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