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Friday, 26 November, 1999, 12:45 GMT
Is British cooking still a dog's dinner?
Is it still chips with everything?

If you judged by the number of TV chefs, you'd think no-one in the UK would have any trouble telling the difference between coulis and stewed apple.

Britain has changed, conventional wisdom goes; the country once obsessed with meat and two overcooked veg is now cosmopolitan and daring, a nation of foodies.

It became so confident in its culinary skills that it even embraced its own unfashionable heritage (bangers and mash), and made it cool (bangers and rocket mash with onion gravy).

Well, that is the perception. But is it true?
Tagliatelle: Pasta staple fare in UK supermarkets

Government figures released on Thursday could suggest that it might be wide of the mark.

Far from learning from our continental confreres, we still spend less than the Italians, Spanish and French on our weekly food shopping.

In fact we even spend less than we ourselves did, 30 years ago.

Today's households spend just 59 a week on groceries, just 17% of their weekly budget.

In 1969 we spent 26%, 64 a week at today's prices.

UK's average household spending
60 Leisure goods
59 Food and non-alcoholic drinks
57 Motoring
22 Clothing
14 Alcohol

And the amount spent on takeaways has soared over the last 12 months by 13%.

A survey to be published next week by Thames Valley University says the big problem is that people lack the confidence to use their skills in the kitchen.

The sample of 5,500 people found that 23% of men either don't cook or are not confident, compared to just 6% of women.

Professor Tim Lang said: "Our finding suggest a food culture seriously split. Never in peace time has there been so much interest in food, yet people seem ill at ease with cooking it."

Nutritionist Dr Susan New, from the University of Surrey, says judging by the decline in fruit, vegetable and dietary fibre, the standard of diet is not what it should be.

Even among older people, the average intake of fruit and vegetables was two portions a day, not the recommended five. "And I would suspect that's even lower in younger individuals," she says.

Other factors

The decline in the amount spent on food does not necessarily mean the standard of food bought has fallen, said Dennis Down of the Office of National Statistics.

Cheaper food and smaller households were two possible reasons for the fall.

Five a day is recommended intake
But the restaurant critic of The Times, Jonathan Meades, is in no doubt that the perception that British cuisine has improved is bogus.

"It's the product of a lot of hype," he says. There might be a greater range of products in supermarkets, more food magazines and TV chefs, but in general the quality of British food is worse than it was 30 years ago, he says.

And as far as the boom in restaurants is concerned, he said: "The gastronomic revolution such as it is - and it really isn't - is pretty much restricted to central London."

Sit down together

There is some evidence that many families have given up the tradition of eating dinner together and have taken to "grazing" - not a habit likely to encourage haute cuisine.

But Meades' views do not chime with the popularity of cookery programmes, books, serialisations in newspapers, and restaurant reviews - not least his own articles.

And the quality of food is not necessarily linked to its cost. Susan New said that fast food was "remarkably cheap" and would provide some nutrition, but would not be good in terms of vitamins and minerals.

But on the other hand, staples like fruit and vegetables were not expensive.

Meades added that there was no equivalent phrase in English for the Italian "cucina povera", fine meals made from simple cheap ingredients.

Of course many changes in UK society over the last three decades could explain differing habits.

Obesity is still growing
The growth in microwave ovens alone has had a huge impact - think of the number of ready meals on sale - let alone changes in family life such as rises in both parents having jobs.

But a quick look round any supermarket would shows just how far the UK has come; shelves of pasta, rice, and pizzas, herbs, spices and sauces - what Jonathan Meades calls "easy exoticism". A 1969 shopper would probably be bamboozled if they were transported to 1999.

And despite increased awareness of the dangers of cholesterol and high fat diets, the Department of Health found that 20% of women and 17% of men were "clinically obese". A further 45% of men and 33% of women were classed "overweight".

Meades is pessimistic that things will change. There is only one solution to the problem, he says. Emigration.
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