My smallish local supermarket sells five types of brioche, four of ciabatta and precisely zero varieties of cottage loaf, stottie or tattie scone. Glossy food magazines endlessly romanticise the cucina povera of Italy or Spain and the vibrant street food of Asia, but rarely mention the pleasures of a hot pork pie and peas, a pillowy chip butty or vinegary cone of whelks – or indeed almost any of the regional specialities I enjoyed so much while travelling around Britain by bike for my last book Red Sauce, Brown Sauce.
If there’s been a local food revolution in this country in the last few decades, it’s been a distinctly middle-class affair. The media rejoices in a £24 plate of faggots at London’s St John, but shrinks from any mention of the rough-hewn versions in high street butchers, let alone the £1 boxes of Mr Brain’s in the supermarket freezer.
For all the brilliant new bakeries in my north London neighbourhood, not one offers a lurid pink slab of Tottenham cake, the traditional local delicacy from this area. A plaintive recent request on the community tips App NextDoor asked for tip offs on “proper jam doughnuts for sale… [I’ve seen] cronuts, yes… cinnamon buns, yes… but I’m dying for an old-school jam doughnut”. Meanwhile, following the closure of our last pie and mash shop, my neighbour orders in bulk from Essex, filling her freezer to justify the delivery charge.
In the words of Joni Mitchell, you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone – and if such traditionally working-class foods become so rare, or pricy, that few can access them, they’re as good as dead anyway. Sometimes, as with crappit heid (boiled fish heads stuffed with oats) popular tastes have moved on; occasionally, as with jellied eels, sustainability issues have hastened the decline. But often it’s lack of availability that’s the problem, something which, of course, proves a self-fulfilling prophecy.
When real cider isn’t on offer in the local pub, and kippers have vanished from the supermarket fish counter (itself an endangered species), such things inevitably become a niche taste, available only to those with the time, or means, to visit specialist retailers. You only have to remember the general hilarity earlier in the year at the idea we should be eating more turnips, often from pundits who were happy to admit they’d never even tried one, to see how proudly distanced we are from many of the once common foodstuffs that can be produced at the least environmental, and financial cost in this country. Yes, the vegetable I know as swede is still commonly paired with haggis in Scotland, and you can find turnips on the menu at a few high-end British places like St John – but it’s not a revolution if it doesn’t involve everyone.
Across the Channel, peasant dishes like garbure (ham and veg stew) or choucroute (sauerkraut with sausages) are considered just as much part of the national cultural patrimony as truffles or foie gras, and celebrated accordingly. Yet here we prefer to revel in the notion that our own fish and chips or fry ups are “disgusting” (as reported gleefully by outlets including the Metro and the Independent), while happily jumping on any opportunity to mangle someone else’s cuisine instead.
Our food culture is, and always has been, enriched by change and outside influence – but if we don’t take our own modest culinary heritage seriously, what hope have we of truly understanding, and thus valuing anyone else’s? Good British food should be accessible to everyone. And that includes proper jam doughnuts.
This piece was originally published in the latest print issue of Wicked Leeks, out now. You can read the full magazine online for free.