Fashion in food is just as fickle as it is in clothing. When I grew up in Yorkshire, there was no such thing as foreign restaurants. All you could find was British cuisine with maybe a touch of French at the posher end of the market. Then gradually foreign restaurants started to appear. At first it was the Chinese and Indian restaurants where you would go to after a Saturday night at the pub. They were not the sort of place you would take a girlfriend though on a serious date. Things are very different these days, restaurants that sell just British food are in the minority and are almost unfashionable; you'd hardly take a girl to Harry Ramsden's for a first date would you?
How did this all happen?
As we started to venture abroad more for our holidays, so the taste for foreign food grew. Surprisingly, even though Spain was and still is a favourite destination for Brits, Spanish food did not seem to get a look in. That was probably because we did all we could to avoid the native cuisine on our visits to the country. We might have tried paella, but certainly not the more challenging dishes, such as octopus tentacles drowned in oil, or the bright red chorizo sausage. Hotels and restaurants knew this and catered for our British tastes by serving “international cuisine”.
Now though things are different and the Spanish invasion in Britain is gathering pace. Several supermarkets report that paella, tapas and chorizo are outselling Italian favourites such as lasagne and prosciutto. Asda says that sales of chorizo (as slices and sausages) are up 21 per cent on last year, with Parma ham up only 8 per cent; Tesco reports that Manchego cheese is growing each year by 9 per cent, while Parmesan plods at 1 per cent. At M&S, paella is now more popular than lasagne – not to mention British pies.
Ever so slowly, Spanish food culture crept into the British way of life. It began with tapas, little tastes of foods that did not challenge. Like babies, Brits were gently weaned on to patatas bravas and delicious ham and cheese croquetas. Moving on, boquerones fritas were similar to fried whitebait and actually calamares a la romana were not that bad really.
Tapas bars fit neatly into the lives of those who are strapped for time and cash, sitting somewhere between fast food and a three-course dinner. They also serve a healthier purpose than a pure drinking den, where five pints are downed over the evening with nothing but a packet of Golden Wonder crisps to soak it up. The British have – thanks to the Spanish – finally learnt to eat when they drink.