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How Europe Shaped British Eating Habits

Olive oil instead of lard. Pesto pasta for dinner. Croissants. Continental European food culture has had a huge impact on British eating habits.

If you've read any of Agatha Christie's Poirot novels, you'll know that in the mid-20th century, Brits were deeply suspicious of "foreign" stuff.

But when it came to food, British hostility transformed into enthusiasm. Thanks to the writers, supermarket suppliers, restaurateurs, and television personalities of the post-War era, word got out, and we realised the culinary wisdom of our European neighbours. Seasonal salads, olive oil, meats marinated with garlic, and mozzarella happily replaced the salad cream and overcooked vegetables of the 1950s British kitchen.


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Britain's formal union with Europe began in 1975, following over a decade of campaigning and two rejected attempts. But British food writer Elizabeth David pro-Europe PR job began long before then. Her first cookbook Mediterranean Food was published in 1950, and sparked enthusiasm for all things Continental among middle class British cooks.

Food rationing was in full force in Britain until 1954, and David's sunny images of artichokes, ripe tomatoes, and fresh mayonnaise gathered during her wartime travels across the continent were an antidote to the corned beef and National Loaf that made up the British post-War diet. She had to advise readers that olive oil could be bought from chemists, where it was sold in small bottles for "external use only." (At that time, the now ubiquitous ingredient was considered less a foodstuff, more a substance to unblock ears with.)

After Mediterranean Food came French Country Cooking, Italian Food, and French Provincial Cooking, with David's writing gaining real impact when Penguin decided to publish her books in paperback. Today, her European-inspired recipes have been cited as an influence by chefs as diverse as Ken Hom, Prue Leith, and Rick Stein.

Olive oil isn't the only modern food essential we have Europe to thank for. In 1957, the BBC successfully fooled a large number of viewers with a spoof Panorama episode about "spaghetti bushes" that supposedly grew along the Swiss-Italian border. Spaghetti was still an exotic foodstuff at this time, and viewers rang in to the show asking where they could acquire these mysterious spaghetti bushes.


But by the mid-1960s, spaghetti bolognese had made its way into British households. Today, industry magazine The Grocer says that pasta sales in the UK are at £394.3 million and growing steadily, outperforming the rest of the grocery market. Not surprising, really. Spag bol is regularly named as one of Britain's favourite foods.

Another Italian-inspired mark on British food is PizzaExpress, first opened on London's Wardour Street in 1965 after Peter Boizot returned from Naples with a pizza oven. The approachable pricing and relaxed dining environment was something of a revelation at the time, and pizza was a rare sight to most Brits.

Sunny images of artichokes, ripe tomatoes, and fresh mayonnaise were an antidote to the corned beef of Britain's post-War rationing diet.

Boizot opened a second restaurant a few years later, and subsequently developed PizzaExpress into a nationwide chain, establishing Italian-style pizza restaurants in towns all over the UK, with 400 branches in existence today. The company floated on the stock exchange in 1993 and sold to a Chinese investor for £900 million in 2014. It's still the most reliable place to get a decent meal on any suburban British high street.

In the 1980s, Britain began bolstering its knowledge of European food via television shows, thanks in no small part to original food flâneur Keith Floyd's landmark series Floyd on France. The jovial, bow tie-wearing writer and cook delved into the kitchens and stock pots of Technicolor provincial France—always with a glass of wine in hand. One suspects shots of his voracious quaffing would not make the final cut these days, but Floyd's mantle has been taken up in a more gentle fashion by Rick Stein, whose recent BBC series on European mini-breaks saw him learn the culinary secrets of Bologna, Vienna, Berlin, and Bordeaux. Jamie Oliver has also done his bit to translate "authentic" European foods to a younger audience.

But before Jamie's Italian, there was The River Café, opened as the canteen for a Hammersmith architectural practice in 1987 by friends Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray. Their ingredient-focussed, simply presented Italian food was refreshing—even shocking—in the decade of fancy restaurant dining. It formed a training ground for now-celebrity chefs Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and April Broomfield. Nearly 30 years later, and Rogers still works closely with Italian suppliers to source the best produce.

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In more recent years, Germany has also made its presence felt on British eating habits, thanks to discount supermarkets Aldi and Lidl luring customers away from the "big four" grocery chains with reasonably priced wine and surprisingly good coffee. Time will tell whether those wines remain so well priced.

As many mourn the results of the EU referendum, the ingredients, dining culture, and flavours of Continental Europe may no longer signify gastronomic discovery, but a taste of our political past.