Tag Archives: tuscany

The Great British Problem

I have just returned to Bristol a lot poorer, and about a stone heavier, from weeks of holidaying – and eating – in Croatia, Italy and the Scottish highlands.

Quite all the culinary experiences I’ve had would be too much for one blog post, but there’s been a few things that particularly struck me, and made me think about the problems with British food.

Gnocchi with a truffle oil-infused cheese sauce. Gnocchi has been my take-home obsession of the holiday, along with high-quality olive oil.

In recent years much has been said about the resurgence in British food, with a few top chefs leading the top-down revolution from their fancy Mayfair establishments. Few can argue about the quality available in many British restaurants.

When it comes down to grabbing a quick bite on the run, however, we are still embarrassingly lagging behind our European counterparts. What surprised me about Italian food was not the quality – this was hardly a surprise – but the consistency of this quality. It was less a case of a few amazing restaurant meals, and more that every single thing I ate I would regard high quality. We can hardly say that here.

Panzanella - Tuscan bread and tomato salad - less like croutons, and more like an almost-couscous texture absorbed with seasonal, fresh tomato juices and oregano

In Croatia, the influence of coastal Italian food was everywhere. I was less struck with the consistent quality than in Florence, but they were particularly good at street food. Everywhere, even news-stands, seemed to carry a huge array of fresh pastries – not dense, like the English pasty, but flakey and light, while still substantial. The best example of this was a börek and as soon as I find a recipe that looks accurate I’m going to try and recreate this.

Turkish-inspired spinach börek: flikr cc avlxyz

It seems to me – and I found this in Thailand, too – that in England the quality of food is too often caught up in class and pretension. Italian food, particulary Tuscan ‘peasant’ food, is about high-quality ingredients (albeit widely available) cooked simply to accentuate the flavours. Some of the nicest food we had we found at the back of the market, on plastic plates, or in dingy-looking trattorias with noisy fly-killing machines.

Can anything be done to help our cause? To replace the greasy kebab joints and fast food places, the over-salted soggy sandwiches sold in petrol garages? Richard Johnson, a food journalist, has established the first annual British Street Food Awards, to be judged at Ludlow Marches Food and Drink Awards in September. He’s hoping to revolutionise British street food and make it something we can be proud of – read about his mission here, and nominate anyone you feel worthy of the prize.

Beth tucking into a sloppily presented - and delicious - aubergine parmigiana at Mercato Centrale

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