Britain's Food Decade

Observer Food Monthly, Sunday May 15, 2011
Tim Adams looks back at a decade of changing views about food:

Never before has our culture been so engaged in discussing and experimenting with and agonising over and fantasising about and plain enjoying what is on the end of our forks. Our restaurants are, from where we are looking at least, the envy of the world; there is at least an irregular farmers' market in most large towns, along with the opportunity and desire to hunt down and taste and recreate some of the best cuisines of the world's more distant corners. Spurred by cheap travel and the benefits of mass immigration, no country is more cosmopolitan in its taste in food. We are, even, you could begin to believe, looking one way, living in a kind of organic renaissance, a paradise of curly kale and sprouting broccoli and wild salmon and foraged berries.

There are, though, other stories about Britain and food which remain far less palatable. In the last decade these have run in parallel with this sensual back-to-nature narrative, and have often threatened to undermine and derail it. At the same time as we have opted to choose cookbooks as our favourite reading material, there has been an exponential increase in the consumption of takeaways and fast food. We may be producing more world-class chefs than ever before, but a fifth of our food still comes out of plastic and a microwave. We might demand more and more as a nation to know where what is on our plates comes from and what it contains, but in the last 10 years we have become the fattest nation in Europe (children in Scotland are more at risk of obesity than those of any other nation in the world except the United States.) The taste for organics, which looked for a long time like a trend that would only grow, has stalled and gone into reverse with the recession. Cheap, processed food remains our staple diet; a quarter of all Christmas dinners eaten in Britain last year were entirely pre-prepared.

There are other dislocations, though, in our proper understanding of the fact that we are what we eat. In the spirit of the time we have outsourced some of our desire for more home-cooked food; we experience it vicariously – thus the caricature of the family sitting down with its TV dinner watching the sweating contestants on MasterChef shucking oysters or boning rabbits, or gazing fondly at Nigella whipping cream. Food has become visual entertainment in the last decade, but that has not always translated to our plates.

The New York Times food writer Molly O'Neill coined the idea of "food porn" seven years ago. It struck her as she was signing copies of her latest bestselling recipe collection, with a line of people snaking out of the bookshop, that she was putting her name to books that almost no one in the queue would ever actually use. When she asked the people in the queue they mostly confirmed her fears.

"The people buying my book didn't see me as an interpreter of everyday life," she realised, "they saw me as the high priestess of a world that existed almost exclusively in their imagination. They told me that they read my cookbooks like novels to enter an alternate reality where cooking is slow and leisurely and imbued with a comforting glamour..." It was voyeurism rather than practicality that her buyers craved; on another occasion O'Neill noted: "The amount of money spent on kitchen equipment is generally in inverse proportion to the amount of time spent cooking with it."

The rise of the celebrity chef has coincided with our interest in confessional memoirs. The attraction of someone like Nigella, made to seem so effortlessly languid, lies not only in her food tips but also in the intimacies of the unattainable lifestyle she seems to represent. One element of this appetite is a kind of nostalgia for technique. We don't necessarily have the skills or confidence for dicing or plucking or marinading, but we are entirely in thrall to those who do.

The way we ate

2001
Foot and mouth devastates British agriculture as 10 million sheep and cattle are slaughtered to halt the disease.

April 2001
Tesco, Britain's biggest retailer, makes £1bn profit for the first time.

March 2002
Jamie Oliver creates the Fifteen Foundation to train disadvantaged youngsters in the restaurant business. He puts up his house as collateral, without telling his wife.

2004
Household spending on food and drink hits £85.8bn in 2004, up 53.4% over the previous 12 years.

January 2005
Come Dine with Me first broadcast on C4.

February 2005
Jamie's School Dinners airs. Its success leads the government to create the School Food Trust to improve school dinners.

April 2005
Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck is voted No 1 in the annual World's 50 Best Restaurants poll.

November 2005
Sales of organic produce increase by 33%. The market is now worth £1.2bn

August 2008
The price of food rises by 8.3% overall in the UK in seven months. Meat and fish prices increase by 22.9%.

September 2008
MasterChef: the Professionals begins on BBC2. Parent show MasterChef has now been running on and off since 1990.

April 2009
Gordon Ramsay accused of serving "boil in the bag" food at four of his restaurants. He maintains the meals are freshly prepared by a central supplier.

January 2010
Profits at Gordon Ramsay Holdings fall 90%. Jason Atherton leaves Maze and Claridge's loses its Michelin star

September 2010
Jamie Oliver's 30-Minute Meals becoming fastest selling non-fiction hardback ever. The Bookseller estimates the value of the food & drink book market at £90.8m. In 2001 it was £55.5m.

November 2010
All 25,000 of Heston Blumenthal's £13.99 Waitrose Christmas puddings sell out. Bids on eBay reach £250.

2011
Borough Market in London now has 4.5m visitors annually. Ten years ago it had 50,000.

April 2011
Tesco announces profits of £3.8bn



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