Food, glorious British food

There’s nothing at the moment that’s quite able to rival “The Great British Bake Off” in terms of feel-good TV, as far as I can see.

The much-discussed cookery competition is all about artsy-craftsy creativity, good, wholesome rivalry and everyday, everyman-kind of contestants – even though most of us have nowhere near their level of amateur baking skill – courteously sparring for a place in the final.

It’s all very civilised and quintessentially British – you certainly couldn’t imagine it getting past programme commissioners anywhere else in the world. And it’s breathtakingly popular, pulling in an average audience this year of 12 million, up two million on 2014. Its success even means that it’s now in the process of being reworked for a US audience, albeit for a second time.

So the good-humoured Bake-Off, as it’s known to its fans, is thriving, pandering presumably to the nation’s collective nostalgia for cream teas. And our mutual need for a bit of light-hearted frippery in a world that can at times appear all too dark elsewhere – the programme was born, after all, in 2010 at the epicentre of the worst global recession since World War II, and at a time when we definitely all needed cheering up a bit.

But that’s not the only thing the reality TV show can be credited with – it’s also been acclaimed for spurring a huge resurgence in interest in home baking. A phenomenon that has led, among other things, to the omnipresence of cupcakes in British high street stores and the revival of such kitsch delights as multi-coloured china cake stands, a traditional bit of grandma’s crockery not so very long ago assigned to car boot sales.

cakestand

In fact, in the wake of the Bake Off phenomenon, the UK home baking industry has apparently leapt in value from a mere £523 million in 2009 to a vast £1.7 billion last year – with people spending £176 million each year on cooking chocolate, sprinkles and other decorative delights alone.

Even the Women’s Institute, with its reputation for Jam, Jerusalem and fabulous cakes, has benefited from this great culinary upsurge, with membership now at its highest levels since the 1970s.

Mixed foodie fortunes

But despite our current national obsession with foodie TV shows, celebrity chefs and aspirational cook books, it seems that cooking more mundane fare from scratch is actually on the wan – and has been for some time.

For instance, retail analysts Kantar Worldpanel pointed out a few years ago – and I can’t imagine things have changed much since – that members of the great British public, and especially those who are short of time, money or both, are spending larger chunks of their food budgets than ever on frozen and chilled ready meals – something that can’t be doing much for the nation’s collective waist-line in today’s age of obesity.

In fact, it seems the UK now has more amply-sized residents than anywhere else in Western Europe apart from Iceland and Malta, with 67% of men and 57% of women weighing our great land down rather more than they should, according to a recent study published in the Lancet medical journal.

As to how this translates into time spent slaving in the kitchen as opposed to sticking something in the microwave, the average time taken to prepare the main family meal has plummeted from 60 minutes two decades ago to around 32 minutes today. Which kind of says it all.

Moreover, the renaissance in restaurants serving British cuisine that we all heard so much about a few years ago now appears to have stalled, particularly outside of London.

P1010639

Instead, according to specialist food service market researchers Horizons, the average UK town centre is jam-packed full of Italian-style chains (25%) and curry houses – some 12,000 apparently, although a national shortage of chefs is currently raising fears that up to a third may have to close over the next few years due to the government’s controversial immigration cap. But British cuisine is way down on the list of favourites at a mere 9%, ranking lower than American food (12%) and only just ahead of Japanese and Mexican (6% respectively).

Surprisingly though, particularly given the unflattering reputation of British food abroad, it seems that our export trade in the stuff is booming. This apparent distaste for our hearty fare was incidentally cruelly but aptly encapsulated by former French president and prime minister Jacques Chirac at an international get-together in 2005 when he said: “One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad. The only thing they have ever done for European agriculture is mad cow disease”. Charming.

Food import and export

Anyway, in a sock in the eye for the now discredited Monsieur Chirac, the Institute of Export revealed earlier this year that the UK has now wangled its way into exporting culinary delicacies to a host of proud nations that are generally known for producing those very same foods domestically. So rather deliciously, this means selling huge amounts of tea to China, cheese to France (22,000 tonnes, in fact, Mr Chirac) and chocolate to Switzerland, to name but a few.

JacquesChirac

The entire sector is, as a result, now worth an eye-popping £19 billion a year and consists of as many as 2,500 companies selling their wares to 150 countries across the globe.

On the other hand and much less positively though, it appears that the country is playing fast and loose with its food security by relying on huge imports of fruit and veg from overseas that could just as easily be produced at home.

A report published earlier this year by the House of Commons’ Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee unveiled that the UK’s “self-sufficiency ratio” – which compares the amount of local food produced with levels of imported goods – has declined from a peak of nearly 87% in the early 1990s to a mere 68% in 2012, the last time figures were available.

In terms of fruit and veg that could be produced here, meanwhile, the ratio plummets still further to 12% and 58% respectively, with a huge £8 billion’s worth of goods being imported instead.

Which somewhat worryingly implies that, should the country hit trouble, whether that be as a result of conflict, pestilence or climate change-generated food shocks, we’re all likely to end up being scurvy-ridden. And vegans to boot due to the British livestock and dairy industries’ heavy reliance on imported soybean for animal feed from countries such as China, India and various parts of Africa.

All of which will, of course, make us even keener to watch Bake Off in order to cheer ourselves up and see exactly what it is we’re missing.

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