What are they on about?

15th June 2001 at 01:00
David Newnham doubts that British roadside fare is fresh or traditional

Welcome to you, French tourist. You have driven off the ferry at Dover, remembered to tenir ... gauche, and have now penetrated deep into the English countryside. It's lunchtime, and you feel peckish.

Pulling up at a roadside eatery, you survey the bill of fare. Obviously it's not true what they say about British food. This all looks delicious. What's it to be? Traditional ploughman's lunch, served with a wedge of fresh crusty bread, seasonal salad, crunchy pickles and home-made coleslaw? Filled jacket potato with Marie Rose sauce? A Cumberland sausage, made with chunky pork to a traditional recipe and served between two crusty doorsteps of granary bread?

Although "Marie Rose sauce" is not in your phrasebook, most of the terms are easy to understand. With everything so fresh, traditional, chunky and home-made, how could you possibly go wrong? The answer, sadly, is that you already have. For the minute you left that ferry, you were entering a land of fantasy food - a country whose inhabitants wouldn't know a crusty doorstep if they tripped ove it.

Traditonal ploughman's lunch? This tradition stretches right back to the 1960s, when pub landlords seized on cheese, pickle and a roll as an easy alternative to sandwiches. Today's offering - a lump of soapy, supermarket "cheddar", a spoonful of cash-and-carry pickle, an outer leaf of lettuce and a dollop of shredded cabbage mixed with something white from a plastic tub labelled "mayonnaise" - will be served with a slice of the blandest bread in Europe.

Even this is preferable to the microwaved potato with its unwholesome, factory-made sauce. And it's almost certainly safer than the sausage. Better tuck in now, and build up your resistance, for you will sample all too much of this rubbish as you tour our island. The truth, you see, is that we have been describing our sub-standard food in this way for so long that we have come to believe the words on the blackboard.

The blackboard? That's "today's specials". Which, were you to stick around, you would quickly realise are identical to yesterday's "specials". But then you'll not be sticking around, will you?


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