"sometimes it takes years of looking at other countries to realise how wonderful your own actually is." Jamie Oliver
I'm sort of killing two birds with one stone here - my next website on my list and also the next country on my world tour of cuisines and national dishes. So - England. Just England; not Britain. The four countries that make up the British Isles are quite distinct, and I'm sure most of their inhabitants would describe themselves as English or Scottish, Welsh or Irish, rather than British, unless they are filling in some official form. Even England itself is seriously split in lots of ways between north and south and west, not to mention town and country, rich and poor and class. Which, of course, is not unique to England unless the country is tiny - Luxembourg perhaps or Monaco. The Vatican? Does it have its own cuisine? Now there's a tantalising thought that I might look at some time.
I've deliberately called this post Deliciously English in attempt to rebut the general view of English food world-wide - even though it has as many Michelin starred chefs as any similar country. But then Michelin starred chefs tend to do their own thing. It's not really a national kind of cooking - more of an artform designed to show off the creator's skills, no matter how much or how little he is influenced by his country's cuisine.
The website that I was going to talk about - I even started a post on it - is called British Food in America. As you can see it has an amazingly irrelevant and over the top image on the front page, with no explanation of what it is or why it was chosen. It doesn't look as if it has anything to do with food, British or even American. It's also a very academic kind of online magazine, some might say pretentious, but here and there are interesting articles, although somewhat difficult to find. After a couple of failed attempts at covering it I abandoned the idea, but am including it here, because its Manifesto page had a few interesting things to say about British food - yes they cover the whole of Britain not just England.
Like virtually everyone else they acknowledge that post Depression and WW2 rationing British food went into a steep decline. I suppose these were the days of my childhood when the lack of ingredients was only matched by the rise of the worst kind of processed foods. And even the posh restaurants didn't do much better:
"The food we get publicly in England isn't so often bad English cooking as a pretentious and inferior imitations of French cooking or Italian cooking." Jane Grigson
Even now the writers of the website say that:
"British food does not exist as a viable cuisine with the American popular imagination: it remains only a pitfall to avoid and the butt of jokes."
They then cite the writer Mark Bittman, who produced a book called The Best recipes in the World in 2005 - recent history. In his index of Recipes by Cuisine, there was apparently no reference at all to British Cuisine. As the writers say
"We have nothing but admiration for the various other cuisines of the world. It is simply that we believe British food should be included among them."
For there are treasures to be found - all those scorned dishes like Shepherd's pie, Boiled beef and carrots, Lancashire hot pot, Bangers and mash, Jam roly poly and Spotted Dick, not to mention Fish and chips - can be absolutely delicious.
In the 60s and 70s came Elizabeth David et al. who inspired us all to cook again, but not to cook British food - mostly Mediterranean. Jane Grigson, however, as well as doing the same had rather less scorn than Elizabeth David for English food and, indeed set out to remind us of what treasures were to be found and wrote a book about it, called English Food. All of which led to what the British Food in America people describe as "the lively, even fevered food culture that grips Britain and Ireland today." And that food culture contains people like Jamie and Delia and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in particular who, although influenced by and admirers of other countries' food, are also great proselitizers for English food. Nigel and Nigella, slightly less, and Ottolenghi, definitely not, although he has of course had a huge influence on English food and cooks. It will be interesting to see what the long-term influence results in. Another new national dish?
So what is English food? I'm guessing that most people would probably cite one of these two dishes - roast beef and fish and chips as prime examples of English food, and indeed they sort of are.
The fish and chips however, are also an example of how something that is essentially an imported dish - in this case by the Jews - becomes something quintessentially of the country into which it is imported. Because like virtually every other cuisine in the world English food is a mixture of things from here, there and everywhere, which somehow or other become nationalised:
"No cookery belongs exclusively to its country, or its region. Cooks borrow - and always have borrowed - and adapt through the centuries. ...
What each individual country does do is to give all the elements, borrowed or otherwise, something of a national character."
Indeed England, perhaps, more than any other country, due to its wanderings and conquerings throughout the world (excluding Australia and the USA?) is a hotch potch of influences from just about everywhere.
"Walk down any British High Street and it's clear to see that our food embraces much more than a handful of old recipes. Our history has been one of invasion, exploration, colonisation and immigration, and the evidence of that is everywhere: on our plates in our supermarkets and in our cupboards." Jamie Oliver
So much so that this dish - Chicken tikka masala, has been claimed as England's national dish by many. And yes it is, although actually possibly Scottish - invented in Britain by Indian immigrants from an Indian dish. A perfect example of the multiculturalism of the English nation.
"In my mind one of the most exciting and unique things about being British is our ability to be open-minded and willing to embrace anything that looks and tastes good from any new neighbour." Jamie Oliver
There are so many beautiful English dishes of which I am very proud, so I'm going to end with one of my personal favourites, which is, actually rather more uniquely English - Gooseberry fool.
The one on the left is from Delia - to my mind perhaps the most English of the modern English cooks, although perhaps her time is over now. Or at least coming to an end. And, now that I think about it, perhaps her version Gooseberry yoghurt fool is also a wonderful example of absorbing other cultures into your own cuisine. Because a traditional fool uses cream not yoghurt, but Delia says:
"I now find that lusciously thick genuine Greek yoghurt makes the best fruit fool of all, as it allows the full flavour of the fruit to dominate."
We didn't know about yoghurt in my childhood. I chose this not just because it's divine - as divine as cassis sorbet - and sort of related to that French ice-cream. Related because of the berries. Gooseberries in the fool and blackcurrants in the ice-cream. Gooseberries are extremely seasonal - blink and they are gone, but you used to be able to find them sometimes here. I even once saw them described as English berries. They are not - they are found all over Europe - and no longer available here it seems. But:
"Gooseberries, too, are one of our few particular fruits; no other country has appreciated them as we have done, although they will grow happily up to the Arctic Circle." Jane Grigson
And Jane Grigson chose Gooseberry fool to be her first 'Pudding' in her book English Food. It's such a simple recipe, fruit stewed with sugar and, when cold, stirred into whipped cream. You can do it with any fruit of course, but I think Gooseberry fool is the top of the tree, closely followed by rhubarb.
It's also an example of what can be done with all those gorgeous berries that we Australians simply do not seem to grow - redcurrants, blackcurrants, white currants, sloes, elderberries ... there are so many more - found on the hedgerows around the country. True they need a cooler climate than most of Australia, but surely Tasmania could give it a go. The other version of the Gooseberry fool, has elderflower in the mix and comes from Mark Diacono - a River Cottage alumni.
And whilst we are on the fruit of those beautiful English hedgerows here is Summer pudding - from Delia again. Every year at our Christmas meeting my book group enjoys summer pudding, provided by our summer pudding expert. It's the star turn of the Christmas banquet, with David emerging from hiding in the study to get his share. Theoretically it is one of those amazingly simple dishes made from simple and inexpensive (if you acquire your fruit from the hedgerows or your garden), dishes that is a taste to be reckoned with and worthy of any three Michelin star restaurant. When the country produces dishes like this, how can anyone think its cuisine is not worth a mention in a critically acclaimed book about the cuisines of the world. There are treasures galore in English kitchens. It's time we English made sure that everyone knows about them.
"this is beautiful comfort food at its best - unfussy and unpretentious, but full of life. You can't force it, or pretend: It just is what it is." Jamie Oliver