Axis of Tweeville: Mawkish Brit Food Culture V The Glory Of Keith Floyd
, December 8th, 2016 10:10
In the year of Brexit, Harry Sword examines sinister twee nationalism in food culture - and wishes Keith Floyd were here to sort it out.
We have an odd relationship to food and drink in Britain. We're good at wallowing in a simpering nationalistic jingoism, a sentimentality that often shuns the very best of what we do - offal; non chain pubs; proper cider and perry; good cheese; shellfish - while propagating a twee false memory: An England that never was.
This is the Britain of the Keep Calm and Sprinkle Arsenic on The Cup Cakes variety; the blitz themed cocktails in a repurposed WW2 bomb shelter version; the cutesy pop up serving miniature pie and mash and craft ale while pubs that have served craft - meaning simply 'good' - beer for decades close in their hundreds model. It's the folksy, cringingly inoffensive boutique festival Britain, a £12 tasting plate of congealing Thai crab cakes and a glass of warm prosecco clutched in its sweaty hands; an early morning juice rave.
This twee branch of food culture has reached an apex in recent years. While they make for slickly entertaining television, The Great British Bake Off and Great British Menu propagate a similar brand of 'Great Britishness'. The former indulges in a rosy bubble of daintily manicured eccentricity and deep smugness; the latter in a stern display of nationalistic fever that celebrates 'our new Elizabethan age' and features an army of sweating chefs in fawning subservience to a banqueting hall full of 'Great Britons' awkwardly eating deconstructed coronation chicken out of deconstructed lunch boxes.
'The Great British…' has become an infinitely malleable prefix that can be attached to anything, particularly the (in)edible. Service station coffee? Great British Coffee. Sandwich and drink deal from a high street chain? Great British Lunch. You can go back to the office afterwards and sit in sullen Great British Malcontent. It has a lobotomizing effect - a strange linguistic retreat into a dithering 1950's fantasy, one with all the rough edges sanded down: baked goods obsession and vintage conceit.
It's interesting that baking - that most measured, finicky and necessarily sober brand of gastronomy - should have captured the zeitgeist in the way that it so clearly has. The Great British Bake Off represents a brand of militaristic order and measured reasonableness - Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood prowling around a tent looking for meticulous exactitude; prodding the dough and tasting the icing. It's a garden party for difficult times: a teaspoon of this but certainly not of that.
Indeed, the reason Viz's beautifully bleak Drunken Bakers strip works so well is because the whole idea is patently absurd: while the drunken chef is an accepted cliché, the drunken baker is anathema - and there lies the rub: baking and pastry, specifically the showy variety on display in the Bake Off, is the homely daytime of the cooking world. This year's furor over the show moving to Channel 4 was interesting: people were genuinely enraged because of what it represented - a quasi- religious bubble: something beyond a mere television programme, beyond the nuts and bolts of production wrangles and rival bids or reality. It represented a comforting national draft - a night tonic – and one that was soon to be sullied and diluted: Paul Hollywood pilfering the dream for Channel 4, flour and butter on his calloused hands as he counts the money and howls at the moon.
Given this seemingly unquenchable thirst for the toothsome and lightweight it's little wonder, then, that many of the most neglected of British foods are also the more robust. Why, you might ask, is it relatively difficult to find spider crabs - those beautiful sweet arthropods - on the menu in your average restaurant along the west coast, where they're landed daily? Why is it easier to find reheated lasagna than hogs pudding in Cornwall? Why don't we value the faggot or the haslet - two of the most delicious offal concoctions around, and both able to make converts of the most skeptical or squeamish?
The mainstream representation of British cooking in recent years has often been reduced to a self-satisfied flag waving goonery - one that favours a daintily imagined fantasy over gutsy reality.
What would Keith Floyd have made of it? And why ask?
Because Floyd - traveler, author, presenter, restauranteur, raconteur and publican - represented a polar opposite to this precious branch of food culture; a diametric to the manicured, repositioned, deconstructed and dressed up. And while often remembered for his flamboyance, bonhomie and serious drinking, he was first and foremost a passionate advocate for simple food that was utterly unsentimental in approach. He loathed both the measured, 'gloves on scales out' style of Delia but also TV chefs of the millennium, who he memorably described in 2009 as doing nothing more than "assembling pieces of gastronomic Lego without having the faintest fucking idea where they come from".
Floyd's food was - more often than not - rooted in the country tradition of wherever he happened to be cooking and you could be certain that he wasn't going to make needless egotistical adjustments - he did things properly. And though aimed at the home cook his shows were not tied to the idea of easy domestic recreation: he frequently delighted in displaying the gutsiest and mightiest, most cumbersome, examples of the European peasant canon.
He'd think nothing of standing in a misty Lombardy field over a steaming cauldron of Bollito Misto flinging beef shins, 'boiling hens' and tongue into roiling stock. He'd revel in assembling heaped portions of Charcuterie Garni on a dark Alsace night, swigging Riesling while unfurling great lengths of sausages, cleaving pork knuckles in two and clumsily pouring vats of sauerkraut onto huge platters. The beauty was its lack of fuss and - while he was confident and exuberant - he also credited his audience with, potentially, having the same feeling for things that he did: "You'll notice that we don't do gloves or measurements on the Floyd programme. You just make sure you put enough of everything in and don't be frightened of it".
Soft focus 'earthy people doing earthy things' type stuff was mercifully low on the agenda - and when it did feature, it would often include a piss-taking voiceover from Floyd. The people on his shows hadn't developed the labored football manager speak so prevalent today, particularly on cooking competitions ("At the end of the day we're all in this competition to win not lose and the judges want to see great plates of food and ultimately we need to do that to the best of our abilities if we want to win. And if the flavors aren't delivering then we're not getting a place. And we all want to go out of the competition in first place rather than last place, so not delivering is not an option" etc. etc.)
Guests on Floyd were verbally unmanicured; sometimes near silent. They didn't read from a bizarre script of their own creation, talking like people on television because they were now talking on television. Rather, he'd find himself in the Pays Basque with a frowning old lady who distrusted him and wanted him out or a monosyllabic farmer from Lazio who was unwilling to articulate anything at all about the cheese that he made. There was a woman in the Dordogne who didn't think he was capable of cooking a wild mushroom omelet, an overbearing man in Louisiana who Floyd found 'supremely irritating', a drunken gamekeeper and, perhaps best of all, a mad French balloonist who nearly kills the entire crew before making an emergency landing in a field next to the motorway.
Proceedings frequently went skew whiff. The Hong Kong episode has an increasingly irate Floyd attempting to continue cooking a pan of noodles as his director argues - very loudly - with a "miserable, mealy-mouthed taxi man" off camera, who wants to charge the production unit for use of the pavement. Myriad mild indignities were suffered in the field: he'd cantankerously complain about having to fillet fish over a sink in his hotel room, or feeling sick, or the fact that people were using a lake in the Dordogne for water sports ("Why won't they stop? Why can't they sit still and have a glass of wine? Why do they have to do it?")
Floyd cooked all over the world, but his greatest shows were always in Europe. It was the food he loved and his late period series - Far Flung Floyd, where he looked grey, ill and tired as he pounded peanuts in Kuala Lumpur or sweltered crossly in Delhi, no wine in sight - were not amongst his happiest. But although most readily associated with robust mainland European fare, he shared an equal love for good British cooking, applying the same rigorously simple approach to it and he was keen on drawing parallels between the various culinary traditions. His terminology was free of fanfare too - nothing was 'sourced', for instance, he just went food shopping.
Most of all, he wanted us to eat it, be it game, cockles, oysters or whatever, because it was brilliant and we have it here: not because of some cooked up notion of 'Great Britishness' half-digested from false memories of bunting and street parties and gas masks and gin and cupcakes. He was happy to feature a "Norfolk dumpling cooked by a Norfolk dumpling".
He'd also get genuinely riled when he saw produce such as elvers or spider crabs going to Spain and Japan through ignorance and lack of domestic demand. He couldn't understand why for so many Britons fish starts and ends with haddock and cod, or why the English middle classes were happy to eat French Boudin Noir but would sneer at Lancashire Black Pudding and found tripe disgusting. Thus he didn't 'fly the flag' for British food by spouting smug verbal diarrhea about small producers, the good life and growing your own vegetables. He just got on with it, in the same way that he did with French or Spanish food, and in the hope that he could tempt you because it is worth eating.
He also represented something of an opposite to the cult of the celebrity chef: the gleaming militaristic discipline of the professional kitchen, though not lost on him (he owned a number of restaurants throughout his life) was not fetishized on the Floyd programme. Uniformity, that absolute creed of the restaurant kitchen, was essentially anathema to him and when shooting in that environment he'd often irritate the head chef by getting in the way, burning fish, being slightly drunk or sticking his finger in the sauces.
It was all very different to the Great British Menu approach, which emphasizes the starchy professionalism - the essential chefness - of the chefs with a militant fervency: you feel the chefs relish calling each other 'chef'.
"Where do you want the sauce, Chef?"
"Next to the venison, Chef"
"Just here, Chef?"
"Perfect, Chef. Three bone marrow jelly cube onions next to it too please, Chef"
Total Chef: a ritual display of Great British Deference and the primacy of Thee Order of The Chef.
There's actually a rather sinister aspect to the Great British Menu, a shade of neurolinguistic programming. The voiceover that repeats the phrase 'Our New Elizabethan Age' time and again; the banqueters clumsily and repeatedly referred to as 'The Great Britons' - perpetrators of numerous great deeds; the chefs compelled to awkward platitudes. 'It really brings it home doesn't it, when you look out there and you see them all. All the, uh, all the …Great Britons'
It's a fascinating spectacle - one that for this writer evokes memories of the Norwich Bravery Awards, as presided over by Alan Partridge ("So many brave people here tonight, Alan" - "They're so ruddy bloody brave'" but it also hammers the point that if, as a nation, we are obsessed with artifice and competition, then why would food be any different? And if it can propagate a maudlin myth of Britishness at the same time, then so much the better.
Indeed, food and drink has been strangely pivoted for political means for many years: witness Ed Miliband and his 'bacon sandwich calamity' and Tony Blair holding trays of fish and chips aloft with fixed grimace and haunted dead cod eyes. From the right, John Major and his Little England of 'long shadows on cricket grounds and warm beer and, more recently, Nigel Farage pouring pints in an exaggerated display of everyman appeal (man in the pub appeal). Nigel Farage drinking said pint, guffawing, clapping hands on shoulders and expressing mock concern at the grievances of 'the everyday working people'. The UKIP charlatan waves his pint, grinning, open-jawed, puce.
This makes for a galling sight for socialist ale enthusiasts. His co-opting is not of beer itself but rather the symbolic power of the pint: a talisman that, in his hands, becomes The Great British Pint, a means by which to express his ineffable bond and kinship with The Great British People. And while 2016 also saw the surreal spectacle of The Telegraph ludicrously announcing that the export of tea, jam and biscuits would be the possible savior of British industry in post Brexit Britain, it's little wonder that Farage – that peddler of dangerously reductive nationalism and intolerance, but also deep sentimentality – should offer himself as an unofficial ambassador for this vicious age of retrograde twee.
But although many would, perhaps rightly, insist that food is the least of our worries at the moment, in the year of Brexit this undaunted peddling of a vainglorious food culture that holds mawkish sentimentality as its core aesthetic has stuck in the craw, somewhat.
Politically, the seismic effects of an increasingly pigheaded take on nationalism have been all too evident. And though food and drink is arguably the most harmless way to express any kind of patriotic feeling, it's perhaps no accident that in these last few years of vicious nationalistic fervency- a climate where intolerance, ignorance and violence have grown - we've also been fed a ceaseless diet of competitive and dainty little Britain. It's a situation that should make us miss Keith Floyd and his chaotic idiosyncrasies all the more.