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What I love (and hate) about British food and drink

In a new regular column, food journalist and critic Tony Naylor reveals the good, the bad, and the ugly of British food and drink.

5 things that make my heart sing

CRAFT BEER: If beer is proof that God wants us to be happy, then she is currently working her fingers to the bone on our behalf. We live in an unparalleled age of drinking pleasure. In recent years, there has been an explosion in the number of UK breweries pushing creative boundaries to produce beers that, in all their hybrid, dry-hopped, Belgian yeast, barrel-aged glory, deliver flavours at staggering levels of intensity.

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SOUTH INDIAN FOOD: For anyone reared on interchangeable UK high street curries, the rise of South Indian cooking has been revelatory. Light and fragrant but with serious depths of flavour, its sambars, rasams, thorans, dhals and mighty dosas use mustard seeds, curry leaves, turmeric and tamarind to beguile you, rather than assault you with heat. Largely vegetable-based, it’s great value, too.

RESTAURANT STAKEOUT: Found late at night on Food Network, Restaurant Stakeout is, basically, Kitchen Nightmares without Ol’ Sweary’s amateur dramatics. A hidden-camera show, it involves avuncular
Nooo Yoik steakhouse owner, Willie Degel – a man who takes no BS – showing various hapless restaurateurs how, when they leave for the night, their worst staff are fighting, insulting guests, getting drunk, stealing tips and killing their business. It’s a mesmerising insight into the human havoc that ruins many restaurants.

BRILLIANT BREAD: I’m no bread snob. I have a Warbie’s toastie on permanent standby as my default sandwich loaf, but the new, ready availability of real bread in Britain – I type this eating somefrom Manchester’s Trove (trovefoods.co.uk) – is a wonderful thing. A glossy, lactic sourdough slathered in high-quality (salted) butter is both a firework display of flavour and primal comfort food. Me? I’d travel up to Morpeth’s St Mary’s Inn just to eat its malted rye sourdough with cultured butter.

CHOCOLATE: My name is Tony Naylor, and I am a chocaholic. I live for that sweet flood of endorphins into the cerebral cortex. I have never come across an amount of chocolate I couldn’t finish in one sitting (that includes those huge spheres of impossibly rich Lindt balls). From Cadbury’s Dairy Milk to exquisite 99% cocoa solids bars, as bitter as a messy divorce, I love it all. Except the American muck, of course; I’m not an animal.

Click here to try one of our best ever chocolate recipes


5 things that get my goat

BASELESS PIE: I don’t think it is overly pedantic to insist that when I order a pie in a restaurant, I should get a filled pastry case that has a top, a bottom and sides. But, the fact that I regularly have to ask: ‘Is it a proper pie, or just stew with a puff pastry lid?’, and that, recently, a waiter laughed at this enquiry (as if I was trying to order a unicorn steak), shows how abused the pie is. Come on, chefs, sort it out.

FOOD SCARES: Nothing takes the edge off your morning brew and bacon butty like opening your paper to discover that – ye gods! – you are, basically, eating a time bomb of cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure and brittle bones. The only thing worse is next day, over your newly healthy breakfast, reading that ‘scientists now believe’ drinking fruit juice is as bad as binging on cola. And that the nuts in your muesli will give your unborn child asthma. It is an endless cycle of contradictory scaremongering. You know what is a fact? Life is short. Enjoy it. Now, pass me that double cream.

ENGLISH ASPARAGUS: There are foods that, due to their scarcity (see also, truffles, caviar and champagne), command a status and crazy prices unrelated to their true merit. As we move into English asparagus season, I can only say: don’t bother. English asparagus is alright, certainly compared with those spears imported, insanely, from South America, but it’s still a fresh vegetal flicker of flavour so subtle, you can only wonder: ‘What is all the fuss about?’ It’s a waste of good hollandaise.

DINNER PARTIES: Is it a class, age or geography thing? I don’t know. But as a northerner of humble stock, I’ve never been to a formal, sit-down, dinner party. Thank God. Because it doesn’t look like fun: all those stilted conversations about work, schools and house prices (could small talk get any smaller?); the overly fussy food; and the stressed host breaking down in the kitchen. If I have people over, it’s very much a dig-in-and-help-yourself affair of huge sharing dishes, with people, many of them drunk, sprawled all over the house.

ARTISAN MARKETS: Why do people insist on trying to turn the retail of good food into a kooky lifestyle experience? I’m here to shop. I don’t want to run a gauntlet of gin cocktails in vintage teacups, rag-time jazz bands, antique stalls, knitting circles, lachrymose acoustic acts, and pop-up afternoon tea rooms staffed by extravagantly moustachioed blokes who look like WW1 poets. I’m off to Bury Market, before my brain melts. 

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