Dear Jamie Oliver, poverty isn't picturesque by the Mediterranean either

The TV chef's remarks that "You go to Italy or Spain and they eat well on not much money" reveals a startling ignorance about what life is really like in Italy or Spain for those without much money.

In the middle of promoting his new television series millionaire television personality Jamie Oliver has gained a lot of publicity and caused controversy by expressing his frustration at the poor and their eating habits. He said: “I meet people who say, 'You don’t understand what it’s like.' I just want to hug them and teleport them to the Sicilian street cleaner who has 25 mussels, 10 cherry tomatoes, and a packet of spaghetti for 60 pence, and knocks out the most amazing pasta. You go to Italy or Spain and they eat well on not much money. We’ve missed out on that in Britain, somehow.”

This vision of the Mediterranean poor, making delicious soup, salads and desserts with left over bread and eating simple cheap fresh food is deeply engrained in the Anglo food fan's mind. The desirability of cocina povera, authentic peasant food made by poor people who show great ingenuity with access to not very much but are able to create delicious meals out of three cheap ingredients has spawned a multi-million pound UK and US industry of "authentic" Spanish and Italian food books, TV programmes and chains of restaurants. They offer the food of the deserving poor, the ones who manage well on very little. They have very little but look how desirable their lifestyle is, the story goes, we middle classes want to be them, what has happened to our poor? Why can't they be more like, say, the Spanish?

The poor are already being far more like the Spanish than we realise. In 2010 in the province of Barcelona, an area with a population of less than five million, more than 100,000 people were forced to use food banks for basics like rice, oil, tins of tomatoes, baby milk and other staples from one of three charitable food bank groups.

To get to the Spanish 2010 level of food bank use, we'd need to have three times more users than we have at the moment, at least one million more working poor would need to access food banks to make us more like Spain. Recent reports of an ever increasing in the use of food banks may enable us to get those extra million users.

Churches and civic centres have also opened "social dining rooms" to give people in their neighbourhoods the chance of a hot meal at lunchtime. People who can't afford to heat food, or have had their electricity and gas cut off as they haven't been able to pay their bills turn up between 12 and 2pm to eat the only hot meal they will get that day. In 2012 380,737 meals were served to 10,423 users in Barcelona, a city with a population of 3 million.

In my London neighbourhood of Walthamstow Frank Charles and Gary Nash set up Eat or Heat. As well as a food bank they try and draw attention to the plight of many in E17 who have to choose between heating themselves or their food in winter as they cannot afford the bill for both. Walthamstow also has a group running cooking classes, in a similar vein to ones run in Spain, to teach people how to cook simple cheap food using as little expensive electricity or gas as possible.

In 2011 a group of the best known chefs in Barcelona joined forces with a total of 48 restaurants to donate 50 cents of each tapa sold to a charity working with the newly poor in Barcelona. The project was headed up by El Bulli's Ferran Adria and his brother Albert, with major names like Sergi Arola, Carme Ruscellada and Carles Gaig taking the front stage. They have also released a book of recipes with all the funds going to the same charities.

Chefs in Spain are far more revered by the general public than here in the UK. They are seen as figures of great cultural importance and their co-operation with both charities and organisations promoting healthy eating is well known. The united front presented by these famous chefs would be the equivalent of Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, Nigella Lawson and the Hairy Bikers being on the same platform, using their time free of charge to promote a project with the aim of raising funds for the increasing numbers of working poor in the UK.

There would be no TV series, book tie in, restaurant or cooking school promotion opportunity. Some of the above celebrities would even send some members of their team to quietly, without press attention, help at social kitchens or food banks or classes while being on the celeb's payroll. They may even do it themselves. The help they gave to these charities would be ongoing, last far longer than their latest television series and be something that not very many people knew about outside of those directly working within the organisations. No chain of restaurants, magazines or expensive tomato plants would be sold on the back of the publicity that these "good works" would generate, as there would be next to none for any one individual.

The question, "why aren't they more like the Spanish?" is something I regularly ask people in the UK. I just ask it about different people than Jamie.

Jamie Oliver. Photo: Getty
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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit