Half-baked truths

Greasy spoon cafes are alive and un­well in Bri­tain, finds Si­mon Busch

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

THE Full English ar­rives al­most be­fore I have fin­ished read­ing the menu. It is a re­minder the greasy in greasy spoon is no ca­sual use of slang. My meal glis­tens. Liq­uid fat twin­kles on the mush­rooms and the furled ba­con; the sausages are slick, slim and tumes­cent. A slurry of beans oozes across the dish.

I take a bite of the sausage: it tastes quite un­like meat. The eggs, which I have or­dered poached, are mi­nus­cule and rub­bery, and the yolk is grey. The beans taste like warmed-up, sug­ared corn­flakes. For a meal so thick with fat, salt and starch, it is oddly bland. It slides down my throat, as sev­eral ta­ble­spoons of brown grease re­main in a pud­dle on the plate. It is not so much dis­gust­ing as de­press­ing.

I moved from Aus­tralia to Eng­land sev­eral years ago. I could be for­given for think­ing the coun­try had un­der­gone some kind of culi­nary re­nais­sance were I to be­lieve ev­ery­thing I read. Re­nais­sance? Nay, stronger: revo­lu­tion is the word of choice among Bri­tish jour­nal­ists to de­scribe the sup­posed trans­for­ma­tion of na­tional din­ing in the past decade or so.

Look, they say: Lon­don restau­rants clus­ter ever thicker to­wards the top in global rank­ing and Miche­lin stars are rain­ing down on the rest of the coun­try. In­ter­na­tional cui­sine — take Nobu, Lo­canda Lo­catelli and Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons — is nowhere bet­ter rep­re­sented; even once-dreaded Bri­tish dishes are be­ing rein­vented as bold as brass, earthy cui­sine. Not only that, but you can get bal­samic vine­gar and ready-to-serve gourmet meals in the su­per­mar­ket.

Un­for­tu­nately, news of the death of bad Bri­tish food has been greatly ex­ag­ger­ated. The du­bi­ous ru­mours of its demise are partly, no doubt, the re­sult of culi­nary ig­no­rance on the part of jour­nal­ists reared on the na­tional diet of leath­ery meat and three over­boiled veg. But me­dia hunger for a story has also played a part and that points to an eth­i­cal fail­ing. Food writ­ers have as much of a re­spon­si­bil­ity to re­port ob­jec­tively as do their col­leagues in any other field, and herald­ing a culi­nary revo­lu­tion in Bri­tain is like de­scrib­ing Iraq as head­ing fit­fully to­wards peace.

In my opin­ion, the few, in­vari­ably ex­pen­sive, qual­ity restau­rants in Bri­tain are still like golden ap­ples scat­tered on a path lead­ing into the desert. Many peo­ple I know avoid trav­el­ling into the coun­try­side be­yond Lon­don al­to­gether be­cause of the food they are likely to find.

A typ­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment one could en­counter on such an ex­pe­di­tion is the sadly am­bi­tious rural pub. Stum­bling upon one of th­ese bu­colic re­treats af­ter, say, a ram­ble across a stretch of gor­geous York­shire moor­land, one may think, with a smile: ‘‘ Ah, that rus­tic ex­te­rior must por­tend the pres­ence of pure and hearty food within.’’

Then one may no­tice the menu pinned some­where near the door. Its im­prob­a­ble length would be the first bad sign; scru­tiny would re­veal a mad smor­gas­bord of dim sum, fried rice, pizza, pasta, green and red cur­ries, burg­ers, steak, deep-fried scampi, and chips with ev­ery­thing, noth­ing hail­ing from any par­tic­u­lar coun­try of ori­gin but, rather, from the bot­tom of a deep-freeze.

To lo­cate the true fat-mar­bled heart of Bri­tish cook­ing, how­ever, do not not look in the pub with the cos­mopoli­tan mi­crowave but in one of those en­dur­ing high street fix­tures, the greasy spoon cafe.

This is how most peo­ple still eat and, here, at a cafe in the in­ner Lon­don sub­urb of Hack­ney, is where I find my­self in the in­ter­ests of re­search. The menu is headed by the break­fast I have just con­sumed: the Full English, a meal that sounds like a threat. The per­mu­ta­tions of break­fast — ‘‘ all day’’, sug­gest­ing a nonex­is­tent bo­hemi­an­ism in th­ese drab sur­rounds — form the bulk of the of­fer­ings and the other se­lec­tions are ba­sic. There is a roast with boiled pota­toes, peas and gravy. There is a liver grill, a sta­ple of the Bri­tish caff. And that is largely the ex­tent of the menu.

What is wrong with Bri­tish food? For a com­plete an­swer you would have to look back to the en­clo­sure move­ment, which sep­a­rated Bri­tish peas­ants from their land and sti­fled the kind of culi­nary knowl­edge that is the ba­sis of all great cuisines. You would also have to con­sider the in­flu­ence of Protes­tantism, with its deep sus­pi­cion of all plea­sure, in­clud­ing that of the ta­ble.

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