Mary Portas tracks world cuisine and outdoor dining trends

Mary Portas took another look at the British public’s shopping habits last Thursday (June 30), when she hosted episode three of Channel 4’s ‘What Britain Buys’.

In the series, the retail consultant meets buyers, trendsetters and consumers to find out what we’re spending our money on and why.

In last week’s episode, Mary tracked how our interest in international cuisine has developed over the years. She said: “Whatever your thoughts about Brexit, there’s no denying that immigration has changed the nation’s palate forever.

“Back in the ’60s, pasta was a suspicious foreign delicacy, olive oil was kept in the medicine cabinet and garlic was for warding off vampires.

“These days, many of the dishes prepared in British households are in some ways derived from international culinary traditions, with supermarkets stocking around 3,000 different authentic ethnic food products.”    

She spoke to Jonathan Moore, executive development chef at grocery multiple Waitrose. His job, she said, is to identify international food trends and bring them to the shelves.

She asked if there any trends that Waitrose has kick-started. “Hummus springs to mind for me,” he said, “because in the ’80s, we were the first supermarket to bring that to the British populace – and then it morphs and grows.”

Over 41% of us now have a pot of hummus in the fridge, making us the hummus capital of Europe. In fact, it seems we are more enthusiastic about international food than ever before: last year the market for ethnic ingredients was up by 10.5%.

Jonathan commented: “Within the UK you can go round and you can eat everything, from Columbian food to Mexican food to Greek food – and yes, obviously Italian, Chinese and regional Indian. You can eat your way round the world.”

But, Mary noted, it’s not just big supermarkets feeding our appetites for international cuisine. “Take a walk through any major city and you’ll find street food stores selling a mix of food, from tacos to sushi, pizza to Korean noodles. Britain is in the middle of a street food revolution.”

2005 MasterChef winner Thomasina Miers first fell in love with street food during a trip to Mexico as an 18 year old. Some 23 years – and as many restaurants later – the co-founder of the Wahaca chain of Mexican restaurants – operates in “Manchester, Liverpool, Brighton, Cardiff… and there’s street food happening in all those cities and further afield,” she said. “It’s everywhere.”

The British street food market is now worth over £600 million and it’s growing by 20% every year. And, Mary pointed out, “what makes it so exciting and dynamic is that this is an industry dominated by the under-30s”.

Thomasina confirmed this. “We were innovators when we started but now we’re more traditional. We’re quite a big restaurant group now and we’re being forced, with our menu innovation, to watch what the kids are doing – and it forces us to get better, which is good for the customer.”  

Mary said ‘Street Stall Britain’ is a reflection of our country’s multicultural identity. And, she added, the food revolution isn’t just happening on the streets – it’s happening in our back gardens.

“Once upon a time we were regarded as a nation of barbecue amateurs,” she recalled. “Well, not anymore, because this year us Brits are sharpening up our skills at the grill.”

According to Rob Brown, category reports editor of weekly trade title ‘The Grocer’, in the past year Brits fired up the barbie about 110 million times – that’s about two barbies per head of the population.  

He noted that one trend that’s really changing the way Britain barbecues is the US ‘low and slow’ movement (that’s cooking meat slowly on a low heat).

And now, he said, “it’s all about smoking your meat – people are spending thousands of pounds on huge smoker machines and they’re cooking big briskets, shoulders of pork and so on for several hours in their back garden.” (Sales of barbecue smokers rocketed 200% year-on-year in January for Amazon alone.)

“Why do you think we love this? Do you think it’s because we’re looking for a less formal way to eat?” Mary asked best-selling barbecue author Christian Stevenson.

“I think it’s partially social but also, it’s better food. When you’re smoking, you’re adding another ingredient – so you’re adding more flavour. Barbecuing, grilling and outdoor cooking are here to stay,” Christian said.

Rob concluded: “You just have to look at trends in home improvements to realise that people’s gardens are becoming a room in their own right in people’s homes. People are spending more and more time outside – and they’re enjoying cooking outside as well.”

In the next episode of ‘What Britain Buys’, which airs tonight (Thursday, July 7) at 8pm on Channel 4, Mary will be looking at how the latest trends have influenced the clothes we wear, the mobile phones we buy and the gifts we give.    

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