If you write about food, work with it and hang around with food people, it’s easy to get smug. We’ve done pretty well over the past decade or so. Food is now taken more seriously at every level, from recreational home cooking through to producers and retailers and even on the political agenda. Yes, we’re out of the dark ages of boil-in-the-bag cod and deep-fried crispy pancakes and basking in the sunlit organic pastures of a Great Enlightenment. But on a recent trip to Norfolk I was forced to question how deep these changes actually go.
Norfolk should be a culinary promised land. Some of our most productive arable farms roll down to a line of tiny fishing ports, game leaps into your path as you wind down lanes flanked by orchards. There are breweries, smokeries, windmills and a general feeling of fecundity. I imagine Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s sleep is untroubled, but if he dreams, they look like the A149 as it meanders from Brancaster to Blakeney, via Hampstead next-the-Sea villages whose names toll like a Betjeman poem.
As the well-organised roads peter out, the pubs take on a different feel. For generations, well-travelled Brits complained that we didn’t have the small-town bistros or market square cafés that so graced the rest of Europe – and now we have gastropubs. They are darker, less ebullient and more enclosed, as befits our climate, but they represent democratic access to an honest national cuisine. With their Farrow & Ball colours they might look like they were ordered in kit form; Gill Sans bold on signage and menus may be recalled by future food historians as the first culinarily significant typeface, so representative has it become of “retro” and “authentic” values. But the gastropubs represent a whole stratum of good, decently sourced food, cooked by committed young chefs and selling at a fair price.
I needed fish for some pictures we were shooting and tweeted for local recommendations (yes, many things have improved for food hacks since Elizabeth David and finding local expertise is one of them). In short order I was standing in front of a counter in a wooden shack, looking out of the window at the North Sea and examining a fantastic display of fish. “Have you any razor clams?”
I asked, having seen their holes and huge drifts of their shells on the beach the night before. “No,” said the authentically wizened fishwife, “we can only get them in fifties from Billingsgate. Nobody round here buys them so they rot on the counter.” Bewildered, I asked why they had to come from Billingsgate, not the beach outside and she looked confused. “Nobody picks ’em here,” she said. “And, anyway, we get everything from Billingsgate.”
We drove out of Norfolk on Saturday morning, when the weekly tide of vacationers ebbs and flows. I remarked to the friend who’d been my guide on the large number of Ocado trucks, which I hadn’t expected to see so far out of town. “People coming down to their holiday places order their shopping from the office on Friday,” he said, “so it’s waiting when they get here.”
I suppose there’s a certain kind of food lover who would weep silent tears at the loss of our relationship with our local foods, but I don’t think it’s that simple. We “got” the industrial revolution before anyone else and we’re a very small island. Somewhere around the middle of the 19th century, censuses showed that more than 50 per cent of the population lived in cities. That means that since Victoria was queen, most of us haven’t had any kind of relationship with the producer of our food. Much more important was the way it was brought to us – what we now call “the supply chain”.
John James Sainsbury opened his first store in 1869, so it’s hardly surprising that, today, his business is more relevant than a bloke down the lane with some hens.
Unless we genuinely want to go back to a system of winter famines and bartering for eggs with our near neighbours, we need to accept that the commercial network that brings our food to us (and the attendant marketing) is the 300lb gorilla sitting on the scrubbed oak table next to the bowl of local pears.
What my little jaunt to Norfolk has brought home to me is that we’ve become a wonderfully food-conscious nation on the surface, but only to the extent that it is convenient and commercially viable. It is a great leap forward that in a place like Norfolk one can eat in a way that fulfils its promise. Naturally I’d love that interest to parlay into success for local suppliers and producers, but reality doesn’t look like that.
I’m glad that people are aware of things like razor clams and that they can order them in gastropubs. It’s wonderful that we have a supply chain that reaches out its tentacles to the smallest hamlet, to bring them couscous, fresh coriander, single-estate coffee beans and, in the fullness of time, quite possibly razor clams too. But translating that into a sudden revitalisation of the local razor clam industry – a bloke going out every day, digging the things up and bringing them to the shop; making enough profit so he can feed his own family in the off-season or when the weekenders are back at the office – well, that requires a quite substantial step backwards in the way our society operates. I’m not holding my breath.
Tim Hayward is an FT Weekend contributing writer