A Usual Suspect?

William Clement 10 November 2007

William Clement

Hardy northerners and poncey southerners all feel a little bit of quaint pride for their region and we all think it’s quite jolly to mock each other about it. The mocking is always along the same old lines; and the stereotypes apply as much to food and the way we eat as to anything else.

If you think of a northerner sitting down to eat, you think of a ruddy-faced Yorkshire farmer tucking into a steaming meat pie; or you think of ‘teatime’; or Mam, Dad and the all the kids sitting in the car at the seaside on a grey day, eating fish and chips and mushy peas out of polystyrene trays.

Southerners, on the other hand, are a bit special: they flounce around reeking of garlic, nibbling at Marks and Spencer’s sushi and panicking because they’ve really no idea what to do with that kohlrabi that came in the organic veg box. And most of them think they’re just a bit more continental than Northerners: they know their terroirs and stinky cheeses and NEVER have

dinner before about nine o’clock.

There’s probably a small amount of truth in these stereotypes, if you go by anecdotes. A Northern friend of mine thinks it’s perfectly reasonable that his buttery tea is at 5.45; but it’s a bit early for me, really. Northerners have a certain obdurate Northern self-assuredness: they aren’t afraid to admit that trusty British food is good food. Whereas in the South, people don’t have such a sense of what it is to be Southern; we’re a bit insecure and are easily impressed by the Frenchified ideas that reach us from across the Channel.

But it’s simplistic to chop the country in half and say: This half eats this way, that half eats that way. The country isn’t just made up of ‘the North’ and ‘the South’, but out of many regions, and out of Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland, too.

Maybe you could say that, because it’s a bit colder and wetter up there, things like good hearty pies are bound to be more associated with the North. But Northerners are no fonder of a good pie than Southerners; think of steak and kidney pudding from Sussex, or pasties from Cornwall. So that doesn’t really work.

In my stereotypes I characterised Northerners as wary of continental food, and Southerners as aspiring continental gastronomes. But wanting to appear continental is a middle-class pretentious thing, not a North-South divide thing. Traditional provincial food in the North and South of Britain is often easily and favourably comparable with provincial food in France (whatever the French say). Hotpot and black pudding, for example, both lovely Lancashire dishes, are any match for French cassoulet or boudin noir.

Here in Cambridge – this is a good bit of trivia – we can lay claim to the crème brûlée, which came originally from Trinity College and was called ‘Trinity burnt cream’. There is a point here; and it’s this. Different regions and different countries all across Europe have begged, borrowed and stolen ideas from other regions and made them their own; there are, therefore, lots of subtle regional variations in food, that don’t really line up neatly with the cute English idea of a North-South divide.

The other regions – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland – each have their regional dishes as well. Northern Ireland has soda bread, the Ulster fry, colcannon; Wales has lava bread, cakes and teabreads and Welsh cowl; Scotland, fried Mars bars aside, has wonderful Angus beef, haggis and game.

Immigrant communities in big Northern cities, Midland cities, in London – and all over the country – along with Britain’s long history of colonialism, make Britain a country full of foodie variety, not one easily divisible into a gastronomic North and South.

There are, of course, significant divides in the way different people eat: between the pretentious and the hearty, between those who love food and those who love microwaves. But for me, the big one is the rural-urban divide. It’s the game season now. At home, in rural Sussex, there are friends turning up on the doorstep wielding braces of pheasant and various dead birds. I’m missing that. I’m missing roast pheasant and bread sauce and game pie. You get that sort of thing quite easily all over rural Britain, in the North and the South, but in a town like this it’s impossible.