The Realm Of The Senses

London's borough market doesn't seem to be the sort of place you'd go in search of unbridled sensuality. On a gray winter day, the wind from the Thames wafts the smell of rotting cabbage through the arcades. Worn Victorian signs advertise wholesale potatoes. But nearby, hedonism reigns. At the Cook & Konditor bakery, a queue of hungry office workers on lunch break waits for takeout Thai noodle salad and curried parsnip soup. They contemplate the Parmesan shortbread and jars of figs ranged along the counters. Around the corner, at the Neal's Yard Dairy, some civil servants are eying fat wheels of succulent Cooleas and creamy "New Wave" cheeses like T'yn Grug. "I come here every weekend with my son," says one man in hushed tones. "We walk down here together, just to look."

Once upon a time in Britain, food was simply something you ate. Industrialized early, Britain became a country of cities and factories well before the Continent, and Britons got used to eating from tins. In the '40s and '50s, 15 years of war rations locked in the tradition: food was consumed, but it wasn't consuming. "I would never have dreamt of discussing a dish at the table with my parents," says cookbook writer Nigel Slater. "Food was just something you wouldn't talk about."

Now Britons won't shut up about it. Last week the debate over "Frankenstein foods," as the tabs christened genetically modified crops, reached fever pitch in the papers and Parliament. Resisting calls for a moratorium on genetically modified crops, Tony Blair's Labour government tried to convince a frightened public that GM foods were safe to eat. But, then, the British nation is used to reading about food: every week newspapers and magazines publish roughly 40,000 words on food. Books on eating and drinking now account for more than 10 percent of all nonfiction sales. The 43 food programs on British television range from the elegant exoticism of "Ken Hom's Chinese Cookery" to the slapstick of "Ready, Steady, Cook" or "Two Fat Ladies."

It's not just that Britons have discovered good food. It's that the stuff has suddenly become a national obsession, nestling squarely between New Labour and football as topic A at dinner parties and gyms. People who used to think about God, Bosnia and fringe theater have shifted their focus to pancetta and salsa verde. With articles like "What Is the World's Greatest Caramel?" Sainsbury's Magazine--sold at the supermarket chain's checkout counters--has a readership of 2.8 million, nearly three times that of The Times. Sunday magazines feature spread after sexy spread of juicy roast peppers, melting goat cheese or steaming tamarind curries. If Diana's death revealed a willingness for Britons to emote, the new gastronomic revolution is revealing their willingness to eat. Observes Nigella Lawson, author of "How to Eat": "We are all Tuscans now."

What produced this infatuation? Start with Britain's sea change from a largely Anglo-Saxon nation to a multicultural European one. Mix in the new ease of travel, which broadens gastronomic horizons. Add the power of television, newly chic supermarkets and a new sensitivity to what one ingests brought on by a series of food scares. And voila: food is hot. "Ten years ago at a club, you'd tell people you were a fashion designer," says Eric Treuille, a French chef who moved to London in the mid-'80s. "Now all the designers are telling people they're chefs." In the 1980s, small cults formed around handsome chefs who launched high-profile restaurants in Britain's capital. "In the '80s, it was restaurant as temple," says Lawson. "You venerated the chef. You were reverential towards the food. It was designer meal as sacrament. But as in most religions, people were made to feel like unworthy sinners. Diners felt like unworthy eaters."

Or nervous ones. While the celebrity chefs were busy feeding royals and rock stars, Britain was traumatized by a series of food scares. In 1988 the junior Health Minister Edwina Currie announced that most of Britain's eggs were infected with salmonella. In the decade that followed, the British public learned that some of their beef was infected with BSE, or mad-cow disease, and E. coli, and that some of their soft cheeses carried Listeria. Food suddenly became dangerous--and politically charged. The Tory party's inept handling of the mad-cow crisis helped lose it the 1997 election. Memories of the BSE crisis no doubt haunted Tony Blair and his ministers last week, as they wrestled with a food scandal of their own. The genetically-modified-food hysteria is one sign of Britons' fierce new interest in food. Other indications: with funding from unions and city councils, communities have started farmers markets. And over the past four years, organic-food sales have shot up from £100 million to £260 million.

Some people look elsewhere for reassurance. For a quarter century, Delia Smith has helped Britons navigate the kitchen, coaxing them to cook with sensible titles like "Frugal Food" and "One Is Fun." Her followers love the petite 57-year-old because her dishes are dependable and unassuming. "Delia might possibly come across as boring," concedes Padma Moorjani, a Nottingham scientist who took up cooking five years ago. "But she demystifies cooking. All her recipes work." Her loyal readers (10 million in the U.K.) and television viewers see to that. After Delia featured eggs in her fall series "How to Cook," Britain went out and bought an extra 54 million eggs in the six weeks that followed the show. When Delia mentioned that a particular omelet pan was "a little gem," sales of the item shot up by 44,900 percent.

Pleasure has crept into parts of Britain where it wasn't welcome before. A hard-left member of Parliament, Ken Livingstone, writes a weekly restaurant column in The Evening Standard under the jaunty title "Ken Livingstone, I Presume." "It used to be there was an embarrassment if you were a socialist if you were seen to eat well," says food columnist Craig Brown. "Now it's the reverse." Indeed, the revamped attitude to food echoes the refurbishment of the Labour Party. If the old left wanted a redistribution of wealth, the new left wants to give more people the chance to make it. And if there's a unifying cry for both Tony Blair's New Labour and the food evangelists, it's that Britain's ever-expanding middle classes should have the chance to live well.

To be sure, every revolution has its limits. Britons still spend less of their incomes on food than other Europeans, and organic farmers say business is briskest among childless Yuppies in the prosperous south. Basil Hughes, a retired dairy farmer in north Yorkshire, reckons he's had only three Chinese meals in his life. His wife, Margaret, says their trip to Italy last year might mean they drizzle a little more olive oil on salads, "but we're still 'meat and two veg' kinds of people deep down." But mangoes, fresh tagliatelle and sun-dried-tomato chutney are at the local supermarket, just in case the Hugheses get a craving.