The Ministry of Food

Food - Bee Wilson lunches on the cheap with MPs

Portcullis House, the newish office complex for MPs on the banks of the Thames, has a strange air of unreality about it. On arrival, you put your bag through a conveyor belt, as if at an airport. Once inside the airy, glass-roofed atrium, you realise you have arrived in a peculiar alternate universe, where everything is almost like the outside world, only not quite. Here are those famously expensive fig trees, hired from Belgium at a cost of £150,000, whose foliage is surely too green and perfect to be true. These are flanked by rectangular stone fountains whose water barely ripples, so modern and chic is it. Portcullis House belongs to a cosmos where no one ever raises their voice and all men are called Lembit Opik. There is something paranormal about the canteen there, too.

When I saw the prices, I was shocked. A plate of pork escalopes with spicy apple chutney and a neat little castle of couscous costs just £1.85. Salmon fillet with lime, coriander, more couscous and a "spaghetti of vegetables" (which seems to be like julienne, only longer) was £2.40. For that amount of money, you could barely buy yourself a bowl of soup and a roll in the terrible cafeteria at the British Library - and if you did, it would be disgusting. Asparagus soup at Portcullis House costs 45p, the price of a newspaper! The building itself has drained the public purse of £231m for 210 MPs, which works out at £1.1m per MP, something that the National Audit Office is investigating. Someone should take a look, too, at the (nearly) free lunches on offer in the canteen. The subsidy on the food amounts to a kind of stealth bonus. Instead of allowing their ministers to take their full salaries, as the Conservatives did, new Labour gives them luxury armchairs and cheap salmon.

An even greater shock is that the food is rather nice, at least by cafeteria standards. The chefs sear the salmon before your eyes as you queue. Most of the food comes with those fashionable brown, chargrilled lines on it, and it all tastes extremely fresh and clean, though not exactly exciting. Various young spin-meisters in suits could be seen enjoying forkfuls of couscous (easy to chew, if unsightly, while talking) and bottles of Lucozade, chattering discreetly about Brown and Blunkett, looking forward to the second term. Stephen Twigg, whose seat may be in jeopardy at the election, crossed the atrium purposefully without stopping.

The Portcullis canteen is like a utopian version of Pret a Manger. There are the same little see-through plastic boxes in the cold section, but the things in them are much more tempting, and priced with infinitely more friendliness. You can get a little box of taramasalata for 55p, a box of green leaves for 60p, or a container of crisp-looking radishes, celery and spring onions for £1.10. For pudding, as well as various yogurts and chocolate bars, there are round boxes of apple and blackberry crumble (£1) or banoffee pie (£1.35), both of which look as if a robot had made them, but taste pleasant enough. A huge mug of coffee costs 35p. Strangely, you can't get cappuccino or espresso. Strange, because most of the cuisine, like that of Pret a Manger, represents an idealised mish-mash of global culture (Weight Watchers fajitas, cranberry frappe and Bounty bars). Had Robin Cook been taking his lunch in the canteen the day I was there, he would doubtless have chosen the Cajun spiced chicken with minted yogurt in a flour tortilla (£1.70). Chicken tikka masala was not on the menu.

Eating at Portcullis House brought home to me yet again the particular ineptness of the Foreign Secretary's comments on our "true national dish". Setting aside the patronising wishfulness of the tone and the inaccuracy of the idea that chicken tikka masala is "the most popular" dish in Britain (more popular than chips? I don't think so), his speech was depressing for its celebration of a dish that no one cooks for themselves at home, whether that home be Indian or English. Chicken tikka masala is the food of takeaways, ready meals and canteens. That ersatz red sauce signals the death of cooking for yourself; it is unreal food, of a piece with the clean, public platefuls served at Portcullis House. Here, food is what you get to punctuate and fuel your individual working day. However edible it may be, it has no intrinsic value, nor any roots in country or home.

In some strange, enlightened future, all the workers of Britain - no, all the workers of the world - will eat their lunch in a canteen like the one at Portcullis House. There will be no arguments, no kitchen chaos or burnt fingers. In this world, it might just be reasonable to say that chicken tikka masala is our true national dish - except that in this strange, fig-leaved atrium, the concept of nationality, like the concept of home cooking, can no longer exist.

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, John Prescott: sinking fast