The restaurant critic and food writer talks to Katrina Harper-Lewis about the world of food, past and present
You’ve just written the foreword for a new book, The Story of Food. Tell us more…
I fell into restaurant reviewing by chance, some 25 years ago, so I didn’t come with a huge amount of foreknowledge. Books like this are part of an ongoing learning process. I think the more you know about food the more informed decisions you can make about what you cook and eat, and how fun and delicious it is, but also how you can be slim and healthy, and not mess up the planet.
You’ve presented TV programmes on the food of the past – has your work on food history informed your opinions of the food we eat now?
Without question. You realise how lucky we are to be living now, with the diversity and range of food available. If you live in a city in Britain, you could eat a different nationality of cuisine every day for a month, from Lebanese and Peruvian to Mexican, and there’s a current fashion for Northern Thai barbecue. When we worry about plastic pollution and intensive farming, we hark back to an imagined golden period when everything was sustainable and free-range and organic, but as The Story of Food and TV shows I’ve done will show you, most people ate badly. The poor had nothing to eat but potatoes, leaves and mice, while the rich overindulged and got fat.
Can you share some of the most weird and wonderful facts you’ve learned from The Story of Food?
Galen the great Greek physician, who informed the whole of the history of medicine, thought fruit was bad for you, so nobody ate it for years, which caused epidemics of rickets. I also learned, among other things, that in most of Asia, eating ducks’ heads is believed to make you clever.
Do you have a favourite food era?
Given the richness and diversity of food that I eat as a restaurant critic every night, it makes me long for the 1940s and rationing, when every meal was an act of abstinence in the name of the war effort. We just ate vegetables and life was considered to be boring, but by the end of the war, we had put on weight. We were the healthiest we’d ever been.
What do you think someone from that era would make of our food today?
They wouldn’t be able to believe it. In the 1980s and ’90s, the most popular dish in Britain was chicken tikka masala and I think that would have baffled people, coming from a time when there were few Indian restaurants in the country. Also, they would have been amazed that you can go into a supermarket and buy strawberries in December.
The Story of Food: An Illustrated History of Everything We Eat, with a foreword by Giles Coren, published by DK, £20