsurge of interest over the last 20 years in good food and home-cooking, resulting in a plethora of daily TV programmes on the subject. Indeed, in the last few months there have been several programs concerned solely with the best of British food, utilising home-grown ingredients and traditional recipes. Events such as British Food Fortnight (record number of visitors in 2011) and the rising popularity of farmers’ markets demonstrate how serious many British people are now about home-grown fresh produce. Only two years ago, even The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival hosted a discussion on "The rise and rise of British food".

Why is it then that an American working in Shropshire for two years, recently expressed her surprise to me when I mentioned to her that Ludlow is renowned as a gastronomic hub? Her comment that England is not known for its cuisine speaks volumes. Similarly a former international food and drink executive from central Europe, was unaware of the rich traditions and diversity of quality British produce and was scathing about some UK food traditions. To him, the only English cheese was cheddar (although he did not realise the rich variety of cheddars available, in terms of flavour and quality), English beer was merely "that brown stuff" and fish and chips were not to be taken seriously. These are not isolated instances and illustrate widely-held beliefs within Europe and elsewhere of British cuisine.

Is it because our national stereotype has become so deeply entrenched within our own psyche that it has embedded itself abroad without challenge from ourselves? Although increasingly as a nation we are extolling the virtues of home-grown produce, perhaps we have not gone far enough and still retain an inbuilt diffidence with regard to British food and drink traditions. After all, are fish and chips any less worthy than "moules et frites", or a pasty less sophisticated than an "empanada"? Are we less patriotic about our food and drink than other nations because of enduring and inbuilt negative connotations? Yet, for years we have produced some of the best raw materials on earth – apples, pears, strawberries, asparagus, salmon, lamb, to name but a few. Perhaps, it is only relatively recently that we have begun again to appreciate our rich resources and to learn how to source them and what to do with them. Indeed, how can we ever expect consumers from other countries to enthuse about the range and quality of our products and cuisine, if our home market does not?

Food and drink stereotypes have long-lasting positive and negative effects. For example, among other things, France is particularly renowned for cheese and Italy for ice cream. However, how many people in the UK and abroad are aware that there are over 700 named British cheeses (according to the British Cheese Board), as opposed to about 400 in France and Italy? Who, among the general public, is aware that Cornish Blue was named the 2010 World Champion Cheese? Similarly, there are ice cream manufacturers in the UK who provide a world-class product, such as Minghella, Simply Ice Cream, Purbeck Ice Cream etc., but their excellence has yet to secure a global reputation for top-end ice cream from the UK. Belgium has a universal reputation for beer, but British real ale is more than mere "brown stuff" with a diversity of qualities to match the best of Belgian beers.

Conversely, the image of German wine in the UK has long suffered from the cheap Liebfraumilch popular in the 1970s, yet Germany produces some of the finest white wine in the world. Similarly, Portuguese wine used to be associated with inexpensive rosé and their food has never been universally regarded in the same way as French or Italian. Yet, Portugal in wine terms is enjoying an exciting renaissance and Portuguese food has to be among the freshest, tastiest and best value for money that I have ever experienced when avoiding the tourist hot-spots.

UK supermarkets showcasing "Best of British" are nevertheless highly selective of the range of products that are included and can miss opportunities to promote this country’s heritage. Only more specialist outlets, including farmers’ markets and delicatessens, highlight the true diversity of top quality products this country is capable of producing, but often at higher prices. Cheese is a prime example. According to the British Cheese Board, 55% Brits name cheddar as their favourite cheese. Is this because many consumers are unaware of the alternatives with so many types of cheddar highly visible on supermarket cheese shelves, while other British cheeses are less prominent? Supermarkets and other food retail outlets play a vital role in public education and giving equal prominence to various styles of British cheese might be one step towards improving public awareness of our rich cheese heritage.

Export potential is sparked by supply and demand, but image and national stereotypes are major influencing factors. Spanish cuisine has successfully reinvented itself and is highly regarded, so there should be no ostensible reason for the UK not to follow suit. It will take time for the stereotypical image of British food in the eyes of other nations to change, as the UK starts to reassert its gastronomic heritage and reverse decades of negative associations. However, this change in mindset must begin at home, with British consumers increasingly appreciating the richness and diversity of our culinary heritage and potential. As the UK starts to gain a global reputation as a home of good food and drink, this can only be good for our export trade.

9 responses to “National Food Stereotypes”

  1. It’s good to see British food being championed – there is so much that we Brits produce and yet we still import the very foods that we can source here. I have always been a champion of buying British (I’m OK with importing foods we can not grow here)and we should celebrate home produced ingredients with good quality British food on our plates.

    I love the concept of local specialities having protected status such as Melton Mowbray pies and Stilton cheese. Perhaps we could have an article about that?

    • Robin says:

      Thanks Lindsay – we should look to buy local produce over imported wherever possible rather than source the perfect cylindrical shape tomato etc. from abroad. Didn’t Michel Roux Jr mention on TV last year that 80% of pears we eat in the UK are imported, despite the fact that 150 years ago or so, there were several hundred varieties available ? Also I think we should prefer local to organic produce, but perhaps that’s another discussion !

      Interesting point about the pies and cheese. As you probably know, Cornish pasties were awarded protected status early last year, Melton Mowbray pork pies received “Protected Geographical Indication” (PGI) July 2009 and Stilton gained European Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status in 1996. Perhaps following on from your comments Lindsay, we could start a discussion on what other British products should be protected ? What do people think about this ?

      Robin

  2. Andrew says:

    ‘Traditional Cumberland Sausage’ received PGI status in March 2011. The ‘Traditional’ prefix is interesting. Do you think that manufacturers and supermarkets will continue to sell ‘Cumberland Sausage’ i.e. not ‘traditional’ that, in my opinion, doesn’t bear much resemblance to the Cumberland sausage you get in Cumbria, without contravening the PGI regulations?

  3. Robin says:

    Interesting thought. How many cumberland sausages sold in pubs and restaurants are also “authentic” ?

  4. JT says:

    If you enjoy a reasonably priced Cavary in the West Country, I can certainly recommend the Commodore Hotel at Sand Bay, near Weston-super-Mare. The Hotel contains a restaurant, but the best value food can be eaten at the bar area. Local food at that. Each night has a choice of 2 or 3 off the joint cuts and a very good self service vegetable and potatoes choice. The food can all be enjoyed with a good glass or wine or two, or one of the West County Ale’s or ciders on draft at the bar. The evening can be rounded off by a stroll along the pathway alongside the Bristol Channel, overlooking the lights of Cardiff, on a clear night. On a windy wet night, then I would suggest another drink at the bar or coffee!

  5. Robin says:

    Perhaps some of the foreign visitors to the Olympics will experience good British food too, especially if they venture away from the London tourist hot-spots.

  6. Annie says:

    I have some Italian friends who are coming to stay for a long weekend. They know their nosh! Anyone have any ideas about British ingredients or recipes I can impress them with? Thanks.

  7. Robin says:

    Hi Annie

    My preference is to use locally sourced produce in season. We are at the end of the English asparagus season now, but you may still find some available. You could also use broad beans and French beans coming into season now. Also, how about our wonderful Omega-rich fish – mackerel and sardines should be available now, or for meat eaters, lamb. Strawberries to finish, of course ! The choices are endless … Hopefully your Italian friends will eat and leave happy ! Let me know …

  8. […] what am I talking about?  Well, about two years ago, I posted an article on my blog, putting forward some ideas on a subject that interests me greatly.  I’m always fascinated by […]

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