Food at a crossroads

YOU only notice how differently we do things now from, say, 40 years ago, when you actually see objects or reading matter from that period. Those of us who are involved in the food scene, whether as chefs, producers or writers, know that there has been a revolution in British food – an unexpected treasure trove of old magazines, cuttings and what used to be called part-works has provided a fascinating snapshot of the changes in our lifetime.

We have to have rather a big job done at the back of our house this year, so we have made a start on sorting boxes, shelves and cupboards. We started with a large box file stuffed with cuttings, special supplements and part-works, from the 1970s, 80s and 90s. It is an interesting reminder of how we ate.

The photography is immediately striking – so much saturated colour and so many dishes squeezed into the frame, very different from the well-lit and inviting images that characterise most food photography now. Equally telling is what is photographed, how much food is crammed onto the plates – no signs of minimalism!

The revolution of the past four decades is so all-encompassing that millennials and anyone younger cannot imagine a time when “Italian” meant pasta (often from tins), often served with chips (we had a favourite lunch-time cafe near the Echo office in Bournemouth where they served spaghetti bolognese with chips, but at least they didn’t call it “spag bol.”) Indian food was mild, medium or hot. Young men prided themselves on eating the hottest vindaloo, the heat level usually relating directly to how many pints of lager they had drunk – women tended to opt for a mild, creamy curry.

The idea that you could find authentic Japanese, Chinese, Malayan, Georgian, Persian, West African, Peruvian, Polish or Ukrainian food in Bristol or Newcastle would have been incomprehensible. Indeed, most people in this country would have had no idea of distinctive regional Indian or Chinese food, of South American food culture, or the infinite variety of traditional and local foods enjoyed across the vast African continent.

No-one could imagine then that Scandinavia would become the source of  the world’s most exciting, innovative and influential cuisine and a huge driver in the now-widespread foraging scene. You might have chewed experimentally on a few stalks of grass as a child but would you have dreamed of creating subtle and delicious dishes using woodland flowers, moss or fungi (other than field mushrooms)?

People who went to Spain wanted fish and chips and other familiar English dishes (although many enjoyed sangria as well as sun and sex) – but Spain as the cradle of science-based gastronomy was not on anyone’s radar. Even more laughable was the idea that British food could be considered some of the best in the world.

There has been an important divergence over these four decades and back into the 1960s, when I was learning to cook from my mother, who was a very good domestic cook. On the one hand food today, particularly in restaurants, is exciting and excellent, ethnically and topographically diverse – but for all but the most skilled home cooks, it is also very expensive and hard to replicate in your own kitchen. On the other hand, food in supermarkets, fast-food outlets and the homes of hard-pressed, time and cash-poor families, is cheaper – but the cheapest food is often highly processed and frequently linked directly to food poverty and health issues.

According to the Office of National Statistics, between 1957 and 2017 the share of household expenditure on food has halved. This partly reflects larger incomes, smaller households and a greater choice of products at different prices. Statistics for food spending are  pretty similar across much of the developed world. In 2020, US consumers spent an average of 8.6 per cent of their disposable personal income on food—divided between food at home (5 per cent) and food away from home (3.6 per cent). According to a  recent report from the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, based at Stoneleigh in Warwickshire, the average UK household spends 8 per cent of its outgoings on food consumed in the home compared to 30 per cent in India and 59 per cent in Nigeria.

The explanation, according to the AHDB, is that as incomes rise, the proportion of income spent on food falls: “This is a well-established relationship known as Engel’s Law and happens because our demand for food is, to a certain extent, ‘non-expandable’. We may trade up and buy more high-value foods like meat but, in volume terms, our demand doesn’t change. In other words, we can only eat so much! Other types of spending are expandable – as we get richer we tend to take more holidays and increase spending on other leisure pursuits.”

There are debates over food, health and poverty, arguments about factory farming or the environmental costs of “plant-based” pseudo milks versus organic or regenerative agriculture, veganism compared with vegetarianism, calls to eat insects for protein, eat less meat or not eat meat at all, and so on.

The question of cost at a time of rising inflation, massive energy price rises and increasing taxes is very difficult. Nobody has all the answers but we need to steer a path that is healthier and more affordable for the greatest number of people, and sustainable for the planet.

One possible starting point is this advice from the food writer Michael Pollan: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food” (from his 2008 book In Defence of Food).

Fanny Charles