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Brits embrace 'gastroporn' but stay shy in their kitchens

LONDON -- Recipe books are bestsellers, cooking shows dominate TV and celebrity chefs abound in Britain — all signs of a major shift in culinary habits in recent years, even if many still struggle in the kitchen.

The trend, which some have dubbed “gastroporn,” is growing fast and is epitomized by the success of the latest book by popular television chef Jamie Oliver, which sold more than one million copies in just three months.

At the end of December, “Jamie's 30-Minute Meals” — accompanied by a TV series broadcast this month — became the biggest-selling work of nonfiction since industry monitor Nielsen Bookscan began keeping records in 1998.

Oliver is only one among a clutch of celebrity chefs who saturate the airwaves with their demonstrations of delicious recipes, as the nation once renowned for its awful food is glued to the television, rapt.

Experts question, however, whether the enthusiasm for cook books and television programs translates into action at home.

“There's never been so much interest in cooking and we've never talked so much about food,” said Martin Caraher, professor in the department of food policy at City University London.

“But we call it 'gastroporn.' People look at the cooks but don't necessarily put them into practice.”

The queen of gastroporn is the food writer and TV star Nigella Lawson — the wife of art collector Charles Saatchi — whose innuendos, sly smiles at the camera and provocative way of licking a spoon have won her many fans.

Despite such encouragement, and hit reality TV shows such as “Come Dine With Me” where a group of ordinary people compete to throw the best dinner party, Caraher believes British people are actually cooking less and less.

He points to the huge variety of ready meals and packaged food available in the shops, from stir-fry sauces in a jar to microwaveable curries.

'We Are Not Rubbish Over Here'

“The whole culture here is based in the notion of convenience around food. Even our cooking at home seems, for a lot of people, to reflect that convenience of opening packets and not cooking from scratch,” he said.

But with households tightening their belts amid a squeeze in public spending, food blogger Marie Rayner hopes more people will turn to home cooking — and use the celebrity-inspired recipe books gathering dust on the shelf.

“These people show us that we can have a really nice meal at home with not a lot of effort and sometimes not a lot of expense either,” she said.

When Rayner, 55, moved to Britain from Canada 10 years ago, “I was told that the food over here was horrible, that the only thing they could do right was roast beef.”

But she was pleasantly surprised and says her blog, “The English Kitchen,” is aimed at “debunking the myths of English cookery, one recipe at a time.”

“We are not rubbish over here, we do know the difference between good food and bad food and good cooking and bad cooking,” she said.

Her experiences are supported by the bible of gastronomy, the Michelin guide, which this year confirmed the top three-star ratings for four British restaurants, two of them run by chefs who have become television celebrities.

Heston Blumenthal, of “The Fat Duck,” and Gordon Ramsay, the star of “Hell's Kitchen” whose eponymous restaurant also kept its three stars, have made hit shows alongside Lawson and Oliver that have been widely exported abroad.

These chefs “put British cooking on the map,” said Jean-Christophe Slowik, the owner of the London restaurant L'Absinthe, who worked for 20 years with British star Marco Pierre White, the youngest chef to win three Michelin stars.

Slowik says British cooking has undergone a “phenomenal leap” in the past ten or 15 years, particularly in the improvement in local products.

However he admitted that Britain's reputation “is a heavy load that will be difficult to get rid of.”

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