I am a European cook. So many of my favourite cookery writers, constant inspirations in my professional life – Elizabeth David, Fergus Henderson, Diana Henry – in turn found inspiration in the food of continental Europe and used that inspiration to change British food very much for the better. Whenever I go abroad, ranging freely around Europe, it is largely to eat, collecting recipes and ingredients and imbibing a more general sense of a food culture that is still largely unmoderated by supermarkets – clear and direct.
I use European ingredients, such as Spanish olive oil; everybody does, including the Italians. It is the best – the ancient Romans used it too. There is much to be gained from the free movement of the best things. I use local ingredients too, of course; often extremely local, grown for us at work – from European seeds. Almost no-one uses exclusively local ingredients, though. If you are looking for quality you might get Datterini tomatoes and blood oranges from Sicily, good French mushrooms and that lovely purple garlic, Spanish anchovies and chorizo; if you are cooking in quantity most of your ingredients – tomatoes, onions, peppers, celery, salads – will come from the vast fields and polytunnels of Holland or Spain. Potatoes are usually British, but only because they’re so heavy that it works out cheaper. We don’t know what’s going to happen to these supply chains.
At the moment, with a farming industry that is heavily reliant on European labour and subsidies, we grow less than 60% of our own food; we don’t know what’s going to happen to that, either. If we grow more, prices will have to rise; if not, we keep on importing and shoulder the inevitable extra costs.
Like all good Europeans, I love to eat and cook with local, regional cheeses, of which Britain has a huge number and diversity, many of them protected and therefore rendered profitable by the EU PDO system, which also covers Yorkshire rhubarb, Jersey Royal potatoes and suchlike, defending these short-seasoned, high-quality products from the unscrupulous machinations of big business; these things might otherwise have disappeared or at least become bland and unreliable. We could, of course, legislate to protect these industries; we could equally end up like America, with sawdust in the Parmesan, calling piss Champagne.
Civilisations come together to feed people; the EU came together to feed people, to make sure that we grew and raised and caught enough food to go round. It hasn’t been an unmitigated success, but it has muddled along. Now, with some of the poorest people in Great Britannia starving to death, we have severed ourselves from that safety blanket and taken a step forward into the dark. We don’t know what is going to happen to our farms, to our fisheries, to the huge network which allows us to eat, to the people who grow and pick and prepare our food.
I am a European cook, and I am scared.