It may seem odd to thinkof fashion and food together. And if I were talking about frocks made out of chocolate éclairs, then yes, that would be a little strange. But like everything else; like hair, and shoes, and films, and books, food too is subject to changing fashions and new trends. One day lamb is in, and the next it is out; and turkey has taken its place. Poultry is the new meat, vegetables thenew fruit, and seafood is the new chocolate cake. The world is a fickle and divided place, and the food we eat is subject to its idiosyncrasies just like everything else.
As our individual tastes change, and as the world becomes smaller and believes itself to be more sophisticated than it was only a generation before, we find delicacies which are more suited to our new palates.
When I was a child, I was happy to eat cake that was filled with a buttercream made from margarine and flavoured with liquid vanilla essence, covered in melted chocolate-flavour cake covering; a pretend chocolate made from vegetable fats that tastes a little bit like chocolate. A slice of that cake would have made me happy beyond belief back then, but now my cake is filled with a mascarpone mousseline flavoured with the scraped out seeds of a real Madagascan vanilla pod, and covered in a ganache of Jersey double cream and the highest quality 80% cocoa solids dark chocolate that I can get my snobby little hands on.
Looking back at my childhood, I can see now how it is possible for more than one movement of food fashion to be in place at the same time, in the same country, and not necessarily divided by geography but instead by social class and financial affluence. Back in the boom years of the Eighties while the bankers and stockbrokers in London were quaffing champagne by the super-magnum, what has now become a joked at, but extremely influential, movement was taking hold of the city restaurants both in the UK and in the big financial centres all over the world. Nouvelle Cuisine had taken over and the rich were marvelling at plates of very well presented nothingness. Not enough food to quell the murmuring that the stomach makes to request a small afternoon snack, but costing as much as the weekly wage of the average man in the street; that is anywhere outside the City and the relatively recently developed Docklands area.
Those of us in what we considered to be the ‘real world’, as well television and popular culture generally, were laughing about huge black octagonal plates with nothing more than a flake of white fish on them, complimented by a few red caviar eggs and a sprinkle of cress, finished with a drop, and literally just a drop, of lemon butter. Contrasting colours and about as much food to fill a teaspoon; like a microscopic version of something concocted by Fanny Craddock.
And at the same time I, as a child, was enjoying the homely remnants of a food movement left over from the Seventies. On a Saturday evening I was screwing my face up at salty slices of gammon or bacon joint, but enjoying the pineapple that went with it, and happily eating the salad and chips on the side. On some Sunday afternoons, not every Sunday afternoon but just special ones, we would have dessert after our pork, chicken or beef dinner, and that would often be in the form of the now unfashionable but enduring and ever popular stalwart, the frozen Black Forest Gateau. Or perhaps it was a slice of Arctic Roll; for those who have not had the opportunity to taste this delight, it is a sponge cake tube lined with jam and filled with vanilla ice cream. If it was a really, really special occasion, usually at the home of a better off relative, we might even get to have a serving of the incomparable, and still available ice cream dessert, the Viennetta.
Looking at the menu now of a Michelin-starred restaurant, and even at those of a reasonably good and affordable eatery, there certain dishes or parts of dishes, that tend to recur. For example, the rise of John Dory. A decade ago who knew what John Dory was; even if the French had been eating it for years? It is a fish which has appeared on the best menus, and now all the rest want it as well. Like many of the fish we enjoy, it is a strange looking creature, with spiny fins, a dorsal fin which extends into porcupine-like filaments and a tell-tale black spot on the side of its round body. As a food it is a very similar to turbot. Pan-fried fillet of sea bass has also made itself well at home on the menu of almost all restaurants now, as well as noisettes of lamb with seared scallops. Surf and turf is in and almost every red meat is accompanied by something from the sea. And at the moment there does not seem to be a dish going that is not complemented by copious amounts of foie gras or shavings of truffle – although less showy establishments may just add a drizzle of truffle oil instead.
When it comes to dessert there seem to be four which wave their sticky sweet flag at our senses at the end of the meal. There is Tiramisu in one of its guises; reinvented with white chocolate, or cherries, or summer berries. The American Chocolate Brownie, once a children’s treat, now a dessert cake covered in chocolate sauce and drizzled with a berry coulis or attended by a scoop of blackcurrant sorbet. There is the classic French crème brulée, with restaurants fighting over the fruits they will use to create their own version, but always with the crunchy caramel lid; although produced with varying levels of success. And finally we have a sense of the traditional English, and reminders of school dinners, with the individual steamed pudding – sticky toffee with a sickly toffee sauce seems to be the favourite at the moment.
There are foods which seem new to us that jump out at us from their shelves in the supermarket, like gnocchi, a type of pasta dumpling made from potatoes that we can eat whenever we are bored of pasta. There is quinoa, a South American grain, which is vying to win the battle over couscous, which had previously taken over things like brown rice and buckwheat. Sun blushed tomatoes are the new sundried tomatoes, and Chilean golden flame sultanas, dried sweetened cranberries, and goji berries (known traditionally as the Wolf Berry) are the flashy newcomers to the dried fruit section. Certain other foods have gained new popularity lately, some old and previously forgotten vegetables, such as fennel, chard and the Jerusalem artichoke; all risen in status again after becoming unpopular during the nineteenth century. Even ‘peasant’ foods like hocks, shanks, and strange molluscs like whelks and razor clams have found themselves again on the very best menus.
Of course there are some foods which have come and gone within the burst of a trend and will no doubt make themselves’ present again at some later point as part of another phase. Miso soup, a salty but tasty watery broth made from soya beans, was one that hit the diet craze and which seems to have now fallen by the wayside, for all but the most devoted disciples. For a while aduki beans were popular, and maybe ought to have stayed popular, but again their popularity has waned for everyone but hardcore vegetarians and health food fans. Being low in saturated fat with a lot of meat per bird, meant that ostrich looked set to completely replace turkey. And although there are farms breeding these huge flightless creatures, they don’t yet seem to have taken over the supermarket shelves or restaurant menus. I’m assured that ostrich meat tastes lovely, but the public isn’t always an easy animal to convince. Seaweed, or ‘sea vegetables’, as they have been marketed, looked set to be both the new green vegetable and salad base. But perhaps the cost of it has outweighed the advantages of its high levels of iron and potassium. When it comes around again, as surely it will, perhaps the cost will have come down, or the marketing will be better able to pull the housekeeping money from our wallets and purses.
Fashions change and the trends come and go. Everyone has their particular favourites that no transitory food movement will ever budge, and we all have our own ideas of what will come in terms of new eating habits and food trends. Not surprisingly then I have included a few predictions of my own.
In terms of restaurant eating, I think that the current movement of a less extreme version of Nouvelle Cuisine than back in the Eighties, where Classic French cuisine has been stacked into little towers and decorated with foams and froths, with a spattering of a jus or reduction swirled part way around the edge of the plate will last, except it will move further away from the Nouvelle and closer to the Classic, with influences from Italy and South East Asia remaining apparent, while continuing to edge further away from the heavy cream sauces and overcomplicated design of classic French cookery. In terms of new food movements I believe that Lebanese, Kenyan and Ethiopian restaurants will become more popular and will start appearing even in the smaller cities and large towns of the UK; though whether their influence will manage to cross over to us here is not so assured.
Some people think that global warming and a new awareness of the environmental impact of growing produce on other continents and transporting them will draw us back to the less exotic and into the waiting arms of our own farmers. I disagree. Rightly or wrongly our quest for new tastes and new oral sensations is bound to drive us further in search of the next dinner party talking point, and with no real concern for how far it has had to travel to get to our plates and how much damage, directly or indirectly, it has done in getting there.
I could be wrong of course, and like anyone else who makes predictions, I will no doubt claim glory for those points I have been accurate on, and deny any that have been misguided; or at least claim that the particular trend hasn’t managed to reach our salivating jaws just yet.