You can tell the story of modern British food through our changing attitude to vegetables. Once, we were a people who ate our greens while grumbling about them. Then, we became people who spoke admiringly of butternut squash without necessarily eating it. Now, there are glimmers of a new Britain, where, strange to tell, vegetables are both eaten and enjoyed.
For those of us who have lived through these changes, it’s startling to realise just how far we have come from boiled swede and grey stringy beans. Food writer Sejal Sukhadwala remembers eating as a vegetarian at a London school in the 1980s. “They gave me the same meat and two veg as everyone else, only without the meat.” A typical lunch would be sulphurous cabbage and mash. School dinners were a shock compared to the meals Sukhadwala ate at home. Her mother, a Gujarati vegetarian, cooked okra and gourds bought from markets in Wembley and Southall. She seasoned them with coriander, cumin, turmeric and chilli powder, and cooked them using many different methods. By contrast, the school dinner vegetables were always plain boiled and unseasoned, as if it would be foolish to squander salt or butter on a carrot.
Fast forward to 2018 and Sukhadwala feels she is living through a “culture shift” in the British relationship with vegetables. We are having lunch together at Vanilla Black, an elegant restaurant in Holborn which happens to be vegetarian. Sukhadwala glances down at her starter of roasted Jerusalem artichoke with fermented turnip cake, a dark green puree flavoured with fresh curry leaf and pieces of crispy kale. “So many textures and techniques all on one plate,” she says.
Over the past decade, the British attitude to vegetables has altered. Suddenly, many of us are eating vegetables voluntarily and not just because we feel we should. This change can be seen in countless signs, from the success of vegetable-focused cookbooks (such as those by Anna Jones) and the vegan menus popping up in high-street restaurants to the presence in our supermarkets of low-carb alternatives to pasta and grains. One of the biggest transformations is the variety of techniques that cooks tend to use to prepare vegetables. They are pickled and grilled and seared and fried or shredded and eaten raw, rather than boiled on autopilot.
Who would have thought that cauliflower – which was traditionally served under what chef Jean Conil described in his 1953 book Haute Cuisine as “a merciful disguise of sauce” – might one day be so celebrated it would be served proudly whole and slow-roasted, like a prime cut of beef? For a while it felt as if the vegetables that inspired love in Britain were Mediterranean ones such as red peppers that were roasted and safely removed from anything we had grown up with. But there is a renewed appetite for locally grown root veg too. From 2016 to 2017, sales of beetroot in the UK grew by £34 million, an increase of 6% year on year. Still more startling is the rise in people who centre their entire diet on vegetables, gathering under the hashtag #plantbased. The number of self-declared British vegans has risen by more than 360% since 2006. When I interviewed a food market researcher about the most significant food trends, she said that one of the most surprising was the idea of vegetables as a main course.
Greens in Britain used to be the thing you pushed to the side of your plate, or the bitter mulch that you swallowed for your own good and to avoid a telling-off from grown-ups. They were not expected to be something delicious – that was what meat and potatoes and gravy were for. Many diners never imagined that broccoli might be charred with oil and lemon and garlic and chilli to such sweet loveliness that it was actually moreish. This has been called the Ottolenghi effect, after Yotam Ottolenghi, whose cookbooks – the first of which was published in 2008 – made his readers stop seeing vegetable-centred cooking as a form of dreary deprivation and start recognising the joyous luxury in something like an aubergine topped with saffron yogurt and pomegranate seeds.
The new vegetable love has many causes, particularly among millenials. Some of it is driven by ethical considerations about sustainability. Some of it is to do with health, as people try to copy the Instagram influencers who promote colourful leaves, legumes and pods. But there’s also the fact that a dinner of spuds and roots is a lot cheaper than steak. Whatever the cause, this vegetable revolution is not just a transformation in what we eat but a change in how we feel about plants. It is a shift, above all, from duty to desire. It is about salt-roasted celeriac and braised leeks; about pickled wild garlic and peas with ricotta on toast. I never thought I would see the day when “contains kale” would be a selling point rather than a threat. There is a romance to vegetable cookery now, which stands in contrast to the 1990s, a decade when we became so paranoid about not overcooking our veg that we often served squeakily understeamed green beans.
The question remains how deep and wide this vegetable conversion has spread. For all the appearance of variety in modern produce, it is true that in some ways we have gone backwards. In 2007, in his book The Last Food of England, food writer Marwood Yeatman remarked, “The disdain for vegetables with which the English are credited is hard to reconcile with the number of walled and market gardens, the allotments and the greatness of names like Scarlet Emperor, Kelvedon Wonder and Jersey Royal.” According to Yeatman, the number of vegetables in cultivation in the UK peaked at 120 varieties around 1500, “slumped after the Reformation” and reached an all-time low in the 1970s when it fell to under 50. Britain is currently less than 60% self-sufficient in vegetables and salads. Over the past 30 years, the area given over to vegetables has declined by 26%.
There has also – surprisingly – been a decline in the amount of veg that the average person eats. With the exception of a few specific items such as pre-cut stir-fry packs, vegetable consumption overall is still significantly lower now than it was during and after the second world war. Earlier generations may have boiled vegetables to oblivion, but they also saw eating them as a non-negotiable part of a meal. Survey data in Geoffrey Warren’s The Foods We Eat (1958) suggested the average British adult then ate around 400g of fresh vegetables a day – equivalent to the five-a-day that is now advised. Today, by contrast, the mean intake of vegetables is a mere 128g per person, which adds up to just over one and a half portions. The Ottolenghi effect has not reached everyone.
“People have very high awareness about eating vegetables,” says Anna Taylor of the Food Foundation, “but that doesn’t translate into consumption.” It was concern at Britain’s low vegetable intake that led Taylor to launch Peas Please, a three-year project working with 80 different organisations – ranging from growers and the NHS to supermarkets and caterers – to make it easier for everyone to eat veg, on all incomes. Taylor sees eating more vegetables as the single diet intervention that could have the most impact on both health and the environment. “It’s no good if it’s just purple carrots in a farmer’s market,” says Taylor.
Peas Please has extracted pledges from mass market businesses such as Sainsbury’s, which has promised it will always include vegetables in the store’s “fresh inspirational plinths” (a fancy way of saying the shelves at the end of the chilled aisles). Another business to pledge is Greggs the baker, which promises to sell an extra 15 million portions of veg between 2018 and 2020 in its sandwiches and salads. Taylor tells me she approached Greggs rather than Pret because she wants to drive change in vegetable eating “beyond the metropolitan elite”. The aim – which Taylor admits is a “massive, massive challenge” – is to get everyone in Britain eating an extra portion of vegetables every day.
Peas Please was launched at a vegetable summit in London’s City Hall in October 2017, which I attended (there were also parallel summits in Scotland and Wales).
One of the main problems discussed was the gulf in consumption between rich and poor in Britain. Some of us eat a whole rainbow; others eat less than ever. Anti-poverty campaigner Kathleen Kerridge pointed out that “vegetables on a low income are an added extra” which can be hard to justify buying, especially if there’s a chance that picky children won’t eat them.
There’s a widespread perception that eating vegetables will always be a middle-class habit, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Towards the end of the summit, Michael Marmot, professor of public health at University College London, gave a speech about how vegetable inequality “is not inevitable”. In Britain and many other western countries, you can draw graphs showing that the lower the social gradient, the less fruit and veg someone will eat. Yet there are countries such as Portugal and France where this is not the case, and vegetables are eaten regularly by rich and poor.
A lack of vegetable eating in Britain has three causes, said Marmot when I recently caught up with him over the phone. “The first is price. The second is the availability of tasty produce. And the third is culture. But cultural change and socio-economic change go hand in hand.” As Marmot comments, “If you can’t afford a healthy diet, you don’t eat a healthy diet.” One of the problems in Britain, as Marmot sees it, is that too many people are still stuck in the mindset that vegetables are “a penance rather than a reward for living”.
But this is changing. At the vegetable summit, Kerridge said her teenage daughter often begged her for pre-packed spiralised courgettes in the supermarket because she had seen it idolised on social media. The problem is that Kerridge can’t afford to buy it.
The signs are that low-income families are as likely as anyone to enjoy vegetables if the obstacles to eating them are removed. From 2013 to 2014, the charity Alexandra Rose gave 81 families vouchers for free fruit and veg at local markets through children’s centres in Hackney, east London. Vegetable cooking classes were offered to help those who wanted them. The benefits of the scheme were not just a short-term nutrition boost but a longer-term change in habits and tastes. The parents commented that they were now experimenting with different foods. Thanks to the Rose vouchers – which are now distributed in Hammersmith, Lambeth and Fulham as well as Hackney – families have found themselves choosing to buy veg they had never tried before. One mother said that both she and her child were now less fussy about vegetables. “Now I crave salad rather than kebab,” said another.
We should remain optimistic about the British relationship with vegetables, says Marmot. His decades of research tell him that food habits change incredibly fast. “Do you remember when it was unusual to eat yogurt?” he asks. “And now it’s completely normal.” By the same token, there is every chance, he says, that “an Ottolenghi effect could be seen in the wider population” if vegetables could become affordable and accessible enough for more people to discover how good they can taste.
Someone who has observed this change of appetite in action is Jason O’Rourke, head teacher of Washingborough Academy, a primary school in Lincolnshire. O’Rourke and I are both part of a new group called Flavour School that offers children a sensory education in food, particularly vegetables. In a typical lesson, children might taste carrots in several different forms – raw sticks, raw grated and cooked batons – and talk about which texture they prefer. Or they might put on headphones and compare “loud and quiet” vegetables: the noisy crunch of celery compared with the silent softness of avocado.
Flavour School is still in the pilot stage – it was launched in a few UK schools in Lincolnshire, Buckinghamshire and Cambridgeshire in 2017, but will be trialled in a further 50 schools in Staffordshire this summer, through the Soil Association. The early signs are promising, as O’Rourke reports. At Washingborough, his teachers have found that the simple process of letting children interact with fresh produce at school can start to change the way that a whole family talks about vegetables. “Children who have done Flavour School are more willing to say to their parents, ‘Oh! That’s a butternut, I know what to do with that,’ which gives the parents the confidence to buy it.”
The British conversion to greens is far from complete. Ours may never be a fully vegetable-centric food culture such as Vietnam or Italy or India. But the fact that we are now selecting vegetables for their flavour is a profound shift. Taylor at the Food Foundation cites the low-cost but good tasting veg being sold by Aldi and Lidl as cause for optimism that our new liking for vegetables will continue to spread across all income groups. “Lidl do these small crunchy ridged cucumbers,” she remarks. What’s so different about them, I ask. “They actually taste of something,” she replies.
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