13 May 2021
By Neil Tidmarsh
Last month, Sainsbury’s in Truro, Cornwall, exhibited a photo advertising that typical West Country treat – the cream tea. There it was, in all its glory – fruit scone, topped with clotted cream, topped with jam.
Instant outrage. A fruit scone? Cream first? Then jam? Everyone in Cornwall knows that the jam goes on first, followed by the cream. And the scone should be a plain Cornish split. Only those heretics in Devon, those barbarians east of the Tamar, are ignorant enough to bake their scones with fruit, and then ruin them further by putting the cream on first.
Cornish sensitivities were already raw, following the video posted on the royal Instagram page last year which showed the Queen’s bakers leading with the cream and following through with the jam. Now social media exploded with proud but furious Cornish folk registering their protests. “How did this happen?” one of them exclaimed on Facebook. “Sainsbury’s should have known better!” The Cornish Live website spoke for them all when it tweeted “Sainsburys! What’s this? A fruit scone! With cream on first! Advertised in a Cornish store. The cheek of it! Do you think this is acceptable?”
Sainsbury’s, scenting blood, desperately tried to back-track. Rather feebly, it labelled the offending photo “an imposter” and tweeted “I’ve logged some feedback to the manager of the store to ensure they are made aware of this imposter and repair it accordingly.”
But the affair simply escalated. There was an inevitable reaction from Devon. The Devon Live website hit back. “Show some backbone Sainsbury’s!” it urged. “We need to educate people about how a cream tea should be constructed.”
Fighting talk. Who knows where it will end? Will the people of Cornwall and the people of Devon try to add each other’s blood and tears to the cream-tea ensemble? Each has been claiming it as their own since cream was first clotted; are the gloves finally off? No doubt the United Nations is even now drawing up contingency plans to send a peace-keeping force to the River Tamar.
The world is fragmenting. Old grudges are re-surfacing. Ancestral quarrels are being re-ignited. Ancient borders, forgotten for centuries, are being resurrected. It’s happening all over our planet. There were stories from Ukraine and from South Korea in the news recently to match the one from Cornwall.
In Ukraine, celebrity chef Levgen Klopotenko has applied to the UN for borscht – the beetroot and cabbage soup – to be officially recognised as part of his country’s cultural heritage. He and the government have assembled a 700 page document arguing that it’s their national dish and deserves a place alongside Ukrainian Petrikyvka painting, Kosiv ceramics and the Cossack songs of the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
There’s only one problem; Russia argues that borscht is in fact a Russian dish. A spokesperson for the Russian foreign ministry tweeted that it is “one of Russia’s most famous and beloved dishes and a symbol of our traditional cuisine.” But Mr Klopotenko remains undaunted. “A lot of things have been taken away from Ukraine” he said, “but they will not take our borscht. It’s not Russian. It’s 100% that it’s Ukrainian. No doubt, borscht is in our DNA.”
Last month, the world was worried and puzzled by a sudden and massive build-up of Russian troops and materiel on the Ukrainian border. Could the barney over the borscht have had something to do with it? Do we now have an explanation for that otherwise mysterious threat to renew hostilities? The withdrawal of those massed Russian forces from the border a week or two later was equally puzzling; was it the consequence of both nations agreeing some sort of deal over the dish to de-escalate the crisis? The latest Russian announcement about it – their embassy in the US tweeted “Borscht is a national food of many countries, including Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Romania, Moldova, and Lithuania” – certainly suggests that a spirit of compromise is in the air.
A similar conflict has erupted between South Korea and China over the fermented cabbage dish which the South Koreans call kimchi. A young South Korean called Hamzy, who apparently earns a living by binge-eating on YouTube (a phenomenon known as ‘mukbang’ – your columnist is insanely jealous of the career opportunities open to today’s youngsters), found herself rather than her ingredients in hot water last month when she ‘liked’ the description of the kimchi dish she was eating as typically Korean. Her millions of Chinese fans turned on her, insisting that kimchi (or pao cai as fermented cabbage is called in Mandarin) is Chinese, and her Chinese social media agency dropped her.
This wasn’t the first time these two countries have clashed on the kimchi battlefield recently. When the Swiss-based global food standards regulator IOS praised China’s fermented vegetables earlier this year, China’s nationalist tabloid the Global Times made the most of it, congratulating the Chinese people as the originators and finest producers of fermented cabbage, ie pao cai, ie (as the South Koreans understood it) kimchi. Cue outrage from South Korea. The IOS report had specifically excluded kimchi from its comments on China’s fermented vegetables, no doubt anticipating this international crisis and hoping to pre-empt it. But the hope was in vain. Fermented cabbage is fermented cabbage, and everything else is mere semantics. South Korea took the Global Times comments to be deliberately and gloatingly provocative, from what many consider to be a mouthpiece of the CCP. South Korea insists that kimchi is its national dish, originating there and re-christened as pao cai only after it had found its way north to China.
China’s troublesome protégé and client North Korea has started rattling its sabres again recently, once more threatening its southern neighbour with its literal and rhetorical fireworks after a rare period of quiescence. Most commentators think this is Pyongyang sounding out the new resident of the White House; but could it in fact be a message from Beijing to Seoul about fermented cabbage?
Whatever next? With an East/West cold war looming, will Beijing pretend that tea originated in China, and try to claim it as its national drink? No, that would be too absurd. Everyone knows that tea is our national drink. There’s nothing more British than a nice cuppa, is there? Especially with a scone, and a dollop of clotted cream, and lashings of jam… no, hang on… is that right?
Cover page photo of borscht: Liz West (Creative Commons).