I think of myself as patriotic. Those who know me might be surprised by that, but patriotism can be defined in a number of subtly different ways. It has in the past been considered a distinction from religion: a love of the state greater than the love of one’s God. It may be viewed as a sense of duty to one’s monarch or government, although one that usually quickly evaporates when the buff envelope from Revenue & Customs arrives. It can be distended to become nationalism, which is essentially xenophobia in nicer clothes. In many people it can be characterised as illogical, unthinking loyalty based on nothing more than an instinctive, evolutionary desire to protect that which is genetically similar to oneself.
My brand of patriotism is none of those, although I could be accused with some justification of the latter. I have always had the desire to see competitors from my home country succeed in any sport: this is simple indoctrination, an inherited tribalism, as with most of these athletes I share nothing but one word on my passport; yet I gain pleasure at their successes and feel sympathy when they get unjustly knocked out in the semi-finals.
I robustly defend the British way of spelling, vigorously protecting the presence of the additional letters in words such as flavour, aluminium, dialogue and jewellery, and upholding the right of the S to sound like a Z when it wants to. There is no logic in this, and the argument that the British way is somehow better is no more substantive than the archaic and increasingly futile French insistence on creating a new Gallic-sounding word for every new invention and concept that arises; but I will continue tutting when my word processor belligerently puts a red squiggle underneath favourite, reorganisation and programme, just as I stubbornly continue to correctly punctuate text messages.
I gain smug satisfaction from the British reputation for humour that the rest of the world doesn’t quite get; I get a thrill from seeing British actors in American films, and increasingly TV series; I am pleased to hear of British companies doing well abroad, even when they are in morally questionable industries such as “defence” and oil.
But my innate, unintelligent patriotism is slowly becoming a more informed, thoughtful variant. The more I learn about the world, the more I feel a genuine sense of privilege for the accident of birth that allowed me to grow up in the UK. I remain liberal in my thinking, although I will allow a natural tendency towards conservatism as I get older and better off; I naturally try to find middle ground, compromise, and in my view Britain generally fits that mindset. We represent a halfway-house in many respects between the popular stereotypes of America and Europe.
We are also blessed with a great many benefits that accrue from living in an advanced, democratic economy. We have a health system free at the point of use, an obligatory education system, an infrastructure that supports relative wealth and health for the majority of UK citizens, a military capability and diplomatic network that maintains a global political influence far in excess of our geographical size and economic power. We can publicly say what we like, as long as we don’t incite hatred in each other. We have a direct influence over who runs our town, our county, our country.
All these things can suffer under comparison with equivalents in some other countries of course, and many people would debate loud and long over the relative merits of our civic services and nature of our democracy; but taken as a package I am increasingly grateful for what I have as a UK national, and I consider the perfectly reasonable taxation regime a fair price to pay for the many benefits of living here.
One further benefit has only recently become apparent, since my wife gave up meat. We have always enjoyed travelling, and food has been an essential part of every foreign excursion we have been on. But in the Autumn of 2009 we went abroad for the first time since my wife’s new-found vegetarianism, to the majestic, ornamental city of Madrid.
It became very clear to us, very quickly, that vegetarianism is not popular in Spain. It is a nation of meat-eaters; the home of chorizo, Iberico ham, paellas with a whole rainbow of flesh. Ordering food as a vegetarian is something of a game of chance; one salad tapas that we ordered turned up strewn with unheralded flakes of tuna, and thusly warned we were careful to ask thereafter whether apparently vegetarian items on the menu were hiding fishy surprises. Having been advised though to try an ostensibly vegetarian restaurant, the discovery of only one starter and one main course on the menu my wife could eat was something of a disappointment, summing up the culinary side of the trip.
A little research afterwards highlighted that Spain will not be our only problem if food is to be a central part of future holidays. In European destinations, only Italy has a significant proportion of vegetarians; Germany and Holland have large ratios but are unlikely holiday venues for their respective cuisines. India, which one might assume would be good hunting ground, depends largely on geography: coastal states and those with largely Muslim populations are apparently not veggy-friendly, something I noticed when in Calcutta on business a few years ago. China’s government pushes meat-free days but the culture considers meat to be the preserve of the well-off, so decent restaurants tend to have largely meat-based menus. So future trips will have to be more carefully planned, or my wife might have to become a part-time pescetarian.
So what I now love about living in the UK compared to most other countries is the variety of cuisines that our cosmopolitan society encourages, meaning that it is easy to have a varied diet whether eating in or out as a vegetarian.
To encourage our friends in Spain to embrace the benefits of meat-free dishes, I’ve had a stab at converting an old favourite Spanish meal of ours. The cheese isn’t Spanish but Manchego melts rather than toasting and I haven’t come across another local cheese that would work.
Veggy paella (serves 2)
- One onion
- Clove of garlic, crushed or finely chopped
- Splash of oil
- One sweet red pepper, preferably a pointy one like a Romano
- 150g halloumi, sliced thickly
- 2 tbsp frozen peas
- Pinch of saffron (optional)
- 1 pt veg stock
- 250g paella rice
- 1 tsp paprika (smoked makes a nice variation)
- Splash of pale dry sherry (optional)
- Half tsp turmeric
- Handful of sliced, sun-dried tomatoes, preferably the oily ones in a jar
- Handful of chopped black olives (leave them in even if you don’t like them, they add to the flavour, just don’t eat them)
Toast the halloumi until golden-brown and put to one side. Soak the saffron in the stock. Fry the onion and garlic until soft. Add the pepper and fry for a minute, then add the rice and stir-fry for another two minutes. Add the paprika and turmeric, stir through and add the sherry, then the stock, peas and tomatoes. Simmer uncovered for around 20-25 minutes, adding the cheese halfway through, only stirring through at that point (paella, unlike risotto, is not supposed to be stirred while simmering). Add more stock or water if the paella dries out during cooking.