Traditional Food?

I love my grub and have always had an interest in both the history and preparation of food…

The availability of information about food, unless you were studying the subject at college, or in the trade (like me), was a little sparse. Today we have a plethora of Celebrity Chefs, foody programs on our TV, and many cooking books in the bestseller lists. Suddenly, we have turned into a nation of ‘food experts’ and critics with some very cosmopolitan tastes. That said I’m still not sure the majority of us actually put much thought into food?

Today the big supermarkets would all have us believe food is about ‘Traditional Fayre’ (and more recently ‘Organic Produce’). This is an attempt by producers and retailers to make us all feel happier about what we’re actually eating. Why is this? I suspect that despite society’s love affair with junk food and the increasing percentages of obesity, some people are actually concerned about the stuff they put inside their bodies.

The cynic inside me says; a retailer feels more able to charge you (the consumer) a far higher price for the ‘organic’ product, simply because you feel happier about it for ethical or nutritional reasons. You believe it is better for your health, and your conscience!

Most will agree that; force-feeding animals with synthetically produced foods or making them eat the waste bits of their brothers & sisters (to make them grow bigger faster more economically) is not a good selling point. It’s also led to disease in animals and the humans who consume them. BSE being a prime example!

Meat eaters are fed (excuse pun) the mental vision of a cute little piglet called Babe, when terms like ‘Hand Reared’ or ‘Farm Fed’ are used to describe ‘Organic’ pork. To my mind (and Jamie Oliver’s), Pork from pigs that lived their life grubbing around in the mud of an open field, has a far superior taste than the battery farmed ones. That said, I would have no difficulty eating a pig that was ‘a friend’, I love pork (behave!). Just remember Babe; ‘A little pig goes a long way’.

The nutritional argument for ‘organic’ produce is probably correct in long-term scientific terms after all, who wants to eat GM carrots that glow in the dark or spend the rest of your life wandering around with a Ready Brek aura like the 1980s adverts?

The one question which has always fuelled my scepticism is; if the farmer doesn’t need to put large quantities of expensive chemicals on his crop, or buy mass amounts of animal feedstuff, shouldn’t that actually make the stuff cheaper to grow?

Any way I digress (again)… What about this ‘Traditional Organic Fayre’ malarkey?

The word tradition comes from the Latin traditionem, acc. of traditio, which means “handing over, passing on”, and is used in a number of ways in the English language (see wikipedia).

Organic… adjective 1 relating to or derived from living matter. 2 not involving or produced with chemical fertilizers or other artificial chemicals.

Generally speaking, a fair is ‘a gathering of stalls and amusements for public entertainment’, whereas fare is ‘a range of food’ (Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1999). However, the archaic (15th to 17th century) spelling fayre is confusingly used for both words by those who think it lends ‘an historick flavour’.

My cyniscism of the advertising hype would appear to be waranted when we see that; ‘the alternative spelling ‘Fayre’ is an ‘old-fashioned affectation used to convey a feeling of history and wellbeing to participants’… I rest my case M’Lud !

Enough of the wordsmith lecture on the use of the English language… Back to the food… What constitutes ‘traditional’ food in this country?

I think many people will be aware that, Chicken Tikka Masala has been declared Britain’s ‘Truly National Dish’ but does that also mean ‘traditional’ and if so, who’s tradition is it any way?

Chicken Tikka Masala is actually a British bastardisation of Asian cuisine, a dish that was created and developed to please the British pallet. So, the answer to the original question is a UK tradition and not an Indian one. That said there’s also now a dispute raging about if was it ‘invented’ in Scotland or England? I suspect that is possibly due to a bit of friendly inter nation rivalry however, the last laugh is the fact; Britain now actually exports chicken tikka masala to India and Bangladesh!

The point I’m trying to make is that due to migration, diversity of population and the handing down of recipes process, which goes on (within most cultures), it is often difficult to specify what is in fact traditional.

Who really cares? I love curry; we have a great curry house tradition within the UK. An extensive curry industry of spice producers, Indian beer and restaurants has grown around our love affair with curry. Even Walkers the crisp producer has paid homage to the Chicken Tikka Masala!

Another misconceived food tradition in the UK is that of Spaghetti Bolognese, the old Spag Bol. In September 2009 The Express suggested this might well be our favourite dish? The newspaper was reporting on a national survey by the travel industry and marketing website where, people were asked about their ‘signature’ dish…

ALMOST half of us have never tasted national dishes like Welsh rarebit, toad in the hole, or bangers and mash. A third of those surveyed don’t even know what makes the first two dishes, once strong British favourites. (Express)

The most interesting fact revealed was; it appears traditional British food is almost unknown to a large proportion of the nation…. Marcus Simmons of iknow-uk said: “…British dishes seem to be fading into obscurity.”

It appears that our perception of ‘Authentic’ is also just as skewed as ‘traditional’, ‘organic’ and ‘fayre’, despite the British love of the classic pasta dish, it would seem this dish is about as authentic as the ‘Genuine Rolex Watch’ you got for a steal at the car boot sale! 🙂

For decades, you British cooks have been churning out spaghetti bolognese for every dinner occasion you can think of – all the time believing you’ve been making an authentic Italian dish. How wrong you are. Antonio Carluccio OBE – Italian Chef & Food Writer

When Antonio first arrived in London in 1975, he had no idea what people meant when they referred to this ‘famous Italian dish’ spaghetti bolognese. In fact, the bolognese served across the UK today is a purely British invention, cultivated by Italian chefs in Britain during the 1960s.

It pandered to what the Italians believed British people expected from Mediterranean food – plenty of garlic and loads of herbs, and served with spaghetti. It bears no resemblance to a traditional Italian ‘bolognese’, known as a ragu, which has no garlic or herbs whatsoever. If you want the perfect Spag Bol you better dash over to Antonio’s Daily Mail column and see his!

So is that food for thought or thoughts on food? I don’t know but it kept me gainfully occupied for a (probably wasted) couple of hours. With the so many people not being able to boil an egg without burning the water, it’s a pity recent generations haven’t really understood the meaning of ‘tradition’ and accepted any that was handed down!

I’m off for a beer!

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