Britain a ‘foodie nation’? Sadly not

Angela Hartnett: Are we really a foodie nation, the top chef has asked.

Angela Hartnett: Are we really a foodie nation, the top chef has asked. - Credit: Archant

Top chef Angela Hartnett was right. In this country we don't really care enough about the quality of what we're eating, says Andy Newman.

As most of the talk you will hear this month about food will revolve around trying to shift the weight that inevitably accumulated during the excesses of the festive period, it may seem odd to be pondering whether Britain is a 'foodie nation' – and yet that is the debate which has been started by one of our best home-grown chefs.

Angela Hartnett was a protégée of both Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wareing, and emerged from under their wings to become at least their equal, which is no mean feat. Currently head chef of the Michelin-starred Murano restaurant in London, you would expect her world to be one in which pretty much everybody she comes across is more or less obsessed with food.

And yet this week she told BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs that Britain is not a 'foodie nation', and that despite much talk of the country having a food culture, 'I genuinely don't think we do'.

Given that amount of cookery programmes on television, along with the many pages devoted in this and other newspapers to what we eat, this is an unusual claim. And yet I think she is right.

The fact remains that for a relatively small proportion of the population, food and drink is as important as pretty much anything (and I count myself in this group). For these people, eating and drinking good food – not necessarily expensive food, but good food – is one of life's greatest joys. Sharing a table with people who feel the same way is the definition of a perfect evening.

However, I have to accept that we foodies are in the minority. I am always staggered at how many people are simply not interested in what they put in their mouths, and regard eating as a rather tedious chore they have to do to fuel their bodies.

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Hartnett blames this polarisation firmly on money, saying that only those who can afford it can be interested in food. To my mind this is simply wrong: there is just as much economic inequality in, say, Italy, and yet there eating well is viewed as a right for everybody.

No, our attitude towards food is not financial, it is cultural. We long ago stopped teaching our children how to cook in school (I accept that this situation is slowly starting to improve). We too easily gave up on the concept of sitting down to eat at table, sacrificing that vital social and gastronomic experience for the convenience of stuffing food down our throats in front of the TV. And we sat back and did nothing when our all-powerful supermarkets took the lowest common denominator approach to food quality, putting profit before taste, health and ethics.

The result is a population which is overwhelmingly obese, which has an uneducated and culture-less attitude to food, and which values cheapness and calorific intake above all else. Never mind the taste, as long as you are full.

Last week I was chatting to someone who was enthusing about his visit to one of those all-you-can-eat restaurants. The highest praise he was able to give it was that 'for the first time in my life I belched Chinese and Indian simultaneously'. It's hardly Jay Rayner, is it?

Actually, these types of restaurant are symptomatic of the problem: we are simply not prepared to pay for good food, and we want more, not better.

The restaurant he was talking about charges less than eight quid for lunch. Once you have paid for the staff, overheads and so on, that leaves a maximum of £2.50 for the ingredients; given that this is an establishment which encourages you to eat more not less, how good quality do you think those ingredients are going to be?

The irony is that Britain produces some of the best ingredients around, and boasts some tremendous, committed, passionate artisan food producers, many of them in Norfolk. But increasingly they are catering to a minority of the population, and it is this that leads commentators like Angela Hartnett to complain about the non-democratic nature of our food culture, in as much as it exists at all.

It is no accident that those countries which can genuinely lay claim to being 'foodie nations', which still cherish the traditions of sitting down together at table, where people are more interested in the quality of the food on their plate than the quantity – these are the countries which can lay claim to better social cohesion, better public health, and, crucially, higher levels of happiness.

And they are also the countries where talk about the misery of January diets is seldom heard – because they are simply unnecessary.