Does anyone seriously consider pre-heating their oven before throwing in some horrible ready meal? You'd think Tesco's Beef Cannelloni was a finely tuned piece of culinary art from the way they insist on exactly fourteen minutes' cooking time on Gas Mark 4, rather than what it tastes like -- a rolled-up piece of parchment containing the remains of Ben Gunn.This is a man whose relationship with food and cooking is clearly under stress. You'd probably have to be British to fully understand his comment that "My antipathy to food goes back to my childhood in the 1940s when people were naturally thin because the food was so awful". Austerity Britain lasted officially until 1954, when rationing was abolished, but its spirit lived on well into the 1970s. Even the good times always had something irredeemably cheap and meagre about them, like the filling of a baker's shop sausage roll.
The true awfulness of much British food is one of those legends that happens to be true. Hugo mentions the Vesta range of instant Chinese and Indian meals, and unless you have attempted to eat a Vesta Chow Mein you have no idea how criminally low our expectations of food once were. I have eaten quite a few such simulacra of food in my time, as the child of working parents left to my own devices through most of the school holidays. The term "meal solution" had not been coined back then, but would have been very appropriate; I suppose they did seem an excitingly modern approach to malnutrition at the time. Rickets à la mode.
Unbelievably, Vesta meals are still made and sold in all the major supermarkets. Indeed, there is a special aisle in every supermarket which sells the Great British Convenience Foods: tinned pies and stews, jellies with chunks of fruit, tinned fruits and rice pudding, Camp Coffee, instant custard and Angel Delight -- a 1960s cornucopia. Who buys this stuff? How is it possible brands like Ambrosia, Fray Bentos, and Birds are still in business? I can only imagine they are in receipt of subsidies from the National Lottery, to preserve part of our tinned, boiled and stewed British Heritage.
We are most exposed as a nation, gastronomically, in the area of "treats". Although -- having grown up with the stuff -- most of us retain a fondness for the waxy compound sold as "chocolate" by the likes of Cadbury, there is no revelation quite like the moment a Brit first tastes European chocolate. Now, obviously, something like a Mars Bar is a sort of apotheosis of industrial confectionery -- it defines its own category of sublimity -- but no-one who has once tasted Lindt Excellence 70% Cocoa chocolate is ever going to eat Cadbury's Bourneville again. And is there any more depressing sight than a High Street baker's window, filled with greasy, misshapen jam doughnuts, "buttercream" pastries with a perfunctory grafitti of icing, and bulbous apple turnovers crusted with sugar and filled with nothing but apple-scented air? It says a lot about our tolerant national character that we can still put up with this roadkill patisserie. "Mustn't grumble"...
Amusingly, we have started to pat ourselves on the back as a nation of gastronauts, in recent years. So many top class restaurants, so many cooking programmes on TV, so many celebrity chefs! So many new ingredients, and a hundred different microwaveable ready meals! It's all so much better than it used to be. Have you tried these new Red Leicester Cheese and Caramelised Onion crisps?
And yet, how many simple, nutritious meals get prepared from basic ingredients in British kitchens most nights? The guy who installed our kitchen last year told me only old people and hippies use ovens these days. Have you ever heard that famous and profound remark by Sir Thomas Beecham, that "The British may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes"? I think the truth is that something of the sort applies to food, too. We may not like cooking, but we absolutely love filling our supermarket trolleys with meal solutions.
If British comedians wants to make thumbnail sketches of social stereotypes, especially about class and pretension, they reach for food items; I must admit I am always very amused whenever I remember the joke about Peter Mandelson, as aspiring parliamentary candidate for Hartlepool, mistaking mushy peas for guacamole in a chip shop. But can anyone explain why "the remains of Ben Gunn" is so funny? It's a long time since I read Treasure Island, but I don't recall Ben Gunn ending up as spag bol.