Lost and Found

The fetishisation of food culture


Why is it that we romanticise the food of other countries and dismiss our own? Chef and writer Thom Eagle looks back to tomorrow’s dinner.

All food writing is nostalgic; every recipe is an act of remembrance, looking back on the pleasures of eating as it looks forward to the process of cooking. Outside of the restaurants recommended by the Michelin guide, we as cooks rely mainly on techniques which are thousands of years old; we recreate the dishes of our grandmothers, or their grandmothers, or theirs; we go in search of fleeting moments of our own childhoods – the first cherry of summer, a wine which somehow tastes of Refreshers. We try to make memory edible.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that when we explore the cuisines of other countries it is history we look for, a history which often seems to be missing from our own. Elizabeth David, who in many ways can be regarded as the first modern British food writer, exemplifies this tendency, emerging as she did from the shell shock of the war and of rationing, a Britain where any attachment to the land and the past seemed to have been replaced with margarine and powdered egg. She saw in the history of the Mediterranean a sunnier future for the food of this country, or so the narrative goes. I’m sure the truth is much more complicated. David was a Londoner by choice, and things tend to move faster in cities; the past can be hard to see.  

Everywhere you look in Italian cuisine, that quality of weight and depth with which we romantically imbue it turns out to be a trick of the light

My mother, growing up in Darlington during the last years of food rationing in Britain, has nonetheless fond memories of the Boxing Day spreads produced by her aunt, or possibly her grandmother, living in rural Yorkshire: hand-raised pork pies, rich with jelly and packed in a lardy hot-water crust; baked hams and jars of pickles put up in the autumn; Yorkshire curd tarts ("we just called them curd tarts"), the fresh cheese filling made with good farmhouse milk. She sees no particular break in the lineage of British food except, perhaps, for that caused by David – a writer for whom she harbours a particular dislike – when she encouraged the aspiring middle classes to fetishise the traditions of other countries at the expense of their own. Look closely enough at any tradition, though, and it starts to fall apart.

The raw air-cured ham of San Daniele is, I learned recently and almost incidentally from a study of the revival of charcuterie in the United States[1], an invention or perhaps a discovery of fairly recent vintage. That depth of history you seem to taste as a slice melts on your tongue is only really the history of the pig itself. Advances in hog breeding and in slicing technology conspired to make the product edible as we know it today only within the last 150 years. Everywhere you look in Italian cuisine, in fact, that quality of weight and depth with which we romantically imbue it turns out to be a trick of the light and to give way, on closer inspection, to a more troublesome breadth.

1. Salted and Cured: Savoring the Culture, Heritage, and Flavor of America's Cured Meats by Jeffrey P. Roberts
2. Al Dente: A History of Food in Italy by Fabio Parasecoli

trick of the light

Even the idea of a unified Italian cuisine is new, newer even than a unified Italy. Fabio Parasecoli[2] tells us that Mussolini’s officers imposed upon their forces a diet of pasta, red sauce and oily black coffee in an attempt to bring together the mass of dialects and cultures in a sort of imagined nostalgia for what was in fact the food of only the poorer inhabitants of the hot south. When the military chose as representative from the huge variety of Italian cuisine the food of the poorest and least industrially developed areas, they realised that these places resonate as authentic and genuine in a way that cities do not. They were exploiting the idea that the real spirit of a country exists not in the interactions of its people but in the soil beneath.

In constructing their simple but imaginary Italy, the Fascists ignored not just the multiplicity of the Italian countryside, which moves down from potatoes to polenta to pasta, and from thick oily coffee up to frothed milk, but also the bustling messes of its cities, in particular its thriving cosmopolitan ports. In other words, they ignored the parts of their country which looked outwards towards the wider world, rather than inwards to the supposed heart. City dwellers and sailors know that traditions do not live in the soil, that they thrive in the constant heave and flow of trade, commerce, interaction.

No wonder there is a sense that our national cuisine is a thread that is broken. We barely have sight of our own land

We all know or think we know that the best food in Italy or Spain or France is to be had at some little roadside place in the middle of nowhere, perhaps halfway up a mountain, with a no-choice menu, paper tablecloths, and jugs of young wine; you can eat the local charcuterie and great steaming plates of the local delicacy and finish with the local cheeses, all for €15 a head! Real food, it seems, is the expression of the rugged countryside – but when we look at our own we see huge expanses of oilseed rape or potatoes, drained marshland, cleared woodland, hills sculpted and bisected by tarmac and concrete. No wonder there is a sense that our national cuisine is a thread that is broken. We barely have sight of our own land.

Personally, though, I find the particular cuisines of cities more seductive than the supposedly more authentic food of the land. Think of the cinnamon of Venetian ragus, Palermo’s saffron, all the delicious collisions of Istanbul and Tbilisi along that line where Europe meets Asia; edible vestiges of empire and conquest. Think of fish and chips, brought to London by Portuguese Jews, or the Belgians who first hopped our plain ale and turned it into beer, or the Romans who introduced the art of sausage making and the allium to this island and made possible, some while later, bangers and mash and onion gravy. 

slaves to terroir

Almost no part of our national cuisine is truly native, and any fussing about British cuisine or British ingredients is really beside the point. Of course we should embrace British cheeses and British meats because they are well made and generally delicious, and we should eat vegetables seasonally because to do so is easy and suitable and satisfying; that doesn’t mean we should be slaves to terroir. Some of the best Italian olive oil has always come from Spain (the ancient Romans did most of their olive oil farming in Spain because the quality was higher), and for all we imagine that the excellence of Italian food is built on the excellence of their local produce and on their adherence to tradition, it is really built on the fact that as a nation they tend to care about what they put in their mouths. Cooking and eating in Italy is not an act of static history but of continual renewal, looking always back to the recipes of the past as they looks ahead to tomorrow’s dinner.