“You obviously know how to roast beef, so I won’t bore you with explaining,” says the food stylist I’m assisting. We’re working together on a Christmas shoot for a supermarket magazine on an airless summer day and I’ve been tasked with preparing an astronomical amount of festive food to photograph. A heavy knot forms in my stomach as I stare down at the four fleshy joints that lie before me.

It’s one of those dire situations when you have no idea how to do something but would rather bathe in sewage than fess up. I’d spent the past few months relentlessly messaging food stylists and scrambling for assisting jobs… to scupper my big break because I didn’t know how to roast a hunk of cow felt utterly pathetic. I could count on two hands the number of Toby Carverys I’d decimated in my lifetime, so how on earth do I not know how to roast beef? I scurry to the bathroom and quickly search for some signal to try and Google my way out of the problem. Armed with a BBC Good Food beef guide and a meat thermometer I’d found in a nearby drawer, there was still a faint flicker of hope that I’d be able to make it out of this hellscape alive.

But how naive I was. Soon after flinging the meat in the oven, I frantically flick through the pages of recipes I still need to cook: steamed puddings, roast pork belly, mincemeat, pastry, gravy, trifle, custard; the list goes on. I’m once again losing the plot because I don’t know how to cook half of these things. The following five hours feel like repetitive, barefoot toe-stubbing. An eye-wincing series of mistakes runs from soggy pork crackling and split custard to unevenly steamed puddings and overcooked beef. No prizes for guessing if I ever worked for that food stylist again.

Steamed sponge
Roast beef sirloin with all the trimmings

Character building, to say the least. This ordeal was quite the eye-opener because I’ve worked in food for several years and have been cooking for far longer. I see myself as a good cook. I know how to fold tortellini and crimp wontons. I make pho from chicken bones, bisque from prawn heads and ragu from duck legs. But in this instance, my culinary skills were redundant. The issue wasn’t that I couldn’t cook, but rather that there was a gaping hole in my knowledge of how to cook a certain kind of food. Food that I would consider to be traditional British fare.

I was born and raised in Britain, yet, growing up, I rarely ate or cooked any inspiring British cuisine. With the exception of beans on toast, none of my peers cook British food, and they certainly don’t wax lyrical about it. If I, as someone who plies their trade cooking and eating, couldn’t pull together a British feast, then who could? It raised the question: does anyone actually cook ‘British food’ anymore?

What is British food?

To understand whether we’re still cooking proper British food begs the question – what on earth is British food? The truth is there has never been a unified British cuisine, and there never will be. The core of our food culture has primarily been shaped by external influences. “We are a tiny island that’s like a magpie,” says food historian and author of Taste: The Story of Britain Through Its Cooking, Kate Colquhoun. And she’s right; we have endlessly flown the nest to bring back the most glittering and exotic bounty from far corners of the globe. We’ve been invaded twice by the Romans and the Normans and set out on a violent colonising mission from the 17th century, importing ingredients and kitchen influences while we were at it, so we don’t have an insular culinary tradition that has brewed over centuries. It’s this fact that differentiates us from the cuisines of France, Italy, or Japan, with less fractured culinary lineages and colonisation in the modern period on a far smaller scale.

This abiding change and curiosity is perhaps the only common denominator when defining British food. Continuous invasion and invading meant we sucked in novelty like a Hoover, and many ingredients or recipes we would now deem to be British actually came from outside of our island, explains Ben Mervis, author of The British Cookbook. Salted butter, hard cheese made with rennet, and domesticated fowl like ducks and geese came from the Celts, while vegetables like carrots, onions and turnips came from the Romans, who also brought with them a fermented fish sauce called garum (from which the beloved Worcestershire sauce is derived). The Vikings taught us how to smoke and dry fish, and from there, Arbroath smokies, kippers and smoked salmon were born. Gingerbread and Eccles cake descend from The Crusades, which established trade links with the Middle East in the Middle Ages and brought with them spices and dried fruits. The conquest and colonisation of the Americas, the Caribbean and India from the early seventeenth century onwards brought to Britain sugar, tea, liquor, spices and dishes like kedgeree and mulligatawny as a consequence of forced migration, slave labour and mass exploitation.

Eccles cake

It’s surprising to discover that the stodgy, bland and flavourless reputation I associate with British food is also a very recent thing. Despite our lingering sense of culinary inferiority, birthed during the post-war years when a generation adapted to powdered eggs, canned meat and boiled vegetables, there was a time centuries before when our cuisine was considered to be the best in the world, inventive and well-seasoned. As Colquhoun points out, Tudor diets were often laden with spices exhumed from the medieval period not only for flavour but in the pursuit of good health. It was thought if you followed Galen’s humoral theory of balancing wet with dry, hot with cold and age with youth, you’d stave off everything from phlegm to black bile. Food wasn’t just fuel; it was medicine. 

There was a time when our cuisine was considered to be the best in the world

Before the Industrial Revolution, even if you weren’t eating turtle soup in the royal court or drinking a powdered orchid drink called saloop to treat STDs, Britain’s peasant food tradition was still thrifty, skilful and nutritious. We ate locally and seasonally, had a rich heritage of dairy, making butter and cheese from milk, and consumed whole grains – whether thrown into stews or milled into flour. Waste was fundamental in shaping the way we cooked, and we ate the entire animal from its nose to its tail, made curd tarts from the remnants of cheese making, preserves from quinces and medlars, and even a herby soup from the bycatch of the whitebait industry called water souchet.

Although to many, British food is defined by toad-in-the-hole, cheese and onion pasties and beans on toast, this stereotype is a mere snapshot in time (before 1886, baked beans quite literally didn’t exist in this country). Perhaps the only other thing British food is defined by is its produce. One constant reference to our culinary presence throughout history has been what a phenomenal natural larder we have. High-quality meat and heritage breeds like Aberdeen Angus cattle and Tamworth pigs, soils and trees bountiful with vegetables, legumes, stone fruits and pulses, oceans brimming with crabs, cockles and cod and peatlands peppered with game. Simply take a bowl of buttered leeks, thick Jersey cream pitted with raspberries or razor clams doused in parsley, and British food can be a fine thing.

An era of rationing, ridicule and resurrection

Two pinch points permanently shaped our culinary tradition, the first taking place in the 19th century. “The Industrial Revolution caused absolute bedlam,” Jeremy Lee, the recently knighted head chef of Quo Vadis, tells me. “Somehow, Italy and France managed to maintain a food culture beyond measure where we just happily chucked in the towel.”

And my god, did we chuck it in. Not entirely our fault either; we were the first country in the world to industrialise and didn’t have a blueprint. During this time, agrarian communities moved en masse from the countryside to sprawling towns and cities and became divorced from their food sources, equipment and fuel to cook with. Pushed onto the streets or made to buy factory food, people lost their ability to cook along with their relationship to the nearby land that once fed them.

There was now an alternative to the joyless plates of parched meat

Whatever sliver of British food culture remained after the Industrial Revolution was decimated by two world wars and the rationing that followed. This persisted until 1954, and it was from this time much of the food I would consider to be ‘British’ made its presence known, as we entered into an era of culinary derision: the cursed meat and two veg with a pork chop more texturally aligned with a shoe than a pig; the insipid fish pies so runny you’d have to send in a lifeguard to hoik out the floating haddock chunks; the cottage pies seasoned with ketchup and defeat.

With a gaping void in our food culture begging to be filled, it was the massive influx of post-war migration and changing UK immigration policies that breathed life back into our desolate culinary landscape. By the 1990s, Britain was home to more than 150 nationalities who set up restaurants cooking food reminiscent of home while adapting to British ingredients. There was now an alternative to the joyless plates of parched meats, snotty gravy and pulpy vegetables, and we embraced this flavour with open arms. Iconic food writers such as Madhur Jaffrey and Claudia Roden became popular and our obsession with the likes of prawn toast, curried goat, chicken balti and crispy chilli beef flickered into life.

Chicken balti

When I speak to the co-founder of St John, Trevor Gulliver, he makes a fair point that it’s a blessing British cuisine doesn’t suffer from locked-in syndrome in the same way perhaps French cooking has. We have a fickle relationship to the food of our ancestors and embrace an era of eclecticism and choice. This trait has nurtured a truly international food culture in Britain, one where we have the freedom to eat and cook what we crave. On a sweltering day, we need not be restricted to a girthy sausage and mash when we have a crisp fattoush at our fingertips. Equally, our Sunday roast chicken can be easily swapped out with a steaming bowl of tom yum soup should we desire a nasal awakening.

The British food renaissance

If we turn a blind eye to the provincial train station tuna melts, congealed school dinner puddings, and nuclear-resistant newsagent Rustlers and swivel our heads to the restaurant scene, we see a far more glorious picture than in the average British kitchen. We’re said to be living in a much-vaunted British food renaissance, which kicked off in the 1980s with a wave of glossy cookbooks and a handful of rebellious chefs. It was St John’s Fergus Henderson and The Sportsman’s Stephen Harris that helped do away with the idea that fine food must be fussy, formal, French, and fiscally exacting. Sticking the middle finger to crème brûlées, cloches and prissy tablecloths, in came a way of cooking that let go of the idea that we had to impersonate other cuisines to be worthy. Reminiscent of Britain’s past, things like eating the entire animal, long-standing preservation techniques, eating seasonally and capitalising on the glut of phenomenal produce that grows and grazes on our doorstep made a comeback because it was food that made sense.

Roasted bone marrow on toast at St John

The revival of offal was a huge part of this movement. Spearheaded by the British tradition of nose-to-tail cooking, Henderson showed us that roasted bone marrow or braised tripe have as rightful a place on restaurant menus as steak frites or chicken ballotine. “In the early days, there was no manifesto; it was just the way Fergus wanted to cook,” says Gulliver. “At St John, there’s a practicality about things. It’s common sense to get things in locally, to eat the whole animal and to do your own butchery. Lots of chefs came here because their restaurants weren’t ready to teach them, and we’d show them everything we knew.” The enduring legacy of St John now stretches to the far corners of the capital. If you head to spots helmed by its alum like The Marksman, Lyle’s or Hereford Road, you’ll soon clock faggots, livers, sweetbreads or brawn on the menu.

Offal is just a facet of the renaissance. The movement centres around reviving traditional British recipes and demonstrating to diners that it deserves a place beyond a school dinner tray. Restaurants like Quo Vadis, The Quality Chop House and J Sheekey have done God’s work in reminding us just how delightful a well-executed fish pie, eel sandwich or pork chop can be. “Restaurants went from serving very rich and heavy food to light and delicate as we began to understand what elegant cooking was,” says Lee. “Folk don’t want to leave the table feeling like they’re dragging their nails out the wood. We’ve grown up phenomenally, and it’s no longer a meat and two veg culture but a savvy and sophisticated way of eating.”

Quo Vadis, The Quality Chop House and J Sheekey have done God’s work

Probably the most universal facet of Modern British cuisine is a focus on produce with locality and seasonality at its core. The farm-to-fork ethos has exploded in the past two decades, a movement eschewing complex supply chains in favour of small-scale producers, championing our natural larder in all its glory. It seems that restaurants have done some long, hard thinking and have finally come to reason. It doesn’t make sense to aspire to a cuisine that was designed for other climates. Dakos made from bulging Santorini tomatoes were never meant to be eaten in a tepid English dining room in February, and we should leave them to the sun-soaked tavernas where they rightfully belong.

Cartmel Farm at Simon Rogan's L'Enclume

From smaller operations like kitchen gardens lined with polytunnels all the way to fully fledged farms with sensitively reared animals and on-site curing, more and more restaurants are popping up across Blighty obsessed with quality and provenance. Fancy eating house-cured belly pork bacon for breakfast made from pigs that oinked just metres from your table? Head to Coombeshead Farm in Cornwall. Got a hankering for a 15-course tasting menu made with fruits and vegetables harvested from an on-site farm? Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume in Cumbria will tick that box.

This focus on produce is particularly exciting because it instils a sense of place back into British cooking. A meal at Wilson’s, Glebe House or The Newt reminds us of the West Country’s rich traditions in cheesemaking, mackerel fishing and cider production, while supper across the border at Skye’s Loch Bay or Aberdeenshire’s Fish Shop shows us that Scotland’s waters are teeming with top-tier scallops, langoustines and oysters. “More and more chefs across the length and breadth of the land want to shop more locally, and there are more and more small and independent farmers popping up like mushrooms,” Lee tells me. “As restaurant menus improve, so does the produce, and now, rather than a grower in Norfolk supplying restaurants in London, they’re selling locally.”

Eating mackerel on the beach at Beer hosted by Glebe House, Devon

Can't cook, won't cook

It would be naive to assume that this culinary renaissance in restaurants is mirrored in most British homes, and I think it’s fair to say the average Susan isn’t curing her own ham for breakfast, rustling up sweetbreads for lunch and making rabbit pie with a shortcrust top for supper. The reason for cooking less traditional British scran in our homes, despite an era of culinary self-consciousness, isn’t necessarily because we think it’s terrible. In fact, I think we can all agree that a well-executed pork pie, apple turnover, or crisp basket of scampi is a thing of wonder. The issue is that, by and large, we’re a nation that’s losing our ability to cook.

For me, growing up, dinner was various permutations of ketchup pasta, frozen chicken goujons and spaghetti hoops, and I’ve witnessed plenty of kitchen travesties. I remember a flatmate in my university halls who survived off plates of boiled pasta slathered in Heinz salad cream and topped with spam as if we were enduring a zombie apocalypse. Another housemate sustained himself solely on Dr Oetker frozen pizzas from the corner shop. It’s not just anecdotal; the 2023 Waitrose Cooking Report revealed a quarter of UK adults have never boiled an egg and don’t know how to, while a YouGov survey revealed 16% of all men admit they can’t cook anything and that the microwave was the culinary item most people couldn’t live without; chosen ahead of the kitchen knife.

A quarter of UK adults have never boiled an egg and don’t know how to

This is not to say we should slog away in the kitchen over a glazed gammon or a six-part roast dinner every night, but it’s clear that the advent of the supermarket and convenience food has fundamentally changed the way we cook, removing the need to be savvy and skilful in the kitchen. A transition from being reliant on high-street fishmongers, greengrocers and butchers in favour of supermarkets’ lower prices and convenience means we’ve become divorced from the notions of seasonality and locality that used to underpin our diets.

Necessity and frugality no longer dictate the way we cook. Instead of eating the whole animal, using preservation techniques to eke out every morsel or making a roasted joint of meat last for days, we have 365-day access to any fruit or vegetable, an unlimited supply of prime cuts and buy-one-get-one-free deals on meat. It’s as if we’ve completely forgotten that these vacuum-packed hunks of flesh were once living, breathing beings. Supermarkets are the reason we cook fewer historic British dishes born out of the need to use the whole animal, such as brawn, faggots, devilled kidneys, goose blood tart or caenn cropaig – a cod head soup from Scotland. They also mean we make fewer recipes designed to conserve food like potted shrimp, pickled eggs or kippers; or those championing leftovers, such as beef rissoles, porridge bread or stovies.

Devilled kidneys

Convenience food is also responsible for our collective culinary degradation. Much of it stems from the gender normative beliefs of the late 20th century, which largely forced women into the kitchen and made them resent being there, explains Lee. From as early as the late 19th century, women’s magazines would describe cooking as a dreaded chore. The birth of convenience food and rise of kitchen appliances such as the microwave or freezer were potent tools in emancipating women from the shackles of the hob. With powdered mashed potato, boil-in-the-bag ravioli, and frozen fish fingers on hand, the onerous duty of feeding your family was no longer a prerequisite for spending hours in the kitchen, if you didn’t want to.

The birth of convenience food and rise of kitchen appliances such as the microwave or freezer were potent tools in emancipating women from the shackles of the hob

Time is also an important factor in why we cook less traditional British food. As a nation, it’s instilled in us that we’re dreadfully lacking in leisure time and that, as a cuisine, British food tends to be rather drawn-out and coordination-intensive. We live in a country that now sells quick-brew tea bags because we don’t have five minutes to spare to make a cuppa. So, of course, we feel like we don’t have hours to dedicate to braising a lamb shoulder, steaming a sponge pudding or crimping trays of pasties. Coupled with the rising popularity of cooking shows and TV chefs like Jamie Oliver who championed a ‘bish, bash, bosh’ style of throwing food together simply and quickly, the laborious recipes from our past seemed far less appealing. It’s also why less time-consuming British recipes have prevailed. Things like the full English breakfast; bubble and squeak; or eggs and soldiers form a part of many of our culinary repertoires.

The notion of time extends beyond our kitchens to our dining tables and the value we place on mealtimes. Compared to countries like France, with an average table time of 2 hours and 22 minutes per day, or, say, Georgia, where feasting and plenitude are culturally cherished and dinners are known to last over six hours, in Britain we often eat swiftly, alone or in front of the television. Put simply, when the audience to your dinner is the next episode of Strictly Come Dancing, it follows that devoting hours to a steak and ale pie when you can chuck together a bowl of pesto pasta in minutes might feel absurd.

Perhaps this all sounds like nostalgia for a world that doesn’t exist anymore, where we were all closer to Mother Earth and knew how to maximise the fruit that she bore. There’s certainly no point in clutching onto a culinary tradition that no longer serves us. There are, however, facets of the British food tradition that feel worthy of preservation – the parts that give us a sense of place and the seasons or the parts that lead us to create less waste and feed ourselves properly. Although it seems many are losing the ability to cook, one aspect of British cuisine we will never lose is its multiculturalism and an insatiable hunger for the new and shiny; and thank god for that, it’s the part of British food culture that I cherish the most.