Keep Calm and Cook On
01.17.14 11:00 AM ET
The Resurgence of British Cuisine
by Gully Wells
Early last spring, on a slate-gray morning that faithfully delivered rain followed by more rain—just as the BBC had forecast it would—I found myself standing outside the station in Whitstable, a dispiriting seaside town about sixty miles southeast of London, with not a cab in sight.
But a drizzly ten minutes later, an exuberantly overweight man with a bright-red face suddenly roared his taxi around the corner. "Look, I'm warning you right now," he happily informed me when I told him where I was going. "It's complete rubbish from the outside, and on a day like this it's going to look even worse." Oh, how the English love being the bearers of bad news. "And it's not much better inside," he continued. "No tablecloths. No curtains. No menus. But the food is effing amazing, and that's why you go to a restaurant, innit?"
Yes, I agreed, that's why we go to restaurants. My search for "effing amazing" food was the reason I had come all the way from New York and was now hurtling toward The Sportsman, a pub in Seasalter, a tiny village in an obscure, extremely wet corner of England. By the time we arrived, the rain had gone horizontal and the sky had become a boiling, bruise-colored Turner tempest (the great man actually lived in nearby Ramsgate). But the moment I stepped through the front door I was enveloped in a sea of warmth. A coal fire glowed in the brick fireplace, locals (I could tell by their accents) were crowded around the bar laughing and drinking beer, and the plain wood tables, each with its own small bunch of fresh spring flowers, were full of families plus the odd dog snuffling about underneath. I felt as though I'd come home.
In the old days, it was said that the Michelin inspectors would always order a plain omelet at every restaurant they tested. It was the baseline, the sine qua non of a good chef. For this inspector, it's all about the bread and butter: so easy to get wrong, almost impossible to perfect. Yet as I sat down, perfection promptly appeared in the form of buttercup-yellow butter (churned with cream from the Hinxden Farm Dairy, thirty-five miles away) resting on a piece of cool slate, and beside it, on a wooden board, home-baked crusty Irish soda bread. There was also a little dish of salt flakes made from evaporated seawater, just as has been done here ever since the Middle Ages—hence the name Seasalter.
I saw no menus, just a blackboard listing the day's dishes. After consulting Philip, a jolly giant of a man who was on patrol behind the bar, I asked him to choose for me. A baby sole no bigger than my hand, quickly sautéed in seaweed butter (made from "sea lettuce" gathered from the beach, dried, and added to the buttercup butter) appeared first, followed by tender pork belly (the pigs feast on apples, lucky pigs), crunchy cracklings, mashed potatoes, and slightly tart applesauce.
It all sounds deceptively simple, doesn’t it? But of course it isn’t. Achieving this degree of pitch-perfect taste never is.
“The problem is that we had a lack of confidence in our ingredients—and in our indigenous way of cooking. We just forgot how good food should taste." I was sitting by the fire with Stephen Harris, co-owner of The Sportsman and the man who had just cooked my lunch, talking about what had gone wrong with English food. When and how did it happen? Harris pointed out that until the Industrial Revolution, foreigners had nothing but praise for the quality of the food in England. But with the mass migration from the country to the cities, the backbone of English food—produce grown at home by a rural culture—started to disappear. Old recipes were forgotten, and the quality of meat and produce declined with the industrialization of farming. The new urban working class subsisted on whatever they could afford, mostly bread, potatoes, massive quantities of sugary tea, and cheap gin, while the snobby middle and upper classes were seduced by the siren song of French cuisine—or at least a sad approximation of it produced by English cooks. The inevitable result was a depressing slide that continued until well after World War II. Soon the very phrase English food was enough to provoke snorts of mockery and derision.
Although the concept of Michelin-starred restaurants serving English food was unimaginable twenty years ago, the truth is that Stephen Harris and many other chefs are in the business of revival rather than revolution. Like archaeologists, they are digging deep into the past and piecing together the broken fragments of a long-buried culinary civilization. With an understanding of the historical basis of English cooking, access to magnificent local produce, meat, and fish, and most important, with their talent and imagination, they have created a cuisine that can hold its own against the world's best.
Read the full story at Condé Nast Traveler.