Food trail: Made in UK, sold to the world

With a new Geographical Indication protection regime, Britain hopes food and drinks exports to nearly £25 billion

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Published: Thu 18 Nov 2021, 10:54 PM

Robin Cook, the former British foreign secretary, was often in the news for leading Britain’s interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, but he is more remembered in several quarters not so much for foreign policy initiatives, but for his declaration in a 2001 speech in London that Chicken Tikka Masala has become a “true British national dish”. There were several subtexts in his claim: “Chicken Tikka Masala is now a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences. Chicken Tikka is an Indian dish. The Masala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of British people to have their meat served in gravy.” Also implicit is the historical fact that English food has not had a good reputation. There is no distinctive English cuisine — the nearest is fish and chips, English breakfast, Sunday roast, Yorkshire pudding and sandwich (created to satisfy John Montague, the 4th Earl of Sandwich). But today there are many global influences and inputs.

The widely popular Chicken Tikka Masala (also known as CTM) was reputedly invented in 1971 by a cook in Glasgow after a customer complained that his chicken dish was dry. The cook simply poured tomato soup into the dish with some spices, the customer loved it, and CTM was born. CTM has since crossed international boundaries in Europe as well as in Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere, sought out by British expatriates brought up on the dish back home. Exported as ready meals from Britain or produced locally to specifications, it is stocked by local branches of international superstores with a large presence in Britain. CTM is one of several food and drink items that contributed over £23 billion in export revenue to the British economy in 2019 (pre-pandemic figure). So far it does not have Geographical Indication (GI) protected status, but may well be the subject of an application sometime soon.

Britain now has a new GI regime after leaving the European Union, offering three categories of protection: traditional speciality guaranteed (TSG), protected geographical indication (PGI) and protected designation of origin (PDO). There is strong evidence that such protections mean better prices for producers, while products with GI protection are subjected to extra audits to ensure authenticity for consumers.

GIs also promote a sustainable food system by promoting local approaches to food production. A form of intellectual property, GI is used to protect products which have a specific geographical origin and which possess special qualities or reputation as a result of that origin. GIs are most commonly used in relation to food and drink goods but the scheme also extends to agricultural products. Some of the best-known UK-based GIs include Cornish Pasty and Stilton Cheese. GI protection guarantees a product’s characteristics or reputation, authenticity and origin, and protects the product name from misuse or imitation.

An individual or business does not own a GI; any producer can make and sell a product under a registered product name if they follow the product’s specification and are verified to do so. A GI is different to a trademark: a trademark belongs to the business that registered a product brand for protection.

First post-Brexit GIs

Before Brexit, British items such as Jersey Royal Potatoes, Worcestershire Perry and Teviotdale Cheese were given GI status under the EU’s Protected Food Names scheme. Those already registered under the EU scheme transferred to Britain’s the new GI regime when the transition period ended on December 31, 2020. The first three items under the new GI regime joined the club of Britain’s most iconic products this year: Gower Salt Marsh Lamb (PDO), Cambrian Mountain Lamb (PGI) and Watercress (TSG). They join the register of 91 GIs from across the UK: 81 agricultural products, 5 grape drinks and 5 spirit drinks.

Produced using knowledge and skills dating back to medieval times, Gower Salt Marsh Lamb comes from lambs born, reared and slaughtered in the Gower area of South Wales. The meat gains its unique characteristics from specific vegetation and environment of the salt marshes on the north Gower coastline, where the lambs graze over long distances for more than half of their lifetime. It is a seasonal product, available from June until the end of December. The Gower salt marshes offer a unique environment to lambs, where they can graze over the vast flat expanses. Historically, north Gower salt marshes have supported thousands of sheep and are currently grazed by 3,500 lambs per year.

Says Food Minister Victoria Prentis: “Our new GI schemes guarantee quality and excellence for food lovers at home and around the world. I am really pleased to see Gower Salt Marsh Lamb gain protected status, and I can think of no better product to kick start our new scheme with. We want people, at home and abroad, to be lining up to buy British. I would encourage producers from all around the UK to apply to the scheme, so that we can celebrate and protect more of our excellent local produce, and ensure it is given the recognition that it deserves.”

The Cambrian Mountains Lamb derives its characteristics from lambs born and reared in the Cambrian Mountains area of Wales. The animals grow at a naturally slow pace, whilst grazing on hills and mountains during the summer and autumn. The meat is produced using a traditional ‘Hafod a Hendre’ system of farming, which dates back to the Middle Ages. The succulent and delicate lamb matures slowly over more than 16 weeks, before being sold to customers. Simon Hart, Secretary of State for Wales, says: “Wales’ range and quality of food and drink is renowned across the world. Guaranteeing the authenticity of Welsh food and drink helps cement our reputation for quality both at home and in new international markets.”

Watercress has been granted its special status thanks to its unique and traditional character, enshrined in its production methods, which have been associated with steadily flowing water for thousands of years. Historically, this crop has remained unaltered by selection and breeding, meaning that its unique flavour has remained largely unchanged for generations. The protection for Watercress means that only specific plants grown in flowing water can bear the name Watercress when commercially sold in Britain. Watercress with the botanical name Nasturtium Officinale is an aquatic/semi aquatic plant which still grows wild in streams and springs throughout Europe. The plant remains anchored in position to the base or on the side of the stream or spring by its root system so as not to be washed away. Commercial production simply replicates how the plant grows in the wild, using the nutrients from the flowing water. The traditionally grown crop is harvested from water and is characterised by soft mid-green, moist leaves which have an unbroken edge and an oval shape. The stems are crisp, slightly paler in colour and can have some lateral roots extending from the joints of leaves to the stem.

Keen to leverage GI protected items, agri-food products and other items for exports, the Boris Johnson government this week announced a host of measures, with a strategy called ‘Made in the UK, Sold to the World’, aiming to reach £1 trillion worth of exports by the end of this decade. Says International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan: “This is a defining moment in our national trading story. As we agree [on] ambitious new trade deals around the world, it is more vital than ever that businesses across the UK take advantage of these opportunities and unleash their full exporting potential. Our export strategy will help more businesses start exporting and help those who already export to sell more products to more countries. British farming is at the heart of our trade policy. Our food and drink is among the best in the world and as an independent trading nation we’re seizing new opportunities that were previously denied to us. We have already secured better access to lucrative Asian markets, including for UK beef in Hong Kong, Japan and the Philippines. We want people at home and abroad to be lining up to buy British.”

No GI for Birmingham Balti

Before Brexit, a concerted campaign was launched to get the TSG status under EU rules for Birmingham Balti, a style of cooking that first appeared in restaurants in south-east Birmingham around 1975, pioneered by the local Pakistani/Mirpuri community. Birmingham has one of the largest overseas Pakistani communities in the world. The Mirpuris brought with them their traditional method of cooking which is to slow cook meat on the bone (chicken, lamb and beef) or vegetables usually in an earthenware pot called ‘Haandi’ or cast iron receptacle usually called a ‘Karahi’ over a low heat. Haandis or Karahis are still available today though most restaurants require at least 45-minute notice to prepare. Gradually these restaurants became more frequented by non-Pakistani residents though their owners noticed that these customers were unhappy with waiting so long for their meals. In response, the chefs made three adaptations; first, the meat was ready prepared off the bone which meant it would cook faster; secondly, they stopped using the traditional ghee and replaced it with vegetable oil which they believed was preferred by the western customer for health reasons; and thirdly, they experimented with cooking the food at high temperatures because of the need to serve customers quicker.

According to the Birmingham Balti Association (BBA), it sought TSG status to “preserve this unique food, as a fusion between the traditions of South Asian and British cuisine”. One of Balti’s key features is that dishes are prepared in a thin pressed steel wok and served in the same, retaining its essences and heat. There is a Balti Triangle in Birmingham, which has become a tourist attraction over the years, where many restaurants and family-run joints offer Balti food. The term ‘Balti’ is a bit of a mystery as there is not only a place called Baltistan but it also means a bucket in Hindi and Punjabi. Some believe that the word emerged from weddings in Pakistan when, because of mass catering, meat was prepared in large buckets.

The UK government supported the BBA’s application, but Brussels turned it down in 2016, infuriating campaigners and lovers of Balti food. The EU’s ruling said: “Some different varieties of Balti are allowed; those varieties are not definitively identified. The colour of the dish changes (either lighter brown or more reddish) depending on which ingredients are added. The additional ingredients and spices may but not have to be added. It is therefore not possible to determine what the final recipe to be followed is.”

BBA’s Andy Munro, who led the consortium of Balti restaurants behind the application, said at the time: “This was a shameful way to treat such a well-loved British food institution. It shows crass insensitivity to the ethnic diversity of modern British cooking.

In the final analysis, they don’t ‘get’ that Balti is a method of cooking rather than a recipe albeit that every restaurant uses the same base ingredients, then overlaying this with spices of their own choice. It’s nonsense when you consider the Neapolitan Pizza has the mark when it’s just pizza dough, tomatoes, cheese and basil. It’s all a bit disappointing.”

Would the BBA apply for TSG protection now that Britain has its own GI regime? Munro says: “We probably won’t be applying for the GI UK mark because the current government team responsible [for it] say Balti is used for a variety of dishes and isn’t a discrete set of ingredients, completely missing the point that it is a method of cooking more than the ingredients. It’s disappointing that the uniqueness of the distinct style of cooking and the use of the customised bowl isn’t recognised. That is why I’ve launched a local initiative.”

A GI status for the Birmingham Balti appears unlikely in the near future, but is another example of subcontinental cuisine being modified to cater to the British palate over the centuries, since Sake Dean Mohamed from Patna opened the first Indian restaurant in London — Hindustanee Coffee House — in 1810.

(Prasun is a journalist based in London. He tweets @PrasunSonwalkar.)

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