British Food: What the Devil is It?

The Observer Food Monthly re-launches this weekend and promises to be even better and stronger than it was before. As part of the fun, The Observer invited me, Chris and Euwen along for a natter with Jay Rayner on the topic of British Food. Watching yourself on video is no easy task I can tell you that for nothing. Two bits of advice if you ever have to do it: 1 – make sure you spend more than five minutes styling your hair and 2 – be prepared to forget every opinion you ever had, along with the majority of words that were in your vocabulary.

Anyway, here it is. The idea of the vid is to stimulate a bit of discussion about British Food, of course, so do please share your thoughts below. I’d love to know what your favourite dishes are and your opinions on whether or not we even have a national cuisine.

Category: Video | Tags: , , , , , , , 24 comments »

24 Responses to “British Food: What the Devil is It?”

  1. Martin

    “be prepared to forget every opinion you ever had, along with the majority of words that were in your vocabulary.”

    This happened to me when I was being interviewed once. It was like my brain had just hopped on its bike and cycled out the back door, cheerfully waving goodbye and leaving me on my own.

    The surprise was evident in my gob, which hung open like a fly catcher. You did much better than I did, bravo!

  2. David

    I can imagine it’s quite hard to watch yourself back on video, I’m not so sure I’d be brave enough! =)

    But, you all made for an interesting video that I really enjoyed watching. Looking forward to the next one.

  3. Kavey

    Love it! Well done you all!

  4. Wendy

    Read The Guardian/Observer online every day but NEVER watch the videos. (Prefer reading than watching/listening) Also, I’m not at all interested in talking about British food. (Just don’t care.)

    That said, I watched this ’cause I saw that you were on it and I really, really enjoyed it. You were fab and your ideas were fab. Hope you are suitably chuffed with yourself. :)

  5. Mr Noodles

    You had me at stargazy pie! Off topic I know but WTF was Cheese N Biscuits wearing.

  6. shayma

    congrats! i saw you on video you were AMAZING! (sorry for shouting!) x shayma

  7. Kate

    I thought your hair looked lovely Helen – no bad at all for a 5 minute job. Excellent comments too, of course.

  8. Jonathan

    Well done. Very brave and extremely well done. It’s bloody hard to do. And I think you gave Jay a run for his money.

  9. Margaret

    Hi Helen,

    We often have this debate, especially when we’ve been following programmes like the Great British Menu, especially when chefs produce spicy dishes, causing the judges (and the public) to ask, but is it British?

    One of our favourite English dishes is Cornish pasties, and we make them from time to time. Every single ingredient is French, it’s cooked in France, but is it French? Certainly not! Same with our Yorkshire puddings! (That’s two favourite, British, foods for your list.)

    I’m thinking … Bakewell Tart, and I can’t help noticing – if there’s a British placename in the name of the dish, then it’s certainly a British dish!

    Also, our Christmas recipes are decidedly British – Christmas cake/pudding and mince pies.

    Fish & chips!

    More dishes will keep popping into my head but I am going now!

  10. chris

    Samphire?? Really, does that resonate as intensely British to you? Sorry, your hair may have been fabulous but I think samphire and stargazey pie just comes across as pretentious.

  11. meemalee

    Helen – well done!

    As for Chris’s comment about samphire – don’t be daft. Samphire is quintessentially British, especially if you live round the coast.

    It’s even mentioned by Shakespeare in King Lear:

    “Half-way down, Hangs one that gathers samphire; dreadful trade!”

    And stargazey pie pretentious? About as pretentious as jellied eel – it’s old school Cornish grub.

  12. chris

    Hi again,

    I’ll gloss over, being called a troll, why? because I disagree with your choices? I can even gloss over being called a spanner because I kind of enjoy the old-schoolness of it. What really rankles though is being called a twat. That is simply rude and unnecessary. To be honest, no I don’t really like Chris Pople’s blog. I certainly don’t ‘love him enough to follow him’?? I’ve never met the guy, so perhaps the ‘diamond shoes are too tight’ smacked a little bit too much of jealousy. But I was a little bit drunk. Drunk blogging should be prevented in much the same way as drunk texting. However, I stand by what I wrote. I said that samphire is pretentious and I mean it. I’m sorry but quoting shakespeare to prove that it’s an english dish, kind of proves my point.

    Sorry to go on, but Helen after I wrote my blog post, I went and had a look at your blog and searched wine. The first thing that came up was you said that you’ve been accused of not writing enough about wine, because you only use it to get drunk. Well, i think that proves my point.

    and @meemalee, if you’re going to be quite that unpleasant about me in the future I would suggest that you do it off the public timeline. I had a slight run in with Jay Rayner, who I have an enourmous amount of respect for let it be said, due to just such a snafu. though I only said that he scowled in my shop, not that he was stupid, a twat, an idiot or a spanner.

    Henry I allegedly died from a ‘surfeit of lampreys’. Doesn’t mean we’re all queing up to eat ‘em. I read in Anne Hagen that Acorns used to be eaten in times of need. Perhaps we could all return to such rustic simplicity.

    Don’t get me wrong, I like samphire. In 1995 I worked in a pub in Dartmouth in what was my first proper cheffing job and we used to serve salmon on samphire with saffron sauce. My beef is with suggesting with a straight face that samphire is a quintessential british starter. I think @tehbus hit the nail on the head with potted shrimp. When I worked for Fortnum’s we couldn’t sell smoked eel, and potted shrimp fast enough. And what about smoked salmon? Never mind what the cornish might think about stargazey pie. I lived and worked as a chef in devon for 10 years and stargazey pie never once made it across the Plym.

    Also for the record, I don’t hate food bloggers. I think that they serve their purpose in that they entertain and to a certain extent they educate. I did actually like Chris’ entry on el bulli, because it was slightly negative. All to often though I think food bloggers veer to the narcissitic side of things. this is especially true of twitter. Hence the £100 at Rules comment. Of course I’m jealous. I don’t earn a huge amount of money. I passionately love eating, so would of course love to be able to dine at bob bob ricard, goodmans, rules etc on a regular basis. You’ll notice though that the few times I’ve bloged about the restaurants I’ve eaten in I’ve used it as a starting point to write about what I think food and eating out should be about.

  13. Helen

    Hello Chris,

    Thanks for your comments. I can only respond to the bits that relate to me.

    I’ll admit that I was upset by your comment that I sound pretentious for mentioning a plant and a pie that has pilchards heads sticking out of it. Call me sensitive but I found it rather uncalled for. Then again, you are entitled to your opinion. I nevertheless found it shocking that you felt strongly enough to have a go.

    As for the wine comment – it’s a shame you didn’t read on – the next two words would have explained it all. I quote in full:

    “I am often asked why I don’t write about wine more on this blog, considering the fact that I drink so much of the stuff. Well, that’s because I only drink wine to get pissed.

    Only kidding.”

    The post then went on to explain how I was facing my fear in writing about it. It also described my experience of attending the wine bloggers conference in Lisbon. I am also currently doing a 13 week wine school at a local wine shop. Trust me, I don’t just drink wine to get pissed.

    As for my choice of starter, I mean seriously, lighten up! I said the first thing popped into my head! I do love samphire and I do think it is a very British thing to eat. I really don’t know why it bothers you so much.

    Finally, I also don’t have the money to go to Rules. This is mostly a recipe blog as you might have noticed. I am also jealous!

  14. chris

    actually, I don’t think i do need to lighten up. You and your friends have written some pretty spiteful things about me on twitter. I wrote a comment about samphire. What bothers me so much that you and your buddies jumped on me like a bunch of mean kids in a playground. I have no problem with samphire.

    I apologise for the comment regarding the wine I was a little pissed last night, I should have read further.

    I realise that being interviewed by the mighty jay rayner is a bit daunting, but I still think that for most people who weren’t trying to impress (not confusing rustic with pretentious), the more obvious candidates would be fish and chips or roast beef, even chicken tikka for gods sake, is more popular. For about 7 years I ate spag bol, a dish unknown in Bologna, every friday night. The choice is pretentious, not the dish itself.

    By the way have just received your message. Thank you. Like I wrote above, drunk blogging shouldn’t be allowed. My blog post wasn’t about you at all, despite the fact that you are on my blogroll, I actually never read it. The only ones I regularly enjoy are Gastroanthropology and alinea at home.

    What I was trying to say in my blog, rather inarticularly, I must admit, is that I find a lot of food blogging overly fetishistic. For example the sight of the obviously wealthy Chris Pople learning how to butcher meat (at no expense to himself I’m assuming) to have more than a touch of the Mary Antoinette about it. I’ve been uncomfortable for some time with the blogging world, especially since this business with bloggers being comped food in restaurants. There’s a really interesting argument to make about it, but I haven’t quite figured it out yet.

    Perhaps I am being precious about this, but to be honest I was absolutely steaming angry last night. I don’t think the abuse I received warranted the crime.

    Chris Parkman

  15. Helen

    Hi Chris,

    Well I think we were all a bit over the top to be honest, you instigated the whole thing by calling me pretentious and then the others leapt to my defence. I cannot be responsible for what other people say I’m afraid. I said ‘lighten up’ because I thought it strange to get so worked up over someone else’s choice of dinner party dishes. People can serve whatever they like in their own homes in my opinion.

  16. Chris

    Just to clear something up, I am not ‘wealthy’, not by a long stretch! I just spend every single bit of any spare disposable income on food. I don’t own a car, or go on holiday anywhere exciting; I don’t have a family to support, or buy expensive clothes – in fact I literally shop about once a year, when my jeans start to get holes in. Food, and restaurants, are my main interests, and that’s where my money goes.

    I was prepared to ignore most of your bafflingly contradictory comments, but I don’t want people going around thinking I’m ‘wealthy’. I wish! I probably earn less than you. Don’t be so judgemental.

    And if you don’t like our blogs, DON’T READ THEM. Problem solved! (Oh and if you particularly don’t like mine, can I suggest you remove it from your list of “Stuff you might like?” Kind of makes you look completely and utterly dribblingly insane.

  17. Chris

    On the blog above it clearly says the vid is meant as a debate starter. I’m not sure I did that. I inspired a pile on. If anyone wants to engage in a debate with me I can be contacted on gluttonboy@googlemail.com rest assured I certainly am not dribbling insane, deeply conflicted or just stupid.

    One of the first things Helen wrote on Twitter about me was this is only the second time that anyone has disagreed with her. Well maybe that’s a bad thing. I thank Helen for engaging with me reasonably. What I will admit to is being a bit clumsy and not massively articulate. I mean well.

  18. James Ramsden

    Let’s all have a nice cup of tea and a biscuit.

  19. meemalee

    Dear Chris aka @bizparkie aka glutton boy.

    Apologies for calling you a twat – you’re right, that was most uncalled for, however twatty your comments may have come across.

    However, I did not call you stupid or an idiot. I did say your original comments re samphire and stargazy pie were stupid and I stand by that.

    Anyway, all this is irrelevant because all of that was off the record. They were made on Twitter during a conversation to which you were not privy. Whilst Twitter is by its nature a public medium, you were essentially eavesdropping on us.

    By the way, I suspected you would go off on one about Shakespeare. The reason I mentioned it was simply to counter the fact that you said samphire wasn’t British.

    It’s also interesting that you’re now saying that you don’t have a problem with samphire and that “the choice is pretentious, not the dish itself”. In my books, that’s a personal attack on Helen.

    As for your “Never mind what the cornish might think about stargazey pie”; that’s quite a prejudiced comment. Scouse pie isn’t well-known beyond Lancashire, but I would say that it was still very British.

    ps you worked for Fortnums? I wish I could afford food from there.

  20. Chris

    It certainly is not irrelevant. Discussions between people I follow appear on my timeline. They are very much on the record. If you don’t understand the nature of a medium then you shouldn’t use it. To be honest whether my comments were or were not a personal attack, I no longer care. If you think it’s acceptable to call people a twat or suggest that you have a deep understanding of their character, then you have issues. The fact is bloggers should be able to write what they like on others blogs. I have a keen understanding of the difference between saying a comment made under pressure in an interview is pretentious and saying that the person themself is pretentious. To not see the difference is a massive mistake. My wife accuses me all the time of coming out with exceptionally pompous stuff. Doesn’t mean I AM pompous.

    To be frank. I’m not here to engage in personal attacks. I would have liked to engage in a discussion, as it DOES say above. Neither am I here to engage in hearty back slapping.

    I wrote a pretty sloppy blog entry, that when I get toa proper computer I’ll edit for glaring mistakes. I’m man enough to admit my mistakes, can you meemalee. Or are you going to continue with this ridiculous assertion that I was eavesdropping?

  21. Mat

    Well this is all a little bit extreme. I liked the video. It was relaxed, humorous and had a real feeling. Sometimes it’s nice to watch knowledgably people in their field asked questions they have not been prompted on – i do this all day every day. Not sure quite how you all got to this argumentative point over a handful of samphire and some fish sticking their heads out of a pie but it’s a little silly. I will say, however, if one brings twitter into the argument protecting your tweets is not always the best way to gain sympathy from other uses. Not taking sides but maybe un-protecting the tweets and coming onto the timeline will help others understand what the twitterer is all about and maybe then they might embrace the critical comments as constructive?
    Love Mat x

  22. Lizzie

    Holy moly. Who’d have thought the post would throw this up?

    I am confused though – exactly what isn’t British about samphire? I always thought it was.

    Helen, as you know I think you came across brilliantly. I’ve never had stargazey pie but it seems pretty bleedin’ British to me.

  23. Margaret

    By heck! whatever happened to the debate about “British food, what is it?”

  24. Jean at The Delightful Repast

    Hello Helen–First off, your hair looked lovely in the video. Not living in Britain (and it’s been a while since I visited), I can’t say much on the topic of modern British cuisine; but since my mother’s family was English, I was raised on many traditional English foods. It seems like offal was mentioned a number of times in the video, and I don’t care for that at all. When my mother and grandmother made things like beef tongue or steak and kidney pie, they had to make something else for the rest of the family to eat! But traditional dishes like shepherd’s/cottage pie, pasties, roasts, Yorkshire pudding, trifle, bread and butter pudding–made with care and good ingredients–are unbeatable. I blog about them about every other post! I don’t make fish and chips at home–don’t like to get my kitchen greasy–but we have two Irish pub/restaurants nearby who do a good job of it. Stargazey pie has never appealed to me. Would much prefer a nice bowl of potato-leek soup.


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