Jane Bradley: How the myth of bad British food was born

Scots have a reputation for having a bad diet, but this country has some of the finest produce (Picture: Getty Images)
Scots have a reputation for having a bad diet, but this country has some of the finest produce (Picture: Getty Images)
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I always knew French president Jacques Chirac was a bad egg – well before he was ever convicted of corruption and diverting public funds – when he launched a vitriolic attack on British cuisine.

I always knew French president Jacques Chirac was a bad egg – well before he was ever convicted of corruption and diverting public funds – when he launched a vitriolic attack on British cuisine.

“One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad,” he was overheard to say in a private chat with the Russian and German leaders of the time before an international meeting in 2005. Of course, no chat is ever really off the record when you’re a world leader, and his distaste for our ingredients and methods of cooking spread around the world quicker than you could say “Jamie Oliver”.

His dislike for British food had been cemented, he added, by an encounter with former Nato secretary general Lord George Robertson, a Scot who made him try a local dish, reportedly haggis. Unless it was a particularly bad example – and I can’t imagine a supermarket-value tinned version was served to France’s premier – I believe that Mr Chirac’s verdict on Scotland’s national dish says more about his poorly developed tastebuds than it does about Scottish food.

For modern British food is among the most diverse and exciting in the world. Our cities boast cuisine from literally hundreds of different cultures, while the breadth of produce available, local and imported, far surpasses many other nations.

Our celebrity chefs’ books outsell those by cooks in other parts of the world and the variety of food eaten by the typical Brit dining out is far more varied than in most societies.

Despite all that, a report this week found tourists travelling to Scotland feel let down by a lack of local produce and poor value for money when eating in our restaurants and cafes.

The study, entitled ‘Opening Up Scotland’s Larder to our Visitors’, reported tales of woe from travellers disappointed by menus they claimed were dominated by burgers and “bland” cuisine.

Interestingly, the only bright spot in an otherwise gloomy culinary report was that despite the unappetising meals presented to them, they were still marginally better than the visitors had expected. Some cause to celebrate, no? No, for it only serves to show that the universal acceptance that our food is bad continues to be perpetuated.

READ MORE: Poor menus and ‘bizarre’ hours leave visitors to Scotland with sour taste

Even Mr Chirac didn’t say we were actually the worst – Finland apparently held that accolade in his opinion – yet somehow we still manage to continue this myth that we eat terribly.

And myth it is. Yet it is hard to shift the perception of foreigners who insist that they know our country better than we do.

Many Americans still apparently think we wear bowler hats, carry black umbrellas and stop all activity at 3pm when it is “time for tea” and that it rains constantly in all parts of the UK, despite the fact there is actually less precipitation in even wet, west coast Glasgow in an average year than in New York (1124mm and 1274mm respectively, if you’re interested).

Brits of all kinds (to the Americans, it makes little difference whether you come from Portree or Polperro) are exactly how they expect us to be. The fact that the world has moved on and we no longer all have brown, crowded teeth and a pathological fear of physical contact is ignored. Like many people, they love a good stereotype.

And herein lies the crux of the problem of our globally bad culinary reputation. It is a little known truth that this was acquired when the first major influx of American visitors came to the UK and returned to their homeland with tales of unpleasant meals and low-quality ingredients.

It was, of course, wartime. Food was heavily rationed and ersatz ingredients replaced the many hundreds of types of foodstuffs which were suddenly unavailable to the average person.

American airmen took their tales of powdered egg and camp coffee back across the Atlantic and, hey presto, the legend of terrible British cooking was born and spread quickly across the globe.

I am not sure what we can do to right this wrong, except bombard our tourists with the facts. In Britain, we produce roughly 700 different kinds of cheeses — that’s 100 more than France, which is supposedly the king of the stinky stuff. Many of our cheeses, including plenty produced north of the border, are artisanal products, made from raw milk and lauded in international competitions.

In Scotland, we are proud and quite rightly so, of our produce. We have unparalleled seafood and delectable strawberries; delicious venison and tasty North Ayrshire potatoes; local craft beer and Scotch whisky.

In cities and major towns, you cannot walk more than a few steps without falling across a restaurant that uses locally made charcuterie, Scottish grown vegetables or hand-reared meat from a farm a few miles down the road.

Out in the countryside, there are an increasing number of farm shops and cafes with excellent food provenance and kitchen skills, while the remote Isle of Skye boasts a number of restaurants which over the years, have won coveted Michelin stars not least, the world-renowned Three Chimneys, which, while no longer a darling of the Michelin inspectors, has won over 30 awards since it opened in 1985.

I would love to know where these visitors to Scotland ate. McDonalds perhaps, although, even that chain says all of its beef is sourced within the UK and Ireland.

Most likely, I believe, their complaints have little to do with what they actually experienced and more to do with what they had already, ahead of their visit, decided they would experience.

While we can always strive for excellence in what we provide for our visitors and for ourselves, what we actually need to focus on changing is perception. And that is possibly even harder than changing reality.