We should take pride in Britain’s acceptable food | David Mitchell | Opinion

A phrase really jumped out at me from a newspaper last week. The Times said a recent survey into Spanish attitudes to Britain, conducted by the tourism agency Visit Britain, “found that only 12% of Spaniards considered the UK to be the best place for food and drink”. That, I thought to myself, may be the most extraordinary use of the word “only” I have ever seen.

Has its meaning recently flipped? Has it been warped by an internet hashtag or ironic usage by rappers? Is it like how “bad” or “wicked” can mean good, and actors receiving awards use the word “humbled” to mean “incredibly impressed with myself”? Because, if “only” still means what I think it means, the paper is implying it expected more than 12% of the people of Spain to think Britain was “the best place for food and drink”.

That’s quite a slur on the Spanish. How delusional did it expect them to be? What percentage of them would it expect to think the world was flat? I know we’re moving into a post-truth age, but 12% of a culinarily renowned nation considering Britain, the land of the Pot Noodle and the garage sandwich, to be the world’s No 1 destination for food and drink is already a worrying enough finding for the Spanish education system to address. It would be vindictive to hope for more.

But it seems that’s what Visit Britain and the Foreign Office are going for. Last week the British ambassador to Spain, Simon Manley, donned a union jack apron and went on the hit Spanish cookery programme El Comidista to advocate British cuisine and try to change the perceptions of the 88% of the Spanish population still currently in their right minds. It was his second appearance on the programme: the first was last year when he was “summoned” to explain Jamie Oliver’s heretical addition of chorizo to paella. He responded with a recipe for roast chicken with mustard.

This is all very jocular and a welcome distraction from Gibraltar, but I hope Visit Britain doesn’t get carried away with this food push. I really don’t think the 12% figure is one it should be disappointed with, even if, on closer examination of the survey, the respondents didn’t actually say they thought Britain was “the best place for food and drink”, just that sampling the food and drink would be a motivation for choosing the UK for a holiday.

Maybe some of the 12% are enthusiastic food anthropologists whose motivation for going anywhere is to try the food and drink. They’ve consumed everything from yak testicles to locust wee, so fascinated are they by humankind’s huge range of nourishment techniques. A bit of academic interest, and the memory of a disappointing white ant egg soup or crispy tarantula, might really help soften the blow of a first baffled visit to the salad cart at a Harvester.

You may say I’m talking Britain down, and I’m certainly not talking it up. I would argue, though, that I’m talking it along. Food here is OK. Or rather, it’s sometimes terrible and sometimes delicious but usually neither and it averages out as fine. Lots of us are really fat now – that’s got to be a good sign.

I think the host of El Comidista, Mikel López Iturriaga, got it about right when he said: “For many Spaniards, British food is the ultimate example of bad international cuisine…” – and there are many outlets on the Costa Del Sol that work tirelessly to recreate that flavour for British visitors – “…but I think that everything has improved substantially in recent years, and today it is much easier to find decent food.” So decent food is now available. That’s not a reason to pick Britain as a holiday destination – but it’s a reason not to be afraid to.

And our ambassador betrayed weaknesses in our cooking, even as he spoke up for it: “The idea is to combat the stereotype about British food and drink and promote the idea that we take ideas from around the world and we adapt them for this cosmopolitan cuisine we know today.”

Illustration by David Foldvari of a service-station sandwich on a silver serving dish



Illustration by David Foldvari.

What does that mean? Despairing of our grim native fare, we steal dishes from other countries and slightly ruin them? Put chorizo in the paella and cream in the bolognese and make baguettes with the consistency of sponge? Or was he saying that our comparative dearth of culinary excellence has allowed us a greater open-mindedness to other cultures’ food traditions, which has now dragged our own food standards slightly closer to par?

If you work in the catering industry, you may well be screaming at me for unjustly perpetuating this country’s no-longer-deserved reputation for shit grub. I’m sorry, and I almost certainly don’t mean you: there is, as I say, brilliant food to be had in Britain. There always has been, I suppose, but I’m sure there’s more of it now.

But the stereotype bemoaned by the ambassador has its basis in truth: delicious food has never been a cultural priority. In our collective national soul, we don’t believe that the niceness of meals is that important. Perhaps on special occasions, but not every day. So we get more crumbs in our keyboards than European neighbours such as France and Italy, which the 12% of Spaniards looking for gastronomic holidays would be well advised to visit first.

The fact that food has improved in Britain is a sign, not of a major change in those cultural priorities, but of two other factors: how international we’ve become and our competitive spirit. The food has been brought up to standard, for the same reasons that we’ve put in proper coffee machines and wifi – to show we’re keeping up. We proudly note how highly the restaurants of chefs like Heston Blumenthal come in international rankings even as we peel the film off our microwave dinners. In food, as in cycling, Britain can now win.

As most Spaniards noted in the survey, there are better reasons to go to Britain than the food: the history, the castles, the stately homes, the museums, the countryside, the coastline, the concerts, the theatre, the cities. We have an interesting country, an interesting past and we’re an interesting people: no nastier than most and hard to ignore. And, for better or worse, what we are, what we have, and whatever it is that our culture represents, comes from centuries of working through lunch.

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