You probably already know that British drinking habits are less than savoury, but even so, it might come as a shock to learn that they are the worst in the world. The latest Global Drug Survey found that Britons report getting drunk almost once a week, meaning that of the 36 countries surveyed, we topped the global league for binge drinking.
Now that I come to think about this sad indictment on our attitude to alcohol, I’m not that surprised. If you ask me, the classic British separation of alcohol consumption from food consumption is sure to be at the heart of it.
It wasn’t until I lived in France that I realised how off British drinking habits are. Although total alcohol consumption there is fairly high, the French typically drink alcohol with a meal, or as part of an aperitif, where it’s normal to serve light snacks of some kind – think olives, charcuterie, little canapés, a tiny quiche.
In the four years I lived in France, I don’t remember ever seeing anyone who was drunk. Like the rest of mainland Europe, the French do not admire drunkenness, and they would see British-style bragging about how drunk you’d been as decidedly uncool.
It’s the same story in Italy. Of course, Italians set great store by ‘la bella figura’, or making a good impression, and inebriation is not a good look. Italy also drinks its way through a lot of alcohol, but when you order drinks in a bar, they are accompanied by snacks like small pizzas, mini bruschetta, ribbons of ham or pastries. Italians assume that when you’re drinking, you also want to eat.
Of course, you can still get steadily plastered if you drink through a multi-course Italian or French meal, but the alcohol’s effects are somewhat mitigated by having food in your stomach. And the slower, more convivial pace of a civilised meal is a check on the rate of alcohol consumption.
Now cut to the UK, where nobody bats an eyelid if you drop into a pub after work and down two or three pints, a couple of cocktails and a few glasses of wine in close succession, generally on an empty stomach. And no, I don’t consider a packet of crisps or pork scratchings as food fit for the job of lining my stomach.
To be honest, when people invite me out to the pub, my heart sinks. It might sound wet, but a coffee or tea date has much more appeal. It’s not that I’m antisocial, I just know that I can’t handle – and don’t enjoy – an alcohol-only experience. Another pint? I’m struggling to get through a half.
Unlike Inspector Morse, who drew deep satisfaction from a liquid lunch, I miss food in the pub equation. I have tried, I really have, to get through the torture of food-less pub socialising by choosing a non-alcoholic drink. But the choice in British pubs and bars is pathetic, and ranges from fruit juices and cordials to lemonades and ginger beer – all very sweet and brimming with food-engineering fakery. Inevitably, I arrive home sober and hungry, while everyone else seems jolly and appears to have forgotten about eating entirely.
Looking again at the global booze rankings, I note that although the UK is the drunkest country, the USA, Canada and Australia all closely follow. This just further confirms my suspicions that English-speaking nations following Anglo-American consumption patterns have a fundamentally warped and unhealthy attitude to drinking that’s rooted in the disassociation of alcohol and food consumption.
Public health authorities can preach to the nation about ‘responsible drinking’ and alcohol restriction until they’re blue in the face, but they’re up against a deep-seated cultural problem here. Maybe a different message entirely is needed: eat when you drink!
Read more articles by Joanna Blythman
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Do you think alcohol is better with food? Leave a comment below…
Good Food contributing editor Joanna is an award-winning journalist who has written about food for 25 years. She is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4.