Speech at the launch of Great British Food
Praising the contribution of food pioneers and setting out the government’s wider ambition for our food and drink industry.
Links to the transcript of the speech, photos, and social media content from the event, are at the end of this article.
Thanks very much, Sam [Bompas]. It’s fantastic to be here this evening and to see what I hope is the start of a massive campaign to celebrate great British food.
When I was growing up in Leeds, quite often I would be stuck in the city centre next to the bus stop at Briggate and I would look at the Chinese restaurant over the road and the sign in the window, which said: “Enjoy life. Dine here often”.
That just struck me, it’s the philosophy I have now adopted for the way I live, because food is vitally important for all of us. It is what makes us tick, literally, and it is so vital to our lives, wherever we live, however long we live.
And I think it is an important part of our society and our culture. It is fantastic to be here at the first ever Museum of Food and I understand that, Sam, you plan to open this for longer and maybe even find an even more exciting venue in the future for this museum.
But I think the exuberance of this museum, the excitement of this museum, really conveys what it is that is so all-consuming about food. Yesterday, I was photographed in the butterfly enclosure, where I was sat upon by various butterflies as was Sam.
And I am very pleased that they mentioned our National Pollinator Strategy, but it also shows how important food is to our environment and the interaction between food and the environment.
We also have the chocolate room, we have the sensory experiences and also the menus. And if you get a chance, look at the menus that go back to Victorian times or the prisoner-of-war camps.
And we have the Victorian food heroes. I have one here called Agnes Marshall, who was the Victorian Queen of Ices and who is celebrated at this museum.
Now what we are doing today is we are saying that we have fantastic food pioneers who have gone out of their way to transform British food culture.
We are here at Borough Market, which I think is an exemplar of that and I think the canapes have been wonderful this evening.
These people have gone and taken on a culture and they have transformed it. What we want to do is harness those champions and to promote our food and our food culture not just here in Britain but right around the world.
Next week, I’ll be in China with a group of Food Pioneers. But also I think there is a chance to talk more in our own country about what is fantastically special about British food.
Next year’s food campaign is going to involve events, it is going to involve trade missions, pop-ups, even pop-ups in Defra, which we’ll be organising–but also linking together the parts of government that deal with food, so UKTI on the food promotion side, and Defra on food exports, to create a Great British Food Unit that really is a champion for food right across government.
What we want to do is to challenge people’s perceptions about British food. If you ask people overseas what they think, they will mention fish and chips, that will be the number one thing.
Again, people in Britain are not as proud of our food as maybe we should be. There is massive potential to grow the industry, which is already worth £100bn a year and I want to make sure that we help people understand the opportunities with food—the ability to cook it, the ability to enjoy it and the ability to work in it–today we have the government’s apprenticeships adviser, … we are going to triple the number of apprentices in British food and farming.
But the fact is that British food did go through some Dark Ages between the Victorian pioneers we are talking about and the modern pioneers we are celebrating today.
There was the era of the war and rationing, there was the post-war supply controls that we experienced. There was the food of the 1970s and 1980s, some of which I would rather forget, a lot of which came out of packets. You didn’t quite know if you couldn’t see the label on the packet what was in it.
But we are now at a stage where we are beginning to connect with the food and where it comes from, we are beginning to understand that. And it’s really thanks to the people in this room and the people beyond this room who have made that change happen.
And it is the Food Pioneers who have challenged the way we do things and they have not just revived the traditional techniques, they have actually invented new techniques. They have brought in cuisines from other cultures and they have made them British and they are now exporting them around the world.
So we have Karan Bilimoria from Cobra, who is taking the chicken tikka masala, the British curry, to Delhi, to talk about how we can make curry.
We have got Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, who not only revolutionised the fast food industry, but also helped changed the way that our children eat food in schools and also created new cookery lessons.
We have Jon Hammond, whose striking beetroot is being put into ready meals around the country.
We have got Jessica Tucker, from [Urban Food Fest], who has got a new generation of millennials involved in food. Of course they have to spend most of the time taking photographs of the food rather than eating it, but that is the price that they pay.
And we have many more people here today who are involved, who are making that change happen. If you have not had not the opportunity to visit Sipsmith and their fantastic gin stand, I highly recommend it.
What we have done at Defra is we have released some of the food data going back to the 1940s, which shows how we have changed as a nation in terms of our attitude to food.
We have gone from high levels of consumption of margarine to butter being revived. We have gone to tinned fruit through to fresh fruit and we have adopted all these new things, whether it’s Italian food or French influences.
But now those foods that we once considered exotic are being produced in Britain. So we have chillies being grown in Devon, we have wasabi grown in Dorset, we are creating sweet potatoes, they are grown in Kent. And today we have got Cornerways from Norfolk, who are producing tomatoes virtually year-round using the heat created from a sugar factory.
So these innovators are not just creating the traditional British dishes, they are creating a whole lot of new dishes that we can all enjoy.
We are also seeing a celebration of our landscape, like Yorkshire Wensleydale—and Gary Verity of course who famously brought the chefs of France to Yorkshire to prove to them we could produce Michelin-starred cuisine better than they could and of course won the Tour de France for Yorkshire.
And I think Gary is going to be doing a big event next year looking at how British food compares to French food at the Tour de France in France. And we have also got Jimmy Buchan showing how fantastic our coasts are and the great opportunities for fishing and seafood.
I think the final thing I want to say tonight is that all the people in this room are deeply involved and deeply love and care about food. That is why we are here, we are passionate, we want to make progress, we want to share our love of such a fantastic product with everybody else.
And I think the opportunity that we have got with the Great Year of British Food next year is to get that message across to a much wider audience, both here and overseas.
In the past, I remember growing up and being told by people that it was places like Italy and France that had great food and that here in Britain it wasn’t really very much, and that if you wanted sophistication you ought to go to an Italian restaurant to get it.
Now that is no longer true and people in this room changed what British food is, but what we now need to do is make that mainstream both here in Britain and overseas. And I think that is a massive opportunity. Thank you.
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