Colin Spencer




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Excerpt from British Food

The New Millennium

In what way has the first decade of the new millennium changed our food in Britain? Our over anxiety upon the subject, our overt and often expressed love of it, the repetitive use of the word ‘passion’ to describe our relationship with it, the extensive space given to it in the media, shows a society almost hysterically obsessed. Both food and sex loom large in our consciousness, we might then infer this means a society uncomfortably aware that its survival is threatened. Indeed, as the price of oil rises (and it is that substance which underlines our distribution and supply of food) the stability of abundance is severely weakened. Coupled with the fact that global warming is undeniable, aquifers continue to deplete, bad weather has destroyed many world harvests in the last few years putting up the prices of cereals, which means that huge tracts of equatorial land becomes desert, so that all imported food from the tropics dwindles to a halt suggests that the future looks bleak.

But what about the state of food in Britain today? It is certainly cognisant of these problems looming, the price of food itself is rising, while the existence of other staples is declining. Our sea fish stocks are threatened by destructive methods of fishing and over zealous EC laws hinder rather than help. While, some fish once prolific in number now dwindle and vanish like that staple of British cuisine, the eel; why this has happened is a mystery and it is put down to that ever more common excuse – pollution. A new factor has appeared where that maligned villain of the contemporary scene, the investment Bank, plays a part in speculating on food itself; contracts to buy and sell food are being used as ‘derivatives’ that can then be traded: cereals, sugar, coffee, cocoa and meat are now considered global commodities amidst much else.

The gradual warming of the climate is now expressed in weather which is more erratic and violent in its moods, so an added threat to our food supply are harvests devastated by floods or stunted by drought, late spring frosts killing fruiting orchards. plagues of pests and swine flu. An outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease in 2001 caused ten million sheep and cattle to be killed and cost the UK, by the time it had ended, eight billion pounds. Such catastrophes can destroy farming communities through debt and suicide; some farmers were forced into new ways of making a living and diversified, only keeping a small herd of cattle, then experimenting with horticulture, educational visits, exotic livestock. It is now not uncommon on a country walk to pass a field of ostrich, llama, or alpaca.

At the same time the renaissance of British Food itself has been growing impressively, a movement which only affects the middle and moneyed classes. This last decade has been remarkable in my lifetime for the way that the British bourgeois public have become informed on aspects of good food, the quality and provenance of it, the healthy diet, the simplicity of good cooking; due largely I suspect to the educational  inspiration of television cooks which the nation has absorbed. Yet one also has to be aware that the dining table as a piece of furniture seems to be becoming extinct as is the dining room it was once in, that the family meal itself as a shared experience seems to have become fragmented, as family members split off carrying snacks to nibble in front of computers. So we have a picture of expensive cookery books well illustrated being enjoyed by parents eating spartan salads with children spread over the house chewing potato crisps.   On average per day we only spend fifteen minutes on cooking, while in the 1970’s it was one hour

However, there is a rump of British society untouched and unmoved living off the cheapest convenience junk food that has also grown in number, which are exploited by food producers channelling fatty waste products and chemical flavourings into easy to eat snacks and foods with high sugar and salt content. As a general rule the least nutritional food, the one with the most additives, is always the one to be most advertised on TV and elsewhere. (Viz. breakfast cereals and so called ‘superfoods’). Yes, the former have been around for decades but the poorest parts of our society are growing as is the decline in their food. At the same time obesity in both the young and the poor is on the increase, as is type 2 diabetes.  With growing poverty and high food prices we are inevitably going to see this problem of malnutrition and misery continuing.

British food in the last century, cemented by the Commonwealth, was one of the foremost trading nations, the centre of global food supplies. Now, in the new century, we are conscious of the huge demands made by the coming world powers of China and India who have burgeoning populations. China began in the last decades of the twentieth century to buy farming land in Africa. Also in the last fifty years it has gradually moved its traditional diet into one more akin to the west with the accompanying rise in cancers and coronaries. This means that there is growing pressure on similar products, especially cereals needed to feed livestock, the number of which now exceeds 20 billion. This, of course, is the most significant factor that throws all sensible planning off kilter, to feed plant food which we could consume ourselves to an animal which we will eat is uneconomic. That hoary old statement from the rebirth of vegetarianism in the last century that it takes four times the amount of land to feed a meat eater than a vegetarian is still true. But with the global food supply being threatened and with a world population of seven billion needing to be fed and still rising it is a statement so relevant it must be acted on.

Waste food is another great scandal that we have become aware of in this last decade, though the little that is being done to stop it is still in its infancy. There are two kinds of waste, the first at its source, the second, in the homeland. It is estimated that 35% of the harvest is wasted through technical mishaps and early distribution, anything from bad warehousing to inadequate roads and transport. While one third of the food we buy for the domestic kitchen is thrown away, an obsession with sell-by dates is one reason for this, but undoubtedly we also buy far too much for our needs, one would imagine that more expensive food will halt this inclination. Supermarkets bin anything from 30 to 40 % of the food they stock, it is estimated that in the UK we waste 20 billion worth of food in the journey from grower to domestic buyer. There are various schemes to combat these problems which have recently been put into operation.

The good signs which have begun to show in these last ten years is a continuing growing enthusiasm for the farmers market, for the artisan cheese maker, the organic gardener and the desire to grow your own. There are also farmers who strive for self-sufficiency, growing a wide range of foodstuff and selling it on site It has been estimated that in the British Isles we could be 85% self-sufficient, which was true of our diet in the second World War. Historically food has always been a sign of a persons wealth and standing in the community. It still is. A meal which costs £170 plus per person in one of today’s top restaurants seems to the majority of us to be an obscenity.

What has come out of this last decade is that with so many diverse threats looming over our food supply we have come to a new evaluation of the nature of our food, appreciating its natural simplicity, its freshness, wildness and locality. All those aspects that we had begun to lose in the century before. We have returned in our minds to the village of the nineteenth century without its gruelling hardships – but Candleford no longer exists. However aware we are of the singular quality of the food we select from the huge range offered to feed our families, we also know how transient it is and we in Britain are the fortunate ones.