Why is British food so terrible?

Michelle Hanson and Jamie Oliver rather want to know.

The best explanation I\’ve ever come across was Paul Krugman\’s:

Maybe the first question is how English cooking got to be so bad in the first place. A good guess is that the country\’s early industrialization and urbanization was the culprit. Millions of people moved rapidly off the land and away from access to traditional ingredients. Worse, they did so at a time when the technology of urban food supply was still primitive: Victorian London already had well over a million people, but most of its food came in by horse- drawn barge. And so ordinary people, and even the middle classes, were forced into a cuisine based on canned goods (mushy peas!), preserved meats (hence those pies), and root vegetables that didn\’t need refrigeration (e.g. potatoes, which explain the chips). But why did the food stay so bad after refrigerated railroad cars and ships, frozen foods (better than canned, anyway), and eventually air-freight deliveries of fresh fish and vegetables had become available? Now we\’re talking about economics–and about the limits of conventional economic theory. For the answer is surely that by the time it became possible for urban Britons to eat decently, they no longer knew the difference. The appreciation of good food is, quite literally, an acquired taste–but because your typical Englishman, circa, say, 1975, had never had a really good meal, he didn\’t demand one. And because consumers didn\’t demand good food, they didn\’t get it. Even then there were surely some people who would have liked better, just not enough to provide a critical mass. And then things changed. Partly this may have been the result of immigration. (Although earlier waves of immigrants simply adapted to English standards–I remember visiting one fairly expensive London Italian restaurant in 1983 that advised diners to call in advance if they wanted their pasta freshly cooked.) Growing affluence and the overseas vacations it made possible may have been more important–how can you keep them eating bangers once they\’ve had foie gras? But at a certain point the process became self-reinforcing: Enough people knew what good food tasted like that stores and restaurants began providing it–and that allowed even more people to acquire civilized taste buds.

May or may not be true but I\’ve yet to see a better explanation.


17 thoughts on “Why is British food so terrible?”

  1. Or was it our extended and prolonged post-war rationing? While the rest of the world was enjoying a boom in gastric treats we had to subsist on potatoes and a lump of cheddar.

  2. Is it worth reporting the little bastard to the CRE over his comments about the Germans? Maybe we can get the fat tongued mockney twat off our screens for good.

  3. 1) Good food has always been available in England – the man’s talking shite.

    2) Scottish ‘cuisine’ just cannot be explained.

  4. Isn’t the problem with Krugman’s explanation that the food in British fishing villages and towns wasn’t up to much either?

  5. “1) Good food has always been available in England – the man’s talking shite.”

    Depends what you mean by “available”. If you mean that it was possible, with knowledge, to find a good restaurant in, say, London, then yes, it was always available. If you mean that one could readily find good food in an average town without looking too hard, then no, I disagree.

    I remember when I could first get espresso in my (fairly major) town: it was a new M&S cafe, and the year was 1995. Until then, I only got espresso when I visited Italy on business.

    Visiting friends in Scotland recently was like time travel back to before 1995. Before Caffe Nero. Before Pret a Manger. Before the introduction of the tomato from the New World.

  6. I once worked with a secretary who’d been raised on a farm in upstate New York. According to her, until she’d moved away, she’d never eaten anything much beside boiled meat, boiled potatoes, and boiled cabbage–not even as much as a hamburger. And she married the guy from the adjoining farm–who’d had the same experience and they continued that type of diet until he was transferred by his employer to manage a store in New Jersey–not far from Philly. She was simply enthralled with the food and the choices.

    At the time of the Revolution (1776), city people in Philadelphia had an mazingly cosmopolitan diet –there are surviving menus of restaurants of the day. Fish and seafood in abundance and variety from nearby but also bananas, mangoes, and other tropical fruit. Pheasant and squab, beef, venison, etc.–and cheeses, wines, etc., both foreign and domestic.

    Krugman’s explanation isn’t bad but I don’t believe it approaches a full understanding of the matter.

    When I was stationed (about 1-1/2 years) in Korea, I learned something surprising about the differences in food between their culture and that of the US (which I originally thought extremely broad). The plain fact was that, although food in the US was more plentiful and much less expensive, Koreans actually ate a wider variety on a regular basis. This was obvious in visiting a market, where the sheer variety of cabbage-mustard-broccoli vegetables or beet-radish-horseradish types was astounding, not to mention the exotic sea creatures (and plants) eaten.. Oddly (actually, not so), taste led them to great appreciation of American processed foods and like products: our ketchup, hot sauces, peanut butter, coffee, cigarettes, etc., were vastly preferred to their own.

    When Kruschev visited the US (in the ’60s), he was amazed by the variety of breakfast cereals.
    But (coming from a land of potatoes) what really astounded him was our potato chip–unknown in his country!

  7. I was born at the tail end of the sixties. As a family, we essentially abandoned the idea of eating out in the UK until the late eighties. There were so many disappointments that it became too much of a gamble to even try. I think the foreign holiday idea has a lot of merit: when one could pop over to Boulogne or Calais for the day and have a meal that left one swooning, it was reasonable to ask why similar fare was not available in Dover or Folkestone. Now my small home town has a couple of dozen really quite good restaurants and a couple of excellent ones.

    There’s another factor as well: the Elizabeth Davids and Delia Smiths of this world. And that of course is definitely self-reinforcing. The eco-system of celebrity chefs requires a large demand for good (or merely novel) food to support so many inhabitants. For better or worse, you couldn’t have a Nigella or a Jamie were it not for the likes of Fanny Cradock kick-starting the whole thing.

  8. I never had much of a problem with British food, if you’re used to it. Probably for the same reason, I never had a problem with the Russian food. I don’t think British food is particularly bad, it’s just that non-Brits don’t like it. And non-Brits don’t like an awful lot of British stuff, our women for example.

  9. It’s not just that non-Brits don’t like British food, it’s what they consider British food. Working as an expat for years I know that most foreigners consider British food to be only things they didn’t eat growing up in their country, if you ask them what they mean by bad food they mumble something about fish and chips. A French guy I work with is always talking about what he eats when he travels and he genuinely seems to think that any time he had a good steak he was eating French food.

  10. 1) The natural comparison is France.
    2) There are but three meals a day, and our breakfast knocks theirs into a cocked hat.
    3) Their meal-accompanying coffee is better than ours on average, our tea far, far better than theirs.
    4) Our choice of wines and beers is typically far better than theirs.
    4) So the comparison boils down to lunch and dinner, food only. On average, they clearly win there – though not on everything. Tripe in the style of Lancashire, for example, is far superior to Tripe a la mode de Caen. And our baking, at least in the Land o’ Cakes and probably Oop North too, is much better.
    They win, but it isn’t entirely one-sided.

  11. “Tripe in the style of Lancashire, for example, is far superior to Tripe a la mode de Caen.”

    Well, anyone who eats andouilette can’t complain about eating shite. Give me British emulsified fat offal tubes any day.

  12. Right, I’m coming to this late, but what a bunch of jingoist, mediocrity-celebrating fuck-wits. Let’s examine a few of the comments:

    “Visiting friends in Scotland recently was like time travel back to before 1995. Before Caffe Nero. Before Pret a Manger. Before the introduction of the tomato from the New World.”

    If your idea of excellent cuisine is cafe nero and fucking pret a manger then we don’t want you near Scotland. We have superior ingredients this side of the border and this is well documented. Through your observation you have only added gravitas to this claim. Your idea of excellence must be around the level of a cornish pastie if you are trading up to pret a manger. The fact that you managed to pass through this country and not manage to experience some of our regional produce (I’m not even going to bother listing some of it since my time will be wasted on you) means you had you had your head up your ass looking for branded coffee shops selling stale sandwiches.

    Some other arse hole has actually had the audacity to challenge French food culture with following inanity –

    “4) Our choice of wines and beers is typically far better than theirs.”

    WHAT THEY FUCK!! Where were you brought up you lamentable omadawn? Next time you’re in Sommerfield or whatever scum-bag quasi-supermarket you shop at take a look at the ‘choice of wines and beers’. How many are English?! You fucking total arse wipe. If this was a room and not a forum I would rip your head off and shit down your neck.

  13. The UK has a long list of good things: humour, love of nature and animals, enjoyment of antiques, good car mechanics, excellent newspapers, good TV… Food, however, is not one of those things. It would seem that the British lack a food appreciation gene. There are excellent restaurants, granted, but if you look at what the average Brit eats at home you feel like fainting or having the authorities declare it a biohazard. Food is considered a fuel, not something to be enjoyed. And since most British people have no idea of what good food might be, they get very upset with the international rejection of their food: they don’t really get it.

    Well, as I said at the beginning, there are lots of good things in the UK. Enjoy them and accept that food – both its preparation and its enjoyment – is really, really bad in Britain. One cannot have everything, you know?

  14. I can’t believe why anyone would say British food is terrible.

    After spending 2 weeks in Florida (USA) and not eating a decent meal, i was well looking forward to coming home to England.

    I know i am talking personal but i never went to the toilet properly in America, their food bunged me up real bad and had the sh!t5 real real bad.

    As soon as i got home to England i had a good sunday roast dinner, and went to the toilet really good.

    I found the food in America all chemical processed tasting, very bland and too much flavour. I honestly can say American food is the worst food i have ever had.

    When i go on holiday to spain or germany or anywhere in Europe the food is excellent. I won’t be going to america ever again!

    It’s enough to put you in hopsital as the food upsets your stomach!

  15. I lost 15 pounds after 6 weeks in London!
    Basically because the food was awful, and I was resolved to consume what the locals were having.
    Bland and overcooked seem to be the norm.
    But , what a great place to drop a few lbs!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *