Happy birthday The Grocer! If only I were the proud owner of every issue published. Then this article might have been easier to write.

Our changing tastes over the past 150 years in 2,000 words - please allow for some simplification, a chicken without the bag of giblets inside, if you will, as travel, urbanisation, invention, technology and economics have all strongly influenced the fine buffet that is British food history during this time.

The way we ate in 1862, where this begins, was about availability rather than choice as we understand it today. Taste the difference? Forget it! Variety was for the wealthy, whereas eating for most was purely a matter of practicality - and for many, a matter of survival. The national diet was based around cereal crops, vegetables, dairy, beer and a little bacon. Pig was the animal of choice, as it grew quickly on household scraps, needed little space and produced considerably more young than a cow. Meats were more an occasional ingredient than a daily expectation - prime cuts or offal, depending what you could afford. Pies and stews were often bulked out with vegetables, and a joint was not one meal but a few. Soups, bread and dripping, potatoes, pastry and cheese were the daily staples. Sugar was expensive and honey was a popular sweetener.

I think of food then in shades of brown. Women on the whole did the cooking and for all of us, whether in town or country, our far more physical lives meant food was primarily a commodity to keep the human engine burning, rather than a snack -munching distraction in a swivel chair. This is not to say we did not enjoy our food, but it was monotonous by today’s standards and a space age away from the confusing range of flavours we experience between breakfast and dinner in 2012.

Today, seasonality is a buzzword that implies common sense, eating in harmony with your land while supporting UK farmers. It has become an aspirational idea of anti-choice and the good life. In 19th-century Britain, despite increasing reliance on imports, British cooking was seasonal purely by necessity.

Until roads and cars carved up the quiet places, people living in rural communities rarely travelled out of their localities except to hawk their wares, trade livestock or maybe find a wife. Each county was famous for its fruits or meats, dairy or fish and the regional dishes that subsequently evolved from these. On the whole, people ate what they were immediately surrounded by and little else. A very specific and intricate knowledge of nature was used, particularly by country folk, to supplement their tables or earnings from the wilds around them. Practices and recipes were handed from generation to generation so a family could prosper or survive. The land was in our bones.

By 1862, about 60% of the nation was living in towns and cities, moving to find work in the booming industrial revolution. By 1901, only a fifth remained in the countryside. And this urban growth in the Victorian age prompted the decline of cooking at home, Clarissa Dickson Wright notes, as people became more reliant on cook shops, stalls, markets, potato stands, coffee houses and tins of corned beef and the like. Fish and chips were, by now, greasing many a finger as urban dwellers became removed from the source of their food and relied on others to make it.

There was still an implicit understanding of cooking and the value of food, as next to nothing was wasted, compared with the estimated 30% we throw away today. When meat could be afforded, the concept of nose-to-tail eating was as obvious as getting up in the morning. We knew what to do with the bits that today we care not for, or at least someone else did.

Empire building saw large cargo shipments of spice, sugar, coffee, tea and fruits. Other imports such as beef, grain and apples mimicked food already found here. Exotic tins of pineapple, spice powders and the like were enjoyed by the wealthy minority. But with duties reduced, tea was now affordable and was well on its way to being established as a British stereotype. The Victorians were transporting food up and down the country, enterprising grocers keeping up with trends to interest their customers. “I think you might enjoy this jam from Kent,” they would suggest in Lincolnshire.

The small Indian, Italian and Jewish communities that had arrived in the 18th century and lived mainly in London kept themselves to themselves, but their food cultures would later become important, developing into major contributors to British food in the 20th century. An exotic curry popular with Queen Victoria was cooked in the Palace kitchens, but it was not authentic - rather an English version thickened with flour and sweetened with fruit. Coffee found itself in our pots and in chocolate, sugar found friendship with cocoa. Those in the country cooked more, those with money ate more, and for those without, eating was a constant worry.

My father-in-law, a Kent farmer aged 73, tells me stories of growing up as a labourer in the 1950s. Tales of trapping rabbits, beekeeping, fruit and hop picking, cider drinking and herring. What this illustrates to me is that although eating habits may have changed hugely with urbanisation, the actual foods we ate as a nation did not change massively over this period.

Rationing after the Second World War continued until 1954. Dig For Victory had been a huge success, with people growing vegetables in every available space. And the pre-war poor who had suffered serious malnutrition had benefited from the assurance of weekly rations. Maybe not through choice, but the nation was healthier than it had ever been.

Then came the 1960s, a decade that transformed life as we had previously known it. It was a melting pot of new technology and leftfield thinking all bubbling away together. Boom! A rush of Technicolour and anti-khaki. Suddenly it was famine to feast. My wife’s grandmother, who had never tasted a banana, gorged herself, got sick, and never ate another one for the rest of her life.

Foreign food no longer ‘muck
We’d never seen anything like it and surely this was the true beginning of the food renaissance we only credit with arriving now. British people found celebration in the very thing they had gone without - food. A new age of package holidays blossomed through companies such as Thomas Cook and Laker. People holidaying abroad realised there was a whole world of culinary alternatives to pies, bread and jam. To have fun was to have taste. British food was suddenly boring. Now it was fondue, avocados, chicken Kiev, garlic, baked Alaska, eating out and keeping up with the Joneses. Foreign food was no longer ‘muck’ and cooking was the in thing. But not necessarily preparing it from scratch the way we had before.

Fanny Cradock, the first celebrity chef, brought French food on to the people’s TV screens with her army of piping nozzles and the culinary mantra ‘à la’, while Elizabeth David in her wonderful writings celebrated the French provincial dish. Len Deighton wrote his action cook book and suddenly a whole host of cookery writers were keeping the printers busy.

I’m not surprised, really, at the rocketing rise of the TV cooks and chefs - Graham Kerr, Delia Smith, Keith Floyd. It was very shrewd of telly producers at the time to see the massive potential. The nation desperately needed guidance through the increasingly bewildering forest of food, and the rapidly growing appetite for novelty and flavours. We could almost taste it, but needed help.

Immigration was encouraged, to help mend the British economy and swell the country’s population. The increased numbers of Indian and Chinese residents saw more restaurants open and flourish. By the 1970s, every large town had sweet and sour pork, or curry. This was the new age of Italian restaurants, too, with Englishman Peter Boizot opening Pizza Express in 1965. All these cuisines rode the well-received wave of brave new influence that opened our minds and mouths in the quest for the exotic. American-style fast food, too, was new and fun, and by the time we thought otherwise it had quietly nestled into a prime position. KFC hatched in 1965, but Wimpy had been flipping burgers since the mid 1950s.

The supermarket concept had evolved from individual grocers to chain stores such as Sainsbury’s, and firmly taken hold by the 1960s. Purchasing power giving affordability and choice meant that, where once prime cuts had been the privilege of few, now they were for all to be enjoyed. Why have oxtail when you could have a steak or a cheap frozen chicken? Meat eating was transformed. Where in 1950 Britain consumed approximately a million chickens a year, by 1965 a new fridge-owning population was gobbling up 150 million chickens a year. Revolutionary refrigeration in the shop and at home meant that now things had a shelf life. This era of convenience in abundance was the dawn of the throwaway culture and squeamishness. We were trying new things but with fewer stages of preparation and subsequent loss of knowledge of the old ways.

With help, too, from busy scientists trying to save us time in a post-war hive of activity, instants and ready-mades were finding their way into our sharp-edged and ergonomic new kitchens. Fray Bentos pies, Smash, Angel Delight, Vesta curries and canned goods relieved the laborious domestic duties of women who could now enjoy more time for themselves or find cooking easier when returning from work. Cheaper prices meant we could eat more, too. We’d never had it so good.

I often mumble as I walk around with a regular discussion in my head about what British food has become and where it will go. We can now, pretty much, have all the food of the world, at any time, wherever we are. Where food was once an essential necessity, today we rarely experience hunger, enjoying a huge choice of restaurants, gastropub snacks, ready meals and produce galore.

Cook books are the only books in many homes, and TV and advertising have an almost instantaneous impact on our food buying habits - my butcher told me the other day that he changes his display daily according to what foodie programme has been showing the night before. Food for many has become a hobby. We eat out often, and at home our kitchens have drawers springloaded with takeaway menus.

We are a small country of urban dwellers and supermarkets are the way we have decided to gather our food. With a huge population and a scribbled network of roads, we now have very little notion of regional isolation - unlike many parts of Europe, which still eat in a manner closer to 1862 than Britain’s 2012. Our lives are hectic and busy and we relax with food programmes, the kitchen table no longer a symbol of family.

It will be interesting - for our descendants, if not us - see how the next 150 years of food and taste unravel or evolve. Perhaps the growing interest in allotments, cheesemaking and rare-breed farming will be invaluable, considering the increasing strain our eating habits put on the environment. If only I could be around to write the next instalment.

Often, in the countryside, I find peace in a plate of faggots, and find a strangely warm sense of grounding, a life more simple. Marwood Yeatman in his great book The Last Food Of England sums it all up well in remarking: Britain is a “society that neither wants to keep history or let it go”.In the light of that, long live the turnip!

Rabbit pie

Here is a recipe Valentine Warner has created to celebrate 150 years of The Grocer - and 150 years of changing food tastes. There’s nothing better than rabbit pie, a dish eaten in 1862 and back in fashion in austerity Britain. Here’s how to make it.

● Take one rabbit, chop it up and roll in well-seasoned flour.
● Fry briskly in a good dollop of butter or lard until browned. Remove the pieces. Turn down the heat and fry finely chopped onions with diced bacon or ham, ground pepper, a bayleaf, thyme and a good scratch of nutmeg.
● Return the rabbit to the pot and drop in chunks of carrot and turnip. Just cover with water and add a splash of vinegar.
● Cover with a lid and bake for two hours at 180C. Transfer the rabbit to a pie dish and add three hard-boiled eggs quartered lengthways. Cover with shortcrust pastry, brush the top with some beaten raw egg, then jab a small hole in the centre of the pie lid. Bake for a further 30 minutes until the pastry appears golden brown.