I was blessed by having two grandmothers and a great aunt who had all been professional cooks. Two of them had been in service, one in the kitchens of a place not unlike Downton Abbey in her native Somerset, the other in the London home of a moneyed family and the third had cooked for and later managed the editorial dining rooms of a large London-based newspaper. As a child, when my mother was working late, it was to one or other of these lovely ladies that I would be sent for my dinner.
Looking back I don’t think I had any real appreciation as a schoolboy of the food I was given, other than it stopped me feeling hungry. Post-war rationing was still in operation, though nearing its end, yet these meals were always interesting and different. Offal was frequently on the menu, kidneys, liver, chitterlings, tripe, lights; kippers, bloaters and other smoked fish I remember too, and eels, sprats, poached white fish in parsley sauce; whale meat on one occasion and horse, rabbit, mutton, pies and puddings made with cheaper cuts of meat, shepherd’s pie, stews with airy dumplings, sausages, especially toad-in-the-hole, scotch eggs, vegetables in cheese sauce; then the desserts, milk puddings, stewed fruits, pies and tarts; the variety seemed endless. It was much later that I understood what I had been enjoying all that time was in fact British cuisine, evolved over hundreds of years, through wars and social changes. I now take great interest in what I think of as my culinary heritage, British food, its beginnings and its journey to today’s menus. A wonderfully readable and quite masterful book on the subject is Colin Spencer’s “British Food” which I would recommend to anyone whose interest in food goes in any way beyond just eating it.
Another book on the subject that came along last month is Jamie Oliver’s latest, “Jamie’s Great Britain” subtitled “Over 130 reasons to love our food”. Once I had got over the visual annoyances of the introduction, all in red, grey and blue capitals and the recipe for One-pan Breakfast, thankfully the only one printed for some reason in hard to read yellow, I found it a very relaxed and comfortable book.
The recipes are for dishes that my great-aunt and grandmothers would have recognised and with which they would have been very happy, albeit the recipes allow the reader the benefits of modern marketing and preparation. The better known and what one might call, traditional, side of British cooking is largely featured in chapters like Breakfasts, which although it starts with shades of the Full English has some really easy but classy alternatives to a morning cholesterol-fest. The tradition of Afternoon Tea is celebrated with recipes like oh-so-English Earl Grey Tea Loaf, scones, Eccles cakes and from north of the border, a beautifully moist clootie dumpling. The Pub Food had me wishing for an English local and what would a book on British food be without sections on Sunday Lunch and Puddings and Pies.
An important element of any national cuisine is the adoption, assimilation and adaptation of foreign culinary ideas that come to a country and with its early history of invasion, its centuries of trade, the influences of its Empire and the growth of immigration from all over the world, it is no surprise that this has played a large part in the development of British food; don’t forget, Chicken Tikka Masala is right up there with Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding as the UK’s national dish. In the chapter New British Classics with a nod to this new diversity, Jamie gives a selection of Indian, Yemeni and Jamaican dishes; the Empire Roast Chicken is very good.
There are lots of photos in the book; those relevant to the food make it look most appetising and unlike many “chef” cook books nowadays, unpretentious and do-able. There are some lovely shots of ingredients, suppliers, contributors and restaurants and of course, the now common swag of photos of the chef, the chef’s wife and the chef’s children, posing. I was touched by Jamie’s dedication of the book to the late Rose Gray of River Café fame, and by his acknowledgement of the inspiration she gave to his cooking. It’s a book I will use and am glad to have on my shelf.
British Food by Colin Spencer
Published by Grub Street
RRP $45.00 paperback
Jamie’s Great Britain by Jamie Oliver
Published by Penguin
RRP $65.00 hardback