Interview: Simon Rimmer on Channel 4's Britain's Favourite Food

Sunday Brunch presenter Simon Rimmer is undertaking a major task for Channel 4 in a brand new documentary, Britain's Favourite Food.

Simon tells us more...

Explain a bit about what Britain’s Favourite Food is about…

The starting point was one of those bizarre conversations where you go “Do you remember when you were a kid, you’d eat blah blah blah.” This particular conversation was about Angel Delight, and how I was obsessed with Angel Delight as a kid. And then it came to “What was actually in it?” “No idea.” It’s made with magic! And then you go on a whole nostalgia trip of Ski yoghurts and Babycham and all the things that feature on the show. So in the one hand it’s this really lovely nostalgic trip down memory lane, but then there’s also a lovely social history element to it as well. It was a joy to make, I loved it.

What foods did you find had stood the test of time well, and which ones had dated badly?

Angel Delight, which I still like, you can still buy. You can still get Marks and Spencer’s chicken Kiev. The ready meal is still massively, massively prevalent, so I suppose that one has worked really well. Blue Nun – our taste in wine has changed so dramatically, no-one wants that sweet flavour anymore, so that’s kind of gone by the wayside, although having said that, Blue Nun and Piat d’Or are very much responsible for the British change in alcoholic taste. We wouldn’t drink wine in the past, it was for foreigners. And then suddenly we were drinking wine, and now, of course, with the whole advent of New World wine, we drink more wine than anything else. So it may not have stood the test of time as a brand, maybe it’s important in how it changed our tastes. Smash? No, no-one has that anymore. Lean Cuisine – I suppose the diet industry is still massive, but now I think we’d be more likely to look at eating natural, healthy things rather than a processed product that’s very low in calories because it’s bloody tiny! Yoghurts are still popular, but Ski yoghurts have a lot of chemicals in them, so that has gone by the wayside. Babycham, again, nobody really drinks that anymore, because it’s sweet. But it was important in that it got women into the market place for alcoholic drinks. Prior to that, women didn’t really drink.

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What was your idea of a real foodie treat back in the day?

The thing that I was always really jealous of was when my mum and dad would have a Vesta Curry with crispy noodles on top. We didn’t have that as kids, because it was expensive, but mum and dad would get that as a treat. I remember being treated to that for my birthday tea, and just thinking that this was the greatest meal ever. Those crispy noodles on top – I felt like I was a king! We tried to do Vesta curries on the show, but it was one of those products that had got sold and re-sold, and the company that now owns it, we couldn’t get access to it. But that was a proper, proper treat for me back then, without a shadow of a doubt.

So when your mum and dad were tucking into a Vesta curry, what were you having?

Probably all the normal rubbish we had as kids – fish fingers or something.

Your parents feature in the programme. Was that fun, filming with them?

It was really good. My mum is the most hospitable person in the world. If you knocked on my mum’s door now, my mum would invite you in and make you a cup of tea and a scone. Guaranteed. So I said to mum “When the crew comes, we’re on a tight schedule, so don’t be making loads of stuff.” So we get there at 9:30am, and mum has made cakes, she’s made bacon sandwiches, she’s got tea and coffee on the go, and she’s laid it all out in the front room. She did everything I knew that she’d do. It was really nice though – I’ve been doing telly for 17/18 years, and it was nice to finally do something with mum and dad, and to do something in the house that I was brought up in. I loved it. I liked the fact that she told me off when I wasn’t whisking the Angel Delight properly as well.

It doesn’t matter what you achieve in your career, mum will always know best…

And make you feel like a 14-year-old child again.

Did you grow up in a culinary household?

Yeah, massively. My mum and dad were both good cooks. Even now, they both still cook. I was surrounded by food. Even though they did love a Vesta Curry and Angel Delight, my mum cooks fresh food every day. Both my grandmothers were really good cooks as well. Food’s always been a massive part of my life?

Do you think what you cook today is influenced by the foods you had as a kid?

I think maybe in some ways. Whenever I’m a bit poorly, I want to have the food from my childhood. I’m still a meat-and-two-veg kind of guy. A bit of meat with some gravy on, mashed potato, and some kind of mashed carrot and swede. That’s definitely from growing up. But in terms of the food I cook, maybe not – I think as we get older, we’re all too concerned about getting fat. And I can’t ever imagine giving my kids fish fingers and chips on a regular basis. We certainly don’t have a chip pan.

What has changed about how we eat today, compared to 1970s? And why? Is it because we’re more health conscious, or more international?

I think a combination of both of those things. I think one of the things that’s important about the 70s is that the rise in convenience foods came about at a time when more women were going out to work. The breakdown had begun of that formal structure where dad goes out to work and mum stays at home. So many women were involved in the workplace and yet they were still 90 per cent of the time, the person in the household who did all the cooking. So the rise of products that were convenient was really important – it changed the way society worked. It meant “Okay, I can go out to work, and on the way home I can pick up a Vesta curry, I can pick up a convenience food, I can whip up an angel delight in two minutes. I’m not having to bake for two hours, or make a curry for two hours. That was a very liberating thing. Whilst now you might look at those things and think they were full of chemicals, and there was no goodness. Now there’s much more focus on “What am I putting into my body? Is it good for me?” That’s one of the big changes. And the other one is down to travel. The 70s was the start of cheap holidays, and now we’ve all been to Europe, most of us have been further afield, so our experience and exposure to different types of food is massive. I think, as a result of that, we experiment more. Going back to my childhood, a ready meal was a curry or a lasagne. Now you go into M&S and you can buy Vietnamese, South Korean, Portuguese food, because we know what it is.

We’ve come a long way from the worry, revealed in your series, that chicken Kiev might be considered too exotic because it has garlic in it!

That was quite shocking, that! You can’t imagine it today, that garlic was considered the domain of dirty foreigners, and it wouldn’t be accepted here.

You look at the flavourists who use science to create flavours. What was it like, seeing how they create flavours synthetically?

It was amazing. That combination of ingredients to make something strawberry flavoured – and it doesn’t go near a strawberry. It’s both really stimulating and really quite frightening.

There are some amazing adverts from the time – it seems food isn’t the only area where things have changed!

We were more naïve and less savvy back then. An advert was something that was exciting – we’d embrace it. All the adverts for things like Ski, and the claims they used to make in them, and we’d go “Wow!” I can remember being excited by that, it was all new and shiny. We’re so cynical now! But in the 70s, it was quite a golden age for consumerism.

If we were going to look forward 30 or 40 years, rather than back, what will the future of food look like?

I have no idea! I suppose one of the main questions is how many animals we’ll be eating in 30 years’ time, if any at all. Will that end? Will we look back in 30 years’ time and go “Jesus Christ, you used to eat cows???” Is it a useful use of resources to use so much land and so much resource to feed an animal to then kill it and eat it? Would we not be better growing plant-based proteins on that land, and feeding more people? We are far more aware of what we’re doing to the planet, so I suspect that will lead to a change in the way we eat.

Britain's Favourite Food will air on Channel 4 on Friday 23rd March at 8pm.