Food Britannia off cuts: The first food blogger

Note: The follow is probably going to be cut from my forthcoming book – Food Britannia – for space and style reasons. However, rather than have it lie on the printing room floor as it were, I thought I’d post it here.  I’d be keen to hear your thoughts on it

The First Food Blogger.

Food, like football, fashion and philately, has enthusiasts; people who are interested in eating for eating’s sake rather than as a means to end. You’re probably one yourself, that’s why you’re reading this book. In the past to express a joy of eating earned the label of gourmand, and had vague associations with gluttony, pleasure in food was a sin. Few foodies these days would describe themselves as a gourmand, and those that do need a reality check. No, like many other hobbies the internet has allowed amateurs – in the original sense of the word, amour – to devote considerable time, effort and disposable income to exploring the world of food and telling us the results.  An awareness of food bloggers is now part of any eatery’s online strategy. Technology has allowed comments, photos, and opinions on what’s in their mouth to be broadcast before they’ve even finished chewing. Restaurants may fear this, but all that’s happening is a faster version of what people have always done, telling people about a good or a bad meal or cooking experience.

Back in 1995, we didn’t have mobile phones, let alone access to the internet, and multi-media meant typing a letter while listening to CD at the same time. What online activity there was was mainly confined to a few academic institutions and telephony companies. But the blokes (and it mainly was blokes back then) who used those early connections started asking and telling other each other where to get a good bite to eat. For younger readers and the less tech savvy, these conversation postings were all conducted on something call Usenet, which allowed like-minded folk gathered around a particular subject, think of them as proto-Facebook groups.

One of the earliest was on which Tim Duncan posted news of Daruma-Ya, a new Japanese restaurant opening in 1995. And where did this iconoclastic digitally-heralded opening take place? Not the Soho media land but on the docks of Leith, Edinburgh. Sadly Daruma-Ya didn’t survive, maybe Edinburgh wasn’t ready for the small clean refinement of Japanese cooking in 1995.

Another pioneer was Graham Trigg, who in 1994 inspired by the late Richard Binns’ French Travel books, put up a website.  “I started writing notes as dining out was expensive and as time passes all that’s left is a hazy memory and a receipt” says Graham. Graham’s background was in IT, and he was using a system called CIX, or Collaborative Information Exchange even before Usenet.  A project for the airline industry meant Graham had to understand web technology and how to build these new things called websites. Research, work and a personal interest came together. “My first Web site was built in early 1996 and reviewed 17 London restaurants” says Graham.

He also explored a few places outside the capital, for example eating both lunch and dinner at Gidleigh Park in Devon cooked by a 27 year old Michael Caines. The hotel was established by Paul Henderson and was one of the first to have a decent website, not doubt due to Paul coming from San Francisco to set up the place in 1977.

There’s some lovely reviews from the early days of ‘Cool Britannia’ British restaurateuring on Graham’s site. Think back to the mid 90s when the River Café seemed fresh, edgy and modern – Italian without the gingham tablecloths and canon-sized pepper mills. Graham has a 1996 review of lunch at La Tante Claire, then ran by Pierre Koffman, under whom Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White and Marcus Wareing all work at various points. It’s now the site of Gordon Ramsay Hospital Road. He also has notes on Pied a Terre,  another early adopter with a website in the late 1990s. And to those that think fine dining is expensive, Peid a terre’s degastion menu in 2001 was £65 for eight courses, and in 2009 it’s £85 for 10. Not bad. Finally there’s a lovely review of the Walnut Tree in Wales.

All this is remarkable because all this wasn’t that long ago, and though a lot of the venues Graham visited have gone – Coast, Bank etc – many are still there. Now nearly every restaurant has a website, if only with a phone number on it. I asked Graham how restaurant’s website have changed over the years he’s been viewing them.  “In the early days there was too much style over substance and no consideration for the connection speed of the customers i.e. dial-up. The big problem [is] content not being kept up to date, but to be fair this was, and still is, a global web disease.”

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These are my personal views and not those of Channel 4 or the BBC
March 2010

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