Wednesday July 25, 2012

LONDON -- Boiled potatoes, stringy beef and overcooked vegetables. If that's your impression of British food, you're not alone.

The country hosting the Summer Olympics has an international image as a culinary wasteland, but with hundreds of thousands of tourists, athletes and journalists de scending on London this week, British chefs and tourism chiefs hope to change that dire reputation.

"London is one of the three best cities in the world to eat in right now," said Heston Blu menthal, an ebullient celebrity chef who has been instrumental in challenging Britons' palates with his mad-scientist enthusiasm for innovative "molecular gastronomy."

"But if people haven't been to Britain for 15 years or 20 years, they're going to go ‘Oh my God, it's horrible,"' he admitted.

Blumenthal, whose Fat Duck restaurant in the southern England village of Bray is consistently rated among the world's best, has been hired by British Airways, along with chef Simon Hulstone, to create special Olympic menus celebrating British food to be served on flights this summer.

Starters include mackerel with pickled cucumber and golden beetroot and peppered goat's curd salad; mains range from fish pie with parmesan pomme puree to braised British beef with mustard and horseradish mash.

The recipes seek to combine strong flavors -- rare in airplane meals -- with British traditions harkening back to 1948, the last time London hosted the Olympic Games.


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In the athletes' dining hall, competitors can chose from British, European, Mediterra nean, African and Caribbean dishes, with Halal, Kosher and low-salt meals available.

Spectators can sample British favorites such as roasted pork on a roll, Red Leicester cheese and apple chutney sandwiches and cod and chips -- as well as international fare such as pizza, Singapore noodles and jerk chicken wings.

Across Britain, there is a new pride in local food.

"From sticky toffee pudding from Cartnmel to oysters from Whitstable, salt marsh lamb from North Wales, or smoked salmon from Scotland, our food is key to our cultural identity," Prime Minister David Cameron said at a reception to celebrate British cuisine. "Bri tish food showcases our heritage, openness, creativity and diversity."

It's a big change for a cuisine that, according to food historian Ivan Day, really did live down to its image.

The decline began in the late 18th century, when the Industrial Revolution forced millions of people off the land and into cities, where many lost touch with old ways of growing and preparing food.

In the decades that followed, World War I killed hundreds of thousands of Britons, including many skilled cooks, bakers and butchers.

World War II left the country victorious but impoverished -- "a Third World country with a cold climate," Day said.

Food remained strictly rationed for several years after the war.

Immigration has transformed British cuisine to such an extent that chicken tikka masala, a hybrid Anglo-Indian curry, is often called the country's national dish.