In spite of the recession, businesses involved in good food seem to be in bewilderingly robust health. With high streets emptying and commercial property undergoing a punishing squeeze, small independent food businesses are springing from the decaying remains like particularly delicious mushrooms. Every week another cadre of professionals bail out of the City or jobs in marketing and set up in the kind of agricultural, retail or service jobs from which their grandparents’ generation strove to escape, using their substantial savings or redundancy as seedcorn.
Middle-class life-changers are the evangelists of revivals in cheese, bakery, rare breeds, organics, winemaking and independent coffee shops, delis and restaurants all over the country. But step back for a moment. Let’s ask the unaskable question. What will happen when high streets reach saturation point, when they can no longer take another sustainable fishmonger run by the former head of corporate affairs for a pharmaceuticals giant? Could this be a bubble?
We’ve had bubbles before. Ten years ago, the disenchanted left the rat race to become “life coaches”. Where are they now? In the unlikely event you needed whatever a life coach could offer, you could die waiting. It was as deranged a bubble as ever existed. Could these exciting food businesses go the same way?
Call me an optimist but I think not. Though the sudden bloom of legion artisanal jam concerns, one-man charcuterie boutiques and deeply unhygienic amateur affineurs shows all the outward signs of an unsustainable surge, we should remember how badly our food culture has been damaged.
As a nation we have been taught to regard food as a commodity, not a joy. We’ve had two world wars worth of rationing, depressions, recessions and heavy state intervention in our national diet, so much so that we willingly relinquished responsibility for our own nourishment to diet quacks, fast-food manufacturers and monopoly supermarkets.
We lost our food culture, and when you look across the Channel, you start to realise that’s a pretty big cultural void to fill.
Which is why for a food lover, though this might look like a bubble, it doesn’t feel like it; it feels, in fact, more like a great national “catching up”. Our suddenly reignited interest in food is not an evanescent “fashion” but a readjustment after generations of neglect. Without wishing to overdramatise, we are like those many cultures that have been culturally repressed. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not talking about jackbooted food police or terrifying ministries manipulating our media. For many complex reasons we voluntarily chose to crush our own enjoyment of food – but we’ve decided it’s time to change.
Looking, as we now can, at other nations that have thrown off various forms of cultural oppression, we know we can expect, at first, unbridled enthusiasm and infectious joy and then hope for a wave of productive creativity and prolonged growth that fills the void. This isn’t a bubble, it’s the aftermath of a successful revolution – even if it was ourselves we overthrew.
Tim Hayward is the editor of Fire & Knives; www.fireandknives.com