From multicultural to medieval: could a no-deal Brexit change our food culture?

How our diets might morph, and how we might take inspiration from the recipes of the past. 

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Four ounces of bacon and ham. Two ounces each of butter, cheese and tea. Eight ounces of sugar, three pints of milk and a single fresh egg.

This, plus the slightly less appealing eight ounces of margarine and cooking fat and a pound of jam every two months, was the weekly ration supply for an adult during the Second World War.

You might balk at this for its scarcity, but perhaps you’re also clutching your chest at the thought of not being supplied oat milk, spirulina or spelt penne – or, for that matter, extra virgin olive oil, Roquefort and red wine vinegar.

Food culture in the UK has changed enormously in the last century. Health food and vegetarianism have been growing in popularity for the past decade or so, but it is also relatively recently that international food became so familiar to our palate and integral to our diet.

Italian cuisine found its way here in the Middle Ages (ravioli was a particularly popular). Indian food came to Britain in the eighteenth century, but until after the war remained exotic and privy to the upper class. It was in the Seventies and Eighties that ingredients such as mozzarella, basil and olive oil – previously sold only in chemists for ear wax extraction – began to enjoy more widespread popularity.

Though it might not be time to whip out the ration book just yet, with Boris Johnson in Downing Street and the possibility of a no-deal Brexit looming, we should not take for granted the presence of our multinational food culture.

No deal means we will no longer be able to trade with EU countries without paying import tariffs. All trading would become subject to the World Trade Organisation’s “most favoured nation” guidelines. In 2017, that would have meant a £9.3bn bill for the UK. Ingredients that we currently source from the EU may become harder to come by, and certainly more expensive.

So perhaps we will have to revert to the British food of centuries gone by. If 1940s rations sound retro, try again. There is something exotic and almost exciting about the sort of food that’s eaten in Game of Thrones by fur-swaddled lords, sitting at the head of a 40-seater table with greasy hair, their furrowed brow conveying that they are by no means concerned about any potential threat to their reign and without exception either gnawing on a chicken leg or spitting out grape pips.

Perhaps we will ditch the jerk seasoning and instead simply stuff chlorine-washed birds inside other chlorine-washed birds (in 2017, 23 per cent of our spices were imported from the Netherlands and Germany). We can season the jolly British bird bundle with rosemary and onion from our gardens and cook it in pure lard.

Assuming these scenes are in some way supposed to represent the Dark Ages, fast forward a few centuries for some fresh inspiration. Many of the avocados sold in Britain are imported from Spain. We could always swap avocado on toast for dripping on toast for breakfast a la Industrial Revolution.

The Victorians also enjoyed plenty of delicious soups – cream of essentially any vegetable you can think of. If you don’t fancy cream of celery, seasonal vegetables in the UK should also allow for Southeast Asian broths like pho and ramen. Spring greens, spring onions and mushrooms are all grown in the UK during the winter.

Cream of cucumber is one of the more vintage-sounding options that was consumed in the nineteenth century.

But for the most reckless British recipes – the ones with absolutely no shame – we should look to the 1970s. Rocket was on the cusp of entering the mainstream, and we were very much in the thick of tinned meats. (Anything tinned is possible to stockpile, so take note.)

Recipe options from this era include: a pithivier of eggs mixed with peas and tinned chicken soup; jellied salad; tinned hot dogs chopped up and mixed with various vegetables; cheese sauces topped with crisps. The ultimate Seventies dish might be tricky, though. Pineapples are imported from outside the EU, but in 2016 the UK imported 93,000 tonnes of cheddar cheese from Ireland, so cubes for cocktail sticks could be in short supply.

What about our beloved pasta? It’s seen a huge surge in popularity in recent years and is a diet staple for many millennials – particularly because of the increase in number of vegetarians and vegans. Dried pasta is easily hoard-able, and you can make it fresh with eggs and flour. But the sauces might be a problem – 80 per cent of tomatoes in the UK are sourced from the EU. Even more troublingly, so is almost all of our olive oil. As for parmesan… well, best not to think about that.

The easiest and most delicious recipe in the world – cherry tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, garlic, salt, sugar, parmesan, pasta – may no longer be so easy, though sadly this will only make it more delicious.

On the upside, it may be that the food shortages we could experience in the event of no deal will be conducive to a more environmentally friendly vegetarian diet. But we take for granted the presence of international dishes – and ingredients – in British culture.

Even Wetherspoons, which denounced all European beer and wine in its pubs in favour of Brexit, depends on “small plates” (Spain) and pizza (Italy) for its food menu. Any adaptations we make will require creativity, whether we return to medieval banquets, workhouse gruel or ingredients encased in aspic.

Major retailers have been stockpiling tinned food for months in preparation for the worst; Unilever has reportedly been hoarding Magnums (Magni?), so it’s not going to be one egg a week quite yet. But aficionados of halloumi fries, tapenade and bougie pizza toppings shouldn’t be too complacent. We could be heading for a very different Britain.

> This piece is from our Know Your No Deal series on the different ways a no-deal Brexit will impact the UK

Emily Bootle is the New Statesman’s editorial assistant.