I think it was some time in the 1990s, perhaps around the zenith of New Labour or when a fresh-faced Jamie Oliver first appeared, when a notion took root that British people would all be healthier, happier and generally more relaxed if they simply adopted a Mediterranean-style food culture, sat around chatting noisily to friends while sipping espressos and eating spaghetti al pomodoro and bruschetta drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. Taken al fresco, naturally.
The coffee thing obviously took off with a vengeance as the high street has not so much died as mutated into one giant Costa. Personally, I was always a little sceptical about the food part of the equation. Which is not to suggest that the aforementioned Italian dishes are not delicious when done well, of course not. Rather, it was that we Brits don’t hail from a land of sun-drenched olive groves and cannot relate to a climate where the greatest concession to a December day is a designer cardie draped casually around the shoulders as we stroll across the palazzo in our sockless loafers. We live on a cold, grey, damp island in the Atlantic, and those of us who grew up in the North don’t even have the benefit of the slightly better weather of the South (trust me, it is).
What our Northern forefathers and mothers understood clearly is that the kind of food necessary for our climate needs must be stolid and hearty, as well as cheap if it is to provide for the masses. Thus, less expensive cuts of meat should be stewed for long periods including offal and intestines as well as robust root vegetables (so your tripe, black pudding, suet pudding, mushy peas, scouse/hot pot). In France, all these dishes have been (indeed are, in the case of the tripe sausage l’andouillette and their version of Bury Market’s finest offering, boudin noir) celebrated since time immemorial as food with terroir – indigenous and particular to an area.
For complex reasons, Britain has historically never had a food culture comparable to that of France or Italy and, in the past and in the eyes of metropolitan sophisticates, dishes such as those just mentioned would have been regarded as mere fodder for the benighted Northern working classes. Happily, not any more.
Nowadays you’d struggle to find a gastropub in the North West that doesn’t feature, say, black pudding, or a menu predominantly comprised of locally sourced ingredients and, as well as rightfully celebrating the deliciousness of the food, this is also a statement of pride and identity that our French neighbours would understand completely: this is what we like to eat here, it says, it is our thing and it is delicious. Although, in its more recondite incarnations and with an exaggerated price tag, dangers arise. There are two things guaranteed to make Northern people balk: perceptions of pretentiousness and suspicions of being fleeced. “Ten quid for a poached egg on a bit o’ bloody black puddin’?! B****r off!”
Clive James rightly pointed out that almost anything can serve as a Proustian madeleine, the thing to transport you back in an instant to the past, but nothing does this so comprehensively as food. I now live in the South and a recurrent complaint is the unfit-for-purpose chippies with their foil-wrapped pies and garish orange saveloys, awful mushy peas (if they have them at all) tainted laboratory chemical-green and fridge-stacked in polystyrene containers and, of course, a complete absence of gravy.
But although I miss the real chippy, that nostalgia pales in comparison to the lost dishes of my childhood, greatest of all of them being what we called ‘bacon bones’ – cured spare ribs, boiled to a pink tenderness so that the sweet and salty meat could be sucked from the bone, with the waft of malt vinegar coming off chips and slow-cooked mushy peas, both homemade. Oh my.
Main image: Pease Pudding