What is Modern British Food? Where did it start from and where is it going in 2023?

There is a street coming off Highbury and Islington, at the Overground station, that I believe, accurately reflects what’s happening to food in London. I became aware of it when I met up with my daughter for dinner one night. We were due at the now-famous Sambal Shiok run by Mandy Yin. It’s Malaysian in origin. I don’t think it will be going off the radar anytime soon as it’s remarkably good (Would highly recommend a trip if you’re in the area). However, recently, The Guardian did an article using it as an example of how small hospitality businesses are struggling, dealing with price increases in almost every aspect.

What caught my attention on the walk down the Holloway road from the station was, the sheer number of restaurants and the many different varieties of foods they had to offer, from: Italian, Mediterranean, Pan -European, sourdough Pizza, Modern Turkish, Latin American, Vietnamese, Japanese, Anatolia (regional Turkish, I believe) Georgian, Modern Greek, and of course vegan. All on one road, at the back of Islington. I feel this accurately represents the evolution of the food scene in London. As with most things, it starts in London and spreads across the rest of the UK morphing into regional quirks and styles.

It’s part of how we eat now in the UK. It is why in some circumstances you can get the best food from around the world here. Strangely enough, what’s quite rare in this mix is authentic Great British food. Exactly why, is a long story, stretching back to the Industrial Revolution, and the Two World Wars. The incumbent rationing caused the loss of many kitchen skills that were previously held within the family, and were passed from mother to daughter. Back in those days, women were expected to run a household, look after children, and prepare meals for the entire family.

Then we are into the assault of large-scale Food companies wanting all our home kitchens to become storage space for their ultra-high processed products. Which one look into the contents of the average UK supermarket trolley tells us, the massive success these companies have had over the last 30-40 years.

Our food, when done well, is a great reflection of who we are, it mirrors our identity and the Journey of great British cuisine – where it’s been and where it’s headed. Unfortunately, the high quality of our raw materials got a bit lost in the poor treatment they received up until quite recently.
Things started to change from around the time Restaurants like St John opened at Smithfield’s, which is more than thirty years ago. Their ethos has fundamentally remained the same. Celebrating, great British produce, cooked simply.

The last time British Food had a renaissance was the years between the 1st and 2nd World Wars. Sadly, the arrival of WW2 put an end to that. British food didn’t go into recovery till the end of rationing in ’55. But the damage had been done. We hit decades of really bad food. There was a leftover attitude from the war, that being: it may be badly cooked, but who cares, even when the results were bloody awful.

In this atmosphere, food writers like Elizabeth David came to the fore. She had spent the war years living in France, Greece, and Egypt and was shocked coming back to the UK. Her first book on Mediterranean cookery took over, it was an instant hit with the public, who were fed up with what was being served in UK hotels and restaurants. She later tried to revive British Food with books on the subject covering some great dishes long forgotten because when done well they can truly make an outstanding meal.

Coming forward to the late seventies and eighties, our national food was a bit of an embarrassing joke. The burgeoning London restaurant scene was heavily influenced by writers like David. Mediterranean Style took over and, to be fair we got pretty good at it, so everyone began heading in that direction. If you didn’t make your own pasta, you were most definitely an outcast. Any references to British Food was more lightly found in a TV satire rather than on a plate. British Food got swept under the table, finding itself at the lower rung of European cuisine, it was more of a joke than a cuisine. Even in its country of origin. This reputation persisted for many years. We were happy to cook any kind of food as long as it wasn’t British. This approach has helped create today’s vibrant London food scene. We had no traditions to stick to. So, we developed our skill like magpies with everyone else’s food.

Chefs slowly started to realise that although we made a mess of our food. Our raw materials were world leading. From our grass-fed cattle to rare breed sheep and pork, we had some of the best the world could offer. Things like the short English Asparagus season, the quality far outshines what we have imported the rest of the year. Restaurants started to look at British produce in a much better light. The term Modern British started being used more in a good way. Restaurants like St John started celebrating all that was British, in fact when it started out Fergus Henderson the driving force behind, wouldn’t allow tomatoes in the kitchen door. As they were not English in origin.

So, coming up to date. We have an ever-increasing diversity of food from around the world. Also, at the same time reawakening what is truly great about ours. This means we are looking at an exciting future ahead, a great willingness to experiment, not having to work within the confines of tradition and culinary history, Unlike most of the rest of Europe. So we need to celebrate our new found credentials of making some of the best food in the world.

Written by John Harris, Lets-Confab