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29th April 2016

The Wooden Spoon of European Cuisine: Britain

‘The onlooking cameras salivate, food bloggers moan. Drip, drip, drip goes the butter.’

An article I’ve been wanting to write for a while is some kind of synopsis of British food. An attempt to define what it is, if anything at all, where it’s being done and who’s doing it well. I was at a party in North London once, with some students from UCL, a discussion arose about British food and I remember this young Frenchman laughing and insisting adamantly that no such thing even existed. At the time, I didn’t have much of an argument to rattle him with. And, as is the purpose of all knowledge, I was given the impetus to better understand British food so I can shoot outspoken Frenchmen down at dinner parties.

During a weekend in early March, I had the unprecedented and uncoordinated good fortune to attend two very British gastronomic events. The first was a dinner at TNQ Bar and Restaurant in the Shudehill side of the Northern Quarter. The second was a chance to interview a prominent Irish chef, John Relihan. Relihan had a stall at the St Patrick’s Day ‘Irish feast’ in Trafalgar Square.

British cuisine, to some extent, is a mirror, a reflection of what was historically an agrarian society. British food is not characterised by great excess, it’s about a sense of resourcefulness, using all of the products of the slaughter, about using all the game and fowl that have become so associated with Britain. It’s about Goosnargh Chicken. It’s all about Goosnargh Chicken. Like Nordic cuisine, it’s about serving what’s around you, in a style people can relate to. I think that idea of being able to relate to the way the food is prepared is really important. That’s why I vastly preferred Relihan’s Irish stew to his pulled pork burger.

To be honest, I’m rather tired of pulled things, why did every food outlet in 2015 become obsessed with this one texture? It is a #foodtrend I would happily see the back of.

Back to Relihan’s stew. It was great, Irish beef with various familiar root vegetables such as the unwaveringly humble turnip. But who is John Relihan and why should we care what direction he steers British food? He is a product of the prodigal Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen apprenticeship, he has worked in San Francisco and practiced at the alter of what some consider the temple of British cuisine, St Johns in London, he then ran Jamie’s Barbacoa, a real meat and fire affair, before now opening Holy Smoke back in Cork, Ireland.

To me, he seemed like a real chef’s chef, unpretentious and a self-admitted ‘food nerd.’ Whilst talking to him as he prepared for the impending crowds that were about to descend on Nelson’s column, he talked about a couple of things that I considered to be triumphantly British. He had two barrel barbecues on which was burning coal from Oxford. Enter coal man, a gruff, soot-covered coal impresario with a shock of grey hair. He was standing to one side of Relihan’s stand talking to anyone concerned about the benefits of his 100 per cent natural charcoal.

Relihan was using said coal infused with turf shipped over from his native Ireland, to create a wonderfully British smoke, that was being infused into bits of brilliant Irish cow, that probably fed on the sod they were being smoked with. A cyclical triumph.

As we stood in the shadow of the national gallery, Relihan dabbed at the beef and pork belly with strokes of a brush built from a bundle of thyme bound around the handle of a wooden spoon, dipped in butter—the onlooking cameras salivate, food bloggers moan. Drip, drip, drip goes the butter.

I stare into space, before staring back down at one of the best mouthfuls I’ve had in recent years. It was from a starter that Ms Williams and myself were sharing at TNQ. Pig’s head terrine and Scottish scallops. The would-be pescatarian sits opposite me with a similar expression of unbeforeseen joy. The TNQ advertises as British cuisine and sources all its products from this green and present land. Our other starter was pigeon breast, served very rare, with cherries. It didn’t reach quite the same echelon as the pig but was still good. Both were relatively simplistic; like the head chef of TNQ, Anthony Fieldman, can be quoted as saying—not a lot of fuss or frills, it is the ingredients themselves that speak volumes.

And I think that’s something that really characterises British cuisine, the simple marriage of quality ingredients. In that way, it is similar to Italian cooking.

For mains, we had the sea bass and the chicken. The chicken breasts were from a Goosnargh Chicken, which is like the Aberdeen Angus of poultry. They’re from Preston in Lancashire, comfortingly close to home. The sea bass sat on a tomato & roast red pepper compote, the most distinct bit of Mediterranean influence, but had a potato galette made of the inimitable British institution that is the Jersey royal.

Its things like that that I really love about Fieldman’s cooking, his celebration of British ingredients. He draws focus to what we do have rather than what we don’t.

British food… woooooo!

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