“The French, they say, live to eat,” growled Martin Amis in Money. “The English, on the other hand, eat to die.” Nearly four decades on, and the barb still irks like a chicken bone lodged in the throat. English food isn’t so much a cuisine as a culinary kicking boy, the gray, over-boiled punch line to a particularly dreary joke. You know, Scotch eggs and dodgy teeth, spotted dick and rain. Oh, and jellied eels. Always bloody jellied eels.

Reputation Management

And I get it, really I do. But in pandemic times, it’s more important than ever to support these farmers, fishermen, butchers, bakers, millers, and cheese-makers who have kept our country fed. Which is why we’re fighting so hard to protect what we love, keeping agricultural and welfare standards high. A battle threatened by the Agricultural Bill, which has already passed through the Commons. The bill is controversial as it does not set any environmental or welfare standards for food imports after Brexit. Which may mean a flood of low-quality, often genetically modified food, ranging from the infamous American chlorinated chicken to feedlot beef, environmentally ruinous and filled with antibiotics and hormones. This is seen as a free-trade concession to Trump.

British farmers are governed by some of the most stringent animal-welfare standards on earth. Yet imported food will no longer have to adhere to these standards. It’s outrageous, and threatens to destroy the livelihoods of many of our farmers, especially those with smaller, family-run farms, who have been so magnificent in keeping us fed through lockdown. And nothing less than the country’s culinary reputation—which has been improving, though it’s still abysmal—is at stake. There is also the matter of how genetically modified foods might affect one’s health through their effects on bodily organs, altered nutritional content, and the introduction of allergens.

Nothing less than the country’s culinary reputation—which has been improving, though it’s still abysmal—is at stake.

England hardly has the monopoly on tourist traps touting overpriced ersatz “authentic” slop. And, yes, our national food has had a tough few centuries, battered as it was by a combination of puritanical Victorian values (where a love of food was seen as synonymous with weak morals, indulgence, and suspect Continental ways), the strictures of wartime rationing, and an exodus of women leaving the home kitchen for paid jobs. Plus the inexorable rise of supermarkets, fast food, and heavily processed foods led to a mindset in which food was perceived as fuel and fodder rather than as a source of succor and good cheer.

“Glum, Institutionalized Slop”

Anyone who grew up in Britain during the last century will attest that no one does glum, institutionalized slop like the British. But, at its best, there’s a discreet art in the simplicity of our food, a quiet bliss found at the bottom of a fine pie or perfectly burnished roast potato. Good British food has little shout or swagger.

The English scone. Heaven.

Everything starts with the quality of the ingredients. There are no elaborate sauces to hide behind, no dazzling spices or fiercely contending regional factions. But lashings of rain mean lush grass, which helps feed our magnificent native livestock. Belted Galloway cows, Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs, Manx lambs. All slowly, traditionally raised with minimum stress to generate maximum flavor. These are, in turn, transformed into great roasted ribs of beef, cooked pink and sliced as thin as tissue paper. Fat, herb-flecked sausages, sides of bacon, and legs of ham. Milk, too—rich, wondrous milk, crafted into clotted cream and farmhouse butter, and cheeses, from Cheddar through Stilton, via Stinking Bishop, Ogleshield, and Mrs. Kirkham’s Lancashire. We now match the French for breadth, depth, and quality, much to their chagrin.

Seasonality plays a huge role, too. A dozen Colchester Native oysters, cool and delicately briny, slurped straight from the shell. Fresh asparagus, drenched in butter. A young grouse, simply roasted and scented with heather, or peas eaten straight from the pod, naked save a pinch of salt. These dishes taste all the sweeter for the brevity of their season, which is one of the reasons why you don’t see British restaurants across the globe. Some things are best enjoyed close to the source.

Breakfast is a high point, whether eaten at a greasy spoon or a gilded hotel. Add in kippers and kedgeree, and cereals can go take a leap. Tea, cakes, crumpets, and immaculately cut sandwiches merrily bridge the gap between lunch and dinner. Puddings, from trifles and syllabubs to treacle sponge and tart, are taken very seriously indeed. I could bang on and on about grilled Dover sole or potted shrimps on toast, gently smoked salmon and elderflower cordial. But it all starts with those producers.

I’m all for free trade with the United States, and I bow down to its many culinary glories. This isn’t, though, about petty-minded, parochial protectionism, or some misguided, nostalgia-soaked patriotism where we hang out the bunting and Cry God, for Harry, England, and hot meat pies! No, it’s more serious than that. Because when it comes to great British food, the battle for our future is anything but a joke.

Tom Parker Bowles is a London-based restaurant critic, food writer, and broadcaster. His next book, Fortnum and Mason: Time for Tea, will be released in spring 2021