I run a small restaurant. Whenever I talk about it, some well-meaning soul will ask with genuine interest what sort of food we serve.
I can’t say it’s French, Italian, Indian, Chinese or Mexican so I ask them a question back. “If you went into a little place like this, in a small town – about the size of this one – in France, would you ask the chef, ‘Is your food seasonal? Local? Is it French?’”
Of course not. The very idea is absurd. The chef is buying the best ingredients he can find close by and preparing them to the recipes that are relevant to his history and location. What we cook is undeniably British but a definition of “British cuisine” is surprisingly difficult to nail down.
Though it’s easy to look at postwar British catering and sneer at Brown Windsor soup or boil-in-the-bag cod in parsley sauce, that was a historical anomaly born of two wars worth of rationing and an intervening Depression. British cooking in stately homes, gentlemen’s clubs and restaurants had actually been some of the finest in the world, particularly at that Edwardian height when we drew ingredients and influences from across a global empire. But there’s more to British cuisine than interrupted history.
Since the tail-end of the last war, what can only be described as a dynasty of British chefs has launched restaurants based on their own vision of British food. It can be traced back to George Perry-Smith at the Hole in the Wall in Bath, through Joyce Molyneux at the Carved Angel, taking in Sean Hill, Alastair Little, our own Rowley Leigh, Fergus Henderson and others.
They are interesting because none of them began as a trained chef. This group has in the past been characterised as “The Gentleman Amateurs” (which is both unfair to them and neglectful of the importance of Molyneux) but, importantly, all cite figures such as Jane Grigson, Margaret Costa and Elizabeth David as influences rather than Carême or Escoffier. It is this group which has built a cuisine based on respect for local ingredients, a thorough grounding in Mediterranean and French bourgeois technique, an unironic reappropriation of traditional recipes and made it the launch pad for an authentically British way of eating. They also influenced another vibrant strand of British cuisine.
Back in the 1980s, when food lovers still believed that the French and Italians had a lock on decent local bistros and trattorias, the gastropub was born. Today, we have a solid national network of them, serving a menu that has evolved in a similar way to that of “zincs” and osterias, varying little but reflecting our national taste and desires.
Finally we should acknowledge the “ethnic” foods in which we’ve now delighted for centuries. When Indian immigrants opened restaurants here, they didn’t serve authentic food from their own country but a version of it that would suit our tastes. Similar adaptations have taken place of Italian, Greek, Thai, Chinese and other cuisines and, as a multicultural society, we can cheerfully co-opt the lot.
If we want a definition of British food we need to be open about our influences and prouder of our history. A well-shot grouse, roasted pink at the bone with bread sauce, is British cuisine of which we can be justifiably proud but so are a gastropub banger with mustard mash and chicken tikka masala.
Confidence in our food culture is growing healthily. Today I know exactly what I mean when I say British cuisine and it doesn’t need inverted commas around it any more. I don’t think it will be too long before we all feel the same.
Tim Hayward is an FT Weekend contributing writer; Twitter: @TimHayward