Let’s be honest, traditional British food hasn’t exactly enjoyed the best of reputations over the years. European visitors (especially the French) still love to gloat that our cuisine’s heritage amounts to nothing more than a greasy bag of chips, served with perhaps a meat pie or battered haddock. Our food culture still is the butt of many a European joke, even the Germans feel superior, which just shows how bad things are perceived to be on this Island, food wise.
It would seem that a sizable majority of us Brits would agree – as other ‘more exciting’ and refined cuisines have come to the fore, we have largely ignored our own cuisine in favour of Indian and Thai curries, French haute-cuisine and of course, Chinese sweet and sour pork and special fried rice. Who was it who said that our national dish was Chicken Tikka Masala? Robin Cook, I believe. Statements like the above do make me wonder if there is any such thing as contemporary British cuisine, and does it have a place in the hearts and minds of the UK’s consumers today. Well, recent developments suggest that there is cause for hope.
For starters, the jubilee spirit and mass marketing hype has caused a raft of patriotism and revival of British classic dishes on our menus. It seems almost every hotel and restaurant in London offered a jubilee menu, be it afternoon tea, lunch or dinner. Of course, this can be dismissed as merely a fad that has dissolved now that the Jubilee celebrations are over. That may well be the case, although before the cogs of the jubilee marketing machine started turning I noticed an increasing amount of pubs and restaurants were offering updated versions of great British Classics. Gordon Ramsay’s gastro pubs for example only serve quintessential British food, albeit probably more palatable than the versions cooked up 20 years ago. Higher up the scale, some very talented chefs have focused on our food heritage and helped put British food back into menus.
One such admirable chef is Alex Bentley, head chef at the Petersham hotel in Richmond. Alex prepared a great British feast for me last month, a menu that incorporated an assortment of locally grown fresh vegetables and wild mushrooms, possibly the best Rib-Eye Steak I have tasted in my life and a bottle of – erm – Bordeaux. Ok, apart from the wine everything was locally sourced, moreover the quality of what Alex presented made me realise that we have some of the best produce in the world, we just need top chef’s like Alex to value it and make the most of it. This he did with aplomb. However, don’t think that he only caters to meat lovers, seafood is another of his passions as Alex’s family were the founders of London’s first oyster restaurant, Bentley’s Oyster Bar and Grill in London in the twenties. Not a bad childhood I suppose, shelling oyster and selling them alongside your grandfather to the Edwardians.
The Petersham itself also merits further mention, as it is an only too rare breed of hotel in London – efficiently run, charming and effortlessly welcoming. There is nothing remotely stuff or pretentious about the place, the staff are extremely obliging and can’t do enough for you, and that’s before you get to their superb restaurant. Before dinner, guests are treated to spectacular views across Richmond and the Thames, he view alone was worth the price of admission. London desperately needs more hotels like this and less soulless, corporate behemoths. Fawlty Towers, this ain’t!
So dare we hope that others will continue to follow Alex’s lead? And that this resurgence in great British cuisine will not simply dissipate as a brief jubilee fad but grow into something quite special. Now is the perfect time to celebrate all that is unique and wonderful about this Island, not to mention our fantastic produce and extremely talented professionals who work in the industry. Visitors to the UK please take note – there is more to our hospitality than, Chips, Pies and an overnight stay at a badly run guest house.
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