Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Pleasures of English Food

I know--what's this heresy on A la mode frangourou? Surely no self-respecting French person would admit that 'pleasure' is a word to be used in conjunction with 'English food', or at least, only ironically; and few Australians, shuddering at the memory of the 'meat and three veg' of the past, would either. The adjective 'English' when used with the noun 'food' is often taken to be synonymous with bland, boring, overcooked, watery, too meaty or too stodgy and far too much dried fruit. The Larousse Gastronomique offers the lofty observation that English cooking owes much to the 'cuisine of the Middle Ages', while one definition of Hell goes thus: It's where the policemen are Germans, the lovers Swiss, the mechanics French, the bankers Italian, and the cooks English.

And yet--despite those amusing prejudices, there are many pleasures in traditional English food, and in this lovely little book, author Alan Davidson takes readers on a very pleasurable journey through them. He concentrates on the traditional dishes, everything from lardy cake to stargazy pie, Cumberland sausage to Cox's Orange Pippins and much more. e gives tips on Stiltons and afternoon tea, provides potted histories of all sorts of culinary curiosities, and the lively sparkle of his writing makes you remember that you can eat well in England, and very very well. And of traditional foods too, which are making a big comeback. Okay, so it's a much more limited range than in France(and it has to be said, Alan Davidson's book is rather slim!), but there are still some regional variations, and some lovely discoveries to make.

In my experience, as an anglophile(and how can I fail to be, married to an Englishman who's not only a great husband but a great cook too!)and also as someone who has visited England many, many times, the pleasures of English food are to be found in homes, and occasionally in pubs, and in specialist stores in the provinces as well as London. In the beautiful medieval town of Ludlow, for instance, there's a fantastic butcher for whose excellent sausages people queue up French-style; in Worcester and Hereford, there are bakeries selling wonderful pies and pasties, and cheese shops and so on, and you can find this sort of thing all over England(and in my view it's even more important such places can now be found in provincial towns, not just London, for this is where the strength of French food is for instance). The pride of the artisan is coming back, and that's great. And pubs will often sell this kind of traditional food, using local products--I remember a wonderful rabbit pie washed down with cider in Hereford, once, for example, served in the atmospheric surroundings of a 'snug'. In homes, meanwhile, I've eaten really delicious traditional dishes, beautifully-cooked, beautifully-presented.
But it also has to be said that aside from pubs(and only some of them even then) the quality of public food in England is dismal. Even in London, restaurants and cafes at the lower end of the scale serve stodgy tasteless fare; and at the upper end it's so ridiculously over-priced you practically need a mortgage to pay for it. In between are the bland and the okay and the forgettable, with little or no attempt made to showcase the excellent local produce, which is a great pity. Give them a copy of Alan Davidson's book, I say, and let them rediscover pride in their national food heritage!

1 comment:

  1. I'm trying to persuade my Anglo students that they do indeed have a culture, with Harmony Day coming up. They think because they're not Turkish or Sudanese they don't have a real culture. A friend in the US sent me a copy of an article called "The Pleasures Of The Hobbit Table" which he found years before the Internet. It describes and gives recipes for the foods described in "An Unexpected Party". The recipes are so very English you think again about the "boring bland" assumption of English food. Indeed, someone says that plain food has to be really good because you can't hide it behind spices and fancy sauces. This book sounds good, must find a copy.