Featuresslow food: rebranding the British Diet

slow food: rebranding the British Diet

Pity the battered sausage. Figures published this week by scientists at Leicestershire’s Pukka University suggest that this delicious, historic combination of pink food colouring and salted sphincters is falling out of favour with today’s eaters and risks being relegated to a core audience of pensioners and people from Glasgow.

The battered sausage is not the only national institution under threat, as the modern trend for paleo diets, NutriBullet smoothies and not dying in your late fifties has sounded warning bells for many of Britain’s traditional foodstuffs. If we aren’t careful all that will remain of our pre-1990s national diet will be ironic ’deconstructed’ versions of pie and mash and gastropub landlords who wouldn’t recognise a bag of Big D peanuts if their own mother was the woman pictured on the bit of cardboard they were glued to. Something must be done, or our status as “world’s fifth fattest nation” is under threat.

Fry me to the moon

The obvious solution, as per Jamie Oliver’s amazing success in encouraging America to eat vegetables, might be to make our favourite dishes healthier, but that completely misses the point of traditional British food. You simply wouldn’t want to eat six Yorkshire puddings and half a kilo of roast beef if the gravy wasn’t swimming with dangerous grease from four different animals, and the same rule of thumb applies to fried breakfasts, chip dinners and 95% of the things British people will put in a sandwich when nobody else is looking. We even manage to offset the nutritional value of things that could potentially be healthy, like oats, by enjoying them in the form of flapjacks or HobNob biscuits, enhanced with appalling levels of fat and sugar. It’s an essential aspect of our character, a reward for the grim weather and isolation from all the sexy people on the European mainland. In fact, our ever-evolving national cuisine is a powerful argument against those who would stop Britain from welcoming immigrants: whatever Nigel Farage might try and tell you, we are a stronger, better people because we embraced greasy chicken tikka, dangerous Turkish kebabs and whatever chilli-marinated animal I ate at a reggae party in Notting Hill. No, we cannot change the terrible ingredients that make these foods so good. The only thing we can do is rebrand them so that people stop paying attention to their nutritional value and just focus on how good they taste.

The first bite is with the eye

Fooling your customers with clever presentation and branding are essential tools of the food trade, dating back to the olden days when a brand like Quaker Oats sold millions to people who just wanted a lower percentage of mouse droppings in their breakfast. People don’t eat at McDonalds’ because the burgers are the best, but because everything on the menu is consistent and the company has advertised itself into our collective subconscious. Even if you think you’re above the big brands, the same principle is at work when you pay twice the price for a cocktail served in a jam jar, or choose the greasemonger who happens to handwrite their menu on a quirky blackboard and leaven your trans-fat consumption with a pretentious side salad. You’ve let your inherent fluency with the subliminal language of food marketing guide your decisions about taste and nutrition, and they may well be wrong. The jam jar doesn’t make the drink tastier, and the salad is only there to fool you into thinking you’re eating a balanced meal. This concept is the main reason that parsley continues to exist.

Applying this principle to traditional British foodstuffs isn’t particularly difficult, and high end restaurants have been doing it successfully for years. Black pudding is a stalwart of fine dining establishments because it has a fantastic, hearty depth of flavour that is often lost inside the greasy fry up, and the same is true of the wonderful British sausage and our world-beating bacon. They just need to be cooked with a little more care, and served in a strange artistic little pile, on something that is flat but isn’t necessarily a plate. The customer will then pay three times as much for the same ingredients, and feel good about doing it.

Food that tells a story

If we’re going to save the battered sausage we should remember that these presentation tricks don’t just apply to upscale restaurants. Imagine if baked beans or mushy peas were marketed in the same way as an Innocent smoothie. The can could have a twee little story on the side, an unthreatening hand-drawn logo and a joke in the list of ingredients. Maybe the peas could have a biography, talking about the small farmer who allegedly grew them, perhaps like he’s their dad. A dad who plays a ukulele. Middle class shoppers would lap it up, even if the food inside is actually quite bad for you, like Innocent’s tooth-rotting levels of sugar. For some reason we’ve decided that food is worth paying more money for if it has a story behind it.

The whole food hipster angle is a particularly effective way to rake in the cash, as it runs the entire gamut from ironically crappy (cereal cafes) to completely bog standard ingredients given a faux-authentic makeover (most London-based burrito chains). People laugh at the language used in fine dining, but prattling on about “deconstructed carpaccio of celeriac, with lobster jus” is no more a marketing exercise than selling “craft” beer and using menus printed in grimy Courier font to trick people into thinking your beef burgers were hand-shaped by the bass player from The Pixies. The customer paid £14, but the burger is just above-average mince, slightly fresher sides and a guarantee to give you heart disease just as quick.

I might put my money where my mouth is and have a go at rebranding something really out of fashion, like tripe, pork faggots or just good honest British liver.  “Welcome to Runyon’s Authentic Offal Shop. Our intestines are 100% locally sourced from local farmers , and all of our lard and dripping is hand congealed and additive free. Pull up an upcycled church pew and, whilst you wait for your tattooed, bearded server, browse our selection of £6 American beers. Why not finish your meal with one of our ironically-named school dinner desserts?” If that takes off, there’s nothing standing in the way of my plan to start a national chain of up-market battered sausage shops modelled on Krispy Kreme. I expect to be both a millionaire and a hero of British cuisine although, given the need to regularly eat my own products, I will probably need to spend most of the money on a series of heart transplants and some replacement teeth.

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