And so it’s here again, one of the greatest sporting events in the world, rugby’s Six Nations. Now I know this is a Hospitality blog so this post will look at the six competing nations from the view point of their food and drink.
As a Welshman myself, obviously I think that the food and drink of Wales (or Bwyd a Diod Cymru) is some of the greatest in the world. Welshmen are very proud of the country they are from, and the food and drink is of particular pride.
Welsh Lamb especially, but Welsh Beef as well, both have the prestigious PGI status, an indication of origin and more importantly quality. As well as contributing over £1bn to the Welsh economy every year, Welsh Lamb is used by chefs from all over London, the UK, and seeing Welsh Lamb on restaurant menus is ubiquitous and now expected! Outside of Welsh meat, Welsh cakes are a classic ‘homely’ dish, and every Welsh family will have their own unique recipe and take on it. My own recipe personally uses a dash of Brains Beer inside the batter…
Wales has a strong history of drinking, coming from the days of miners and working mens clubs, and of course match days down at the local rugby club or nowadays the big international days. Brains Brewery was founded in 1882 in Cardiff and it is now hard not to watch rugby without a pint of the”Toast of the Nation”! Penderyn Distillery near Brecon, has produced Single Malt Whisky since 2007 and can rival any great Scotch! Wales also make wine…
Verdict: Great all-round, with strengths in all areas. A strong contender.
Scotland can also boast an incredibly rich story of food and drink, and as half of my family are Scottish, I can vouch for a lot of this!
There are of course some not very complimentary opinions about Scottish food. The apparently ubiquitous deep-fried Mars Bar (I’ve not tried it) is the unfortunate stereotype of Scottish food, and once in Edinburgh I tried the “authentic local” dish of a Haggis Pizza. Scottish food is great though. We’ve all enjoyed a bowl of hot steaming porridge on a cold day, the simple combination of oatmeal and water working to perfection. Traditionally served with a dash of milk plus either sugar or salt, one particular relative of mine has his with a sprinkling of whisky on the outside.. Of course having just had Burns Night, the Haggis, ‘Neeps and ‘Tatties made its annual appearance in my kitchen, although me being me I had to a do a pretentious version of what is usually a very humble dish.
Scotland is of course known for it’s whisky, which has become one of the world’s most drunk spirits. With varying styles, flavours and characteristics, the world of whisky is as fascinating and diverse as traditional wine regions of France and the world. Personally I enjoy the whiskies of Speyside, which although it’s hard to generalise, generally offer lighter and sweeter whiskies. And from several family holidays to this area, I can confirm that one of the nicest smells in the world is when one can smell a distillery in action…
Verdict: Get’s a lot of bad press but some hidden gems make them possible outsiders
Ireland in its very nature and location has all the ingredients for world-class produce, ingredients and hence cuisine.
An emphasis on good quality local ingredients is what drives Ireland’s food and drink, with menu/food provenance taking more of an important step in modern culture. Chef and pioneer Darina Allen describes Irish food in the 1980s as; “At every meal you could have potatoes three ways on your plate, and the meat and gravy and that was it” (The Independent). Artisan farmhouse cheeses started in the monastic days but have rejuvenated now and is a distinct part of Irish food culture. Seafood is also hugely significant, with County Donegal and County Down Oysters being used all over the UK by chefs and restaurants, and the smoked salmon rivalling the best from Scotland and elsewhere. Soda bread is of course a staple of the Irish diet and is one of their best known products.
To talk about Ireland’s food and drink without mentioning possibly their most famous export would be foolish. Since 1799, when a ‘dark porter’ beer came to London from Ireland, Guinness has been drunk all over the world, in pubs, restaurants, and homes galore, and it’s distinctive appearance and taste makes this drink renowned and Ireland are proud to have it. It’s connection with rugby is also undisputed.
Verdict: A few big names but ultimately the Championship may be one step too far this year
With a capital city enriched by people from all over the world, different continents, countries, and regions, England’s food has undoubtedly been improved by all these influences, which is a far cry from the days when “British food” was considered awful and uninspiring.
People are now acutely much more aware of issues surrounding ethical eating, supporting local and regional produce, and using sustainable and quality products. As such, England’s regions are taking more pride in their produce, which is shown in the increasing appelations and protected statuses- Gloucester Old Spot Pork, Melton Mowbray Pork Pies, Herdwick Lamb, Stilton, Yorkshire forced Rhubarb, and of course the Cornish Pasty are all prime examples of the growing prominence and quality of English food.
Drinks-wise, Real Ales and Artisan Ciders are something distinctly English. Local breweries and cider mills are on the rise and produce some of the best beers in the world. English wineries are also starting to produce some special things. England has approximately 2500 acres of vineyards scattered around the South of the country, producing round about 2.5mn bottles per year. It is commonly known that the chalky soils of Sussex and the South Coast are the same as those of Champagne, and as such the sparkling wines produced by the likes of Nyetimber, rival the classic Champagne cuvees.
Verdict: Great strength in depth, can be inconsistent, but with the right game on, could be strong contenders.
Ah, Vive la France! Of course France has traditionally been the home of gastronomy, of food and of drink. Les plaisirs de la vie, n’est-ce pas? To talk in detail about every aspect of French cuisine would be impossible, and probably a whole blog in itself, but for the sake of this I will attempt at least a summary…
A plethora of traditional French dishes adorn the menus of most restaurants. The classics of French cuisine, the rustic dishes of Boeuf Bourguignon, Coq au Vin, Cassoulet, from the more elegant and refined food of Escoffier, the Roux Dynasty and Raymond Blanc (to name but a few) will always exist in one form or another, and the day when Chefs stop learning these classics will be a sad day. Most Chefs worth their while now have been so-called ‘classically-trained’, which simply translates as “taught how to cook by a Frenchman, in the French way”. There is nothing wrong with this, in fact there is so much right. We all like to enjoy a breakfast too with pastries, croissants and pain au chocolate. French food is and always will remain, classic.
To quote Jancis Robinson, “It would be as impossible to think of France without wine as it is to think of wine without France”. With names such as Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Chablis, the richness of France’s wine culture, both historically and presently, is abundantly clear. I wrote a dissertation of French wine culture (which I won’t bore you with), but the general consensus was that for the French, wine is a key part of their identity, and how this evolves will help redefine them in the years and decades going forward. Historically, the country is essentially ‘old-school’ in it’s approach to things, and food and drink is no different from that.
Verdict: A richness of past glories to reflect on, but this is not the year for a comeback
Having had different experiences of Italian food and drink, from being on holiday in the Dolomites in 2009 and being unable to find a pizzeria open (!), to today, working in a fine-dining Italian restaurant in Mayfair, it is fair to say my own opinion has changed somewhat over the years.
Italian food is incredibly popular in Britain, and a study from the Guardian in 2013, referred to Britain’s “obsession” with Italian food. They ask the question, “what makes pizza, pasta and overpriced Peroni such a recession-proof restaurant formula?“. The answer really, is that on the whole, the food is cheap and easy to make. How many times have we, as busy people, simply whipped up a quick bowl of pasta, or put a pizza in the oven? Yes it’s not going to be totally authentic, and may in fact cause offence to Italian people, but at the end of the day it is Italian food and we all enjoy it. The perception, thankfully for the refined regional cuisines of Italy, is changing, and that is exciting.
Italian wine is in many ways an antithesis to it’s rugby team. Whilst Italian rugby has not many players, with even fewer of them being world class, there are a lot of indigenous grape varieties in Italy, all of which have characteristics that make them useful and interesting. Barolos, Chiantis, Montepulcianos are present on most wine lists now, and the classic Italian cocktails of Negroni, Aperol Spritz and Americano are restaurant staples. Plus the Italians taught us about proper coffee…
Verdict: Always hard to predict but don’t be surprised to see a few feathers ruffled
THE SIX NATIONS OF FOOD AND DRINK 2016- RESULT:
(Where to watch the actual rugby: Time Out’s guide to ‘The Best Rugby Pubs in London’)