London, Jun 13: Boiled potatoes, stringy beef and overcooked vegetables. If that's your impression of British food, you're not alone.
The country hosting the Summer Olympics has an international image as a culinary wasteland, the home of deep-fried Mars bars, instant mashed potatoes and baked beans with everything.
But that reputation is outdated, say tourism officials, chefs and British food-lovers, who hope the London Olympics will help change people's minds. They say Britain has replaced bland, boring fare with creative, quality food.
“London is one of the three best cities in the world to eat in right now,” said Heston Blumenthal, an ebullient celebrity chef who has been instrumental in challenging Britons' palates with his mad-scientist enthusiasm for innovative “molecular gastronomy.”
“But if people haven't been to Britain for 15 years or 20 years, they're going to go ‘Oh my God, it's horrible,”' he admits.
Blumenthal, whose Fat Duck restaurant in the southern England village of Bray is consistently rated among the world's best, is trying to get good impressions started even before visitors reach the island nation. He was hired by British Airways, along with chef Simon Hulstone, to create special Olympic menus for flights this summer.
Starters include mackerel with pickled cucumber and golden beetroot and peppered goat's curd salad; mains range from fish pie with parmesan pomme puree to braised British beef with mustard and horseradish mash. The recipes seek to combine strong flavors—rare in airplane meals—with British traditions harkening back to 1948, the last time London hosted the Olympic Games.
In typical Blumenthal fashion, creating the menus involved science, with research into the degrading effects of altitude on a passenger's sense of taste.
Hulstone said the key turned out to be using foods that are rich in umami, the savory “fifth taste” that goes along with bitter, sweet, salty and sour. The goal was “simple but memorable” food.
“Just simple ingredients: parmesan cheese, goat's cheese, mackerel, tomatoes, soy sauce, mustards and mushrooms,” Hulstone said. “But they work.”
BA says 3 million people will be served the Olympic meals, offered on long-haul flights out of Heathrow airport between July and September. Hulstone also has created a special menu for inbound flights from the U.S.
The culinary enticements continue at London's Olympic Park. More than 14 million meals are expected to be served at Olympic facilities—billed by organizers as “the largest peacetime catering operation in the world”—and they will celebrate “the heritage and diversity” of British food and recipes as well as modern Britain's multicultural mix.
In the athletes' dining hall, competitors can chose from British, European, Mediterranean, African and Caribbean dishes, with Halal, Kosher and low-salt meals available.
Spectators can sample roasted pork on a roll, Red Leicester cheese and apple chutney sandwiches and cod and chips—as well as international fare such as pizza, Singapore noodles and jerk chicken wings.
If that all sounds too fancy, Olympic Park will also contain the world's biggest McDonald's.
Across Britain, there is a new pride in local food.
“From sticky toffee pudding from Cartnmel to oysters from Whitstable, salt marsh lamb from North Wales, or smoked salmon from Scotland, our food is key to our cultural identity,” Prime Minister David Cameron said at a reception to celebrate British cuisine. “British food showcases our heritage, openness, creativity and diversity.”
It's a big change for a cuisine that, according to food historian Ivan Day, really did live down to its image.
The decline began in the late 18th century, when the Industrial Revolution forced millions of people off the land and into cities, where many lost touch with old ways of growing and preparing food.
“We were the very first industrialized nation in the world,” said Day, who specializes in unearthing England's pre-industrial cooking traditions. “We were the first people to be fed out of factories.”
In the decades that followed, World War I killed hundreds of thousands of Britons, including many skilled cooks, bakers and butchers. World War II left the country victorious but impoverished—“a Third World country with a cold climate,” Day said. Food remained strictly rationed for several years after the war.
“We lost what France, Italy, bits of Germany, Portugal and Greece had—a regional, rural cuisine,” he said. “A friend of my father's saw a red pepper for the first time in the 1960s, and he called it ‘foreign muck.”'
That attitude is now rare. Immigration has transformed British cuisine to such an extent that chicken tikka masala, a hybrid Anglo-Indian curry, is often called the country's national dish.
And older British traditions are being rediscovered, partly due to the work of historians like Day and chefs like Blumenthal. During celebrations this month of Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee, picnics and parties across the land featured fruit jellies, Victoria sponge and other old-fashioned comfort foods.
Once-humble dishes—like the stew known as Lancashire Hotpot or sugary Treacle Tarts—now appear on fashionable restaurant menus. Blumenthal's London restaurant, Dinner, draws inspiration from centuries of British cooking, with dishes including roast marrowbone, spiced pigeon and “meat fruit”—a medieval confection of chicken liver parfait in mandarin jelly.
Good food is not limited to high-end restaurants. The “gastropub revolution” has brought fine dining to pubs, where food choices were once limited to potato chips and pickled eggs. Quality varies, but the best are very good indeed.
A growing interest in quality local ingredients has seen farmers' markets sprout across the land, offering everything from organic asparagus to homemade pork pies. The biggest, such as London's Borough Market, are major tourist attractions.
Britain's large supermarkets also have a range of produce, meats and cheeses that—if not up to French or Italian standards—often impress North American visitors.
And yet, to Day's frustration, the dire image lingers.
“It's one of these silly historical cliches,” he sighed. “You've always been able to get good food in England. Sometimes it's been more difficult than others. At the moment, it's dead easy.”