Know the source and treat it well
Brits care about where their meat and fish comes from, and how it was treated before it arrives on the plate. At least, more of us do now than we did a couple of years ago, thanks to TV programmes such as Hugh’s FishFight (primarily concerned with sustainable fishing) and Chicken Out!, another Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall show, which highlighted how commercial breeds of broiler chicken are reared for their meat in just 39 days, compared to slow-growing breeds that live for at least 75 days.
My website, lovefood.com, has covered the subject many times, with Editor Andrew Webb (author of Food Britannia) arguing that ‘the future for meat eating is responsible, ethical and traceable’. He writes that as a nation we should buy British free-range meat, use our local butcher instead of the supermarket, eat less beef and try pork or lamb instead, and not eat meat every day. Campaigns such as Meat Free Monday (which is fronted by Paul McCartney and family, and encourages people not to eat meat at least once a week) support his arguments.
Plus the recent horsemeat scandal has made us worry even more about the content of our meat products. Butchers across the country have seen their trade rise by 15-20% ever since the story broke, and there’s also been an increase in the sales of ‘ethical’ meat products such as ‘rosé veal’ – that is, meat from calves raised to RSPCA standards, allowing them to roam outside, live for longer, and eat a healthier diet.
It’s not that people aren’t eating meat anymore… it’s just that there’s more respect for the ‘real thing’, and London restaurants such as Hawksmoor will always be busy. They’re proud to use only Yorkshire beef, and have a video on their website introducing customers to the breed of cow that they use. The more obvious a restaurant is about where its meat comes from, the better it will do.
Perhaps linked to the concerns around meat is a rise in the number of British ‘flexitarians’. The phrase was first coined in the mid-90s, although the media have only started to use it regularly in the last six months or so. A flexitarian is a ‘flexible vegetarian’ – that is, someone who eats mostly vegetarian meals, but makes time for a bit of decent meat or fish when they feel the urge. They’re also referred to as ‘veggie-vores’, or ‘vegetarians with benefits’.
Food trend analysts are predicting a "50% increase" in vegetarianism in 2013, and a similarly startling rise in the number of flexitarians. The rise in meat prices and an increasingly compelling moral and environmental argument is partly to blame for the increase.
Charles Banks, director of food trends agency The Food People, said earlier this year: “There has been a seismic shift in attitudes towards celebrating vegetables and opting to eat less meat. We expect meat-free eating and flexitarianism to soon be a mega trend.” Support from celeb flexitarians, such as chef and author SimonHopkinson, will no doubt encourage it, and restaurants in London are beginning to expand their vegetarian options. Even The Smithfield Tavern, which is opposite the most famous meat market in London, made the decision to go veggie earlier this year, following the success of a meat-free menu at its sister pub in Soho.
Just a note: I don’t wish to exaggerate the extent of vegetarianism in Britain; after all, estimates suggest that only 2-5% of the population consider themselves to be totally vegetarian. But it is a noticeable trend, and I expect that figure to rise over the next couple of years.
Not tapas as in Spanish food; but tapas meaning ‘bitty’ food; food for sharing; ‘order two or three small plates’ food. It’s a trend which challenges the starter>main>dessert set-up, and it is not specific to any cuisine.
Polpo, a hugely popular restaurant in London’s Soho, is a Venetian ‘bàcaro’ – a humble restaurant serving simple food and good, young wines. Instead of ordering a big bowl of pasta and maybe a salad to start, you pick and choose from a wide variety of cicchetti (Venetian snack food), pizzete, meatballs, fish, and vegetables. Each diner should order between two and four small plates, and the idea is to share them all as a table. Italian chain Zizzi has copies the idea, and now offers diners the option to choose three of five ‘cichetti’ dishes instead of a big main.
Dishoom is another great example. It’s an Indian restaurant (but calls itself an ‘original Bombay café’) in London’s Covent Garden, and instead of the usual curry + rice + naan combo, you choose two, three of four things from a menu of ‘small plates’, ‘grills’, ‘vegetable business’, ‘salad plates’, ‘roomali rolls’ and more. As with Polpo, the idea is to dine on a variety of tastes, colours, aromas and textures, rather than eating a larger quantity of the same thing.
You don’t even have to eat a full meal at such establishments. Dishoom encourages patrons to ‘pop in for a chai tea’ if they want, and it’s no longer frowned upon to spend less than £10 at a restaurant, especially in London. Indeed, a recent study of 2,000 British adults found that 40% of people don’t eat three meals a day, preferring to ‘graze’ all day instead. Plus BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme recently investigated ‘The Death of Three Square Meals’, reporting that hectic lifestyles and working shifts both play big parts in the decline of meal times, which compliments the kind of food offered at places like Polpo.
Another strain to this ‘snacking’ trend is the rise of street food. Food retailers have highlighted quality ‘food on the go’ as the main area of growth in their sector, and there are now international food markets within walking distance of almost every office block in London (eg Whitecross Street Market in London’s Old Street). Falafel wraps, burritos, Mediterranean salads and French ‘raclette’ stalls almost always feature.
Cupcakes are officially out of fashion – we’ve had enough outrageously sweet frosting to last a life time. But Brits still need something sweet to lift us out of the misery of economic decline and bad weather, and this year it comes in the form of comfort puddings… we’re turning the clock back and baking ‘what granny used to make’, in order to feel safe and warm. Think jam roly polys, Victoria sponges, treacle tarts, apple pies and suet puddings.
The hugely popular TV series The Great British Bake Off (set for a fourth series) is key to the trend, giving BBC viewers the impression that nothing is more fun, or more cool, than baking British cakes. Young celeb chefs such as Edd Kimber (who won the first series of Bake Off) and LorrainePascale (a former model who first hit our screens with her Baking Made Easy series) have given baking a ‘cool’ image, and it’s no longer considered a female-only pastime.
The BBC show Food and Drink, which was recently re-launched, devoted a whole half-hour episode to ‘nostalgic classics’, and in a recent Radio Times interview, celeb chef Heston Blumenthal called on the British people to use more memories in food… ‘Food rituals and experiences can bring a community back together through nostalgia and excitement,’ he said. And he even includes a ‘Like a Kid in a Sweet Shop’ dish (a striped paper bag full of superior confectionery) on the tasting menu at his three-Michelin-starred restaurant The Fat Duck.
Britain is in love with everything Scandinavian. Nordic Noir crime dramas such as The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge proved massively popular, and many Brits envy the politics, values and fashions of Scandinavia too. An interest in all things Scandi has helped fuel the Scandinavian food market, especially in London, and the cuisine has a very ‘cool’ reputation over here… especially when it’s championed by young, funky writers such as Signe Johansen, Norwegian author of the Scandilicious blog and baking book.
It’s near impossible to get a table at Scandi Kitchen, a café near Great Portland Street which sells things like fresh cinnamon buns, smorgasbords and meatballs. There’s also a little ‘supermarket’ at the back of the café, selling imported Scandi groceries.
North Road Restaurant near Farringdon is also proving popular – The Telegraph restaurant critic recently gave it 4.5/5, and I had one of the best meals of my life there. I think it’s how fresh, innovative and healthy Scandi cuisine is that appeals to us Brits… especially Londoners, who are always on the lookout for a new type of food to try.
Food takes up almost half of the annual Scandinavia Show at Earl’s Court now (I’ve been twice in a row), and the only thing we Brits are yet to take to is that really strong liquorice. We’ll get there one day though!