National cuisines and in defence of the English one

"A tapestry and patchwork quilt that embraces the best of the old traditions as well as the newer additions to our repertoire, which are joyful, colourful and resourceful in their own right." Jamie Oliver

This is really part two of my First Recipe post - following on from yesterday's Ajo blanco - garlic or almond soup questions.


I'm still working my way through my Jane Grigson collection and this time it's her 1974 book English Food, which I think I will cross-reference with Jamie's Great Britain and Elizabeth David's Spices Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen - because they all offer slightly differing views on what constitutes English and or British Food and why it is as it is although they all agree on its overseas influences.

Now I abhor nationalism of any kind - I think that nationalism is one of the great evils of this world - to the point that I still have not taken out Australian citizenship because I do not want to vow allegiance to anyone. Where we are born - and therefore what nationality we are - is a matter of complete chance. Today I feel I am neither English nor Australian but somewhere in between. Of course one gets patriotic every now and then but hopefully either in jest, or in a very mild way - as in sporting contests for example.


However I do feel somewhat defensive of the British - and particularly the English - we British do not in general regard ourselves as British - merely English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish - even Northerners or Southerners when it comes to England. And Southerners doesn't really include the West country either. I feel defensive because other nations often either rubbish the English - the food in particular is generally despised - in a completely ignorant way to my way of thinking - or they blame the English for a major part of the problems of the world today whilst still seeming to think that we have some sort of superiority, entitled complex. I think the Australians in particular have a tendency to do this even though the vast majority of Australians are of British origin. Whingeing poms, and the evils of the British colonialists, and all that.


Now the British - like all colonial regimes, and dictatorial regimes of the past (and present) were responsible for all manner of dreadful things, but there were good things too. Somehow or other we are ready to admire the Roman empire for example but not the British even though both were guilty of crimes against humanity on a massive scale, as well as of the equally massive achievement of dominating the world of the time. Why do we admire one and not the other? For there were good things in all of those past dominant cultures too from engineering skills, to literature, art, music - well culture in general - systems of government - and food. Yes let's get back to food and specifically English food and how it compares to other national cuisines.


Historically, as Jane Grigson points out, the recipes that were handed down represented the food of the rich. The poor just made do. And for a while English food was much admired. Skip to World War Two and its aftermath. A time of very limited food availability, lack of efficient modern appliances and ruin all around. No wonder the British diet fixated on the stodgy and the cheap. Food was merely food - there were more important things to do like rebuild the country devastated by war, and tend to those injured by it.


Even so there were simple and absolutely delicious pleasures. The national dish is perhaps - roast beef and Yorkshire pudding as shown in all its glory at the top of the page. And even with rationing and being poor it was a frequent Sunday lunch treat in our house. Yes it was often over-cooked back then, and the cabbage was boiled to death but the roast potatoes and the Yorkshire puddings were to die for, and somehow the boiled cabbage was a perfect partner. Well for me anyway.


Besides, as Jane Grigson says:


"The plain fact is that much commercial cooking is bad, or mediocre in any country - it's easy enough to get a thoroughly disappointing meal even in France where there exists an almost sacred devotion to kitchen and table."


From this post-war period springs the dreadful reputation that English food has inspired - epitomised by quotes such as this one:


“The British Empire was created as a by-product of generations of desperate Englishmen roaming the world in search of a decent meal.” Bill Marsano


And interestingly when I searched for quotes about English food they were almost all exceedingly derogatory. Witty perhaps but not kind.


If you search the net for lists of the best British foods you come up with what I consider to be some of the worst - steak and kidney pudding, bangers and mash, black pudding ..., and yet as a child I delighted in others like those below: oxtail stew with dumplings, corned beef and carrots, rabbit stew, fish and chips, pork pies, and a trio of world beating desserts: gooseberry fool, summer pudding and apple crumble. And sure, many would call these comfort foods, which is somehow derogatory but what's wrong with comfort in a difficult world. And remember it's not that warm in England, so hearty stews are OK.

Even the Romans thought that England had some good food to offer:


"Poor Britons, there is some good in them after all - they produced an oyster." Saullust, Roman historian, referring to the oyster beds in East Anglia.


Those oysters from the coast near Colchester kept the Romans happy for centuries - and the poor British too, until they were overfished and became the food of the rich. And they are now experiencing a revival it seems and have once again become a British delicacy.


But then came Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and Robert Carrier and the women's magazines followed suit. Immigrants from the old empire began to arrive in their thousands, bringing their culinary traditions with them, and the British themselves began to travel. The British love to travel almost as much as the Australians, who as I said previously, are mostly British anyway.


We had almost forgotten that it was ever thus:


"The English have a natural taste for highly seasoned food - as do most northern people - and since trade with the Near East and southern Europe brought us early in the the evolution of our cookery considerable opportunities for indulging the taste, we took to spiced food with an enthusiasm which seems to have been almost equal to that shown by the Romans at the height of their preoccupation with the luxuries of living."

Elizabeth David


Elizabeth David might have started it all, but her tradition has been continued through the decades through Delia Smith, all the Michelin starred British chefs, down to current times and the likes of Jamie Oliver, Heston Blumenthal and Yotam Ottolenghi - and the hundreds of others - there are just too many to mention.


Jamie's Great Britain is a kind of follow-up to Jane Grigson's work. She concentrated on the traditional dishes of Britain. He shows how those traditional dishes sometimes remain the same and how some have changed and how completely new dishes have come to dominate - think Butter chicken.


"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. ...


"I like to think of Great Britain as a magpie nation because throughout our history we seem to have collected beautiful flavours from elsewhere and worked them into our own culture." ...


"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


Which is a rather kinder way of saying that same thing as the derogatory quote from Bill Marzano.


This evolution can perhaps be best described by the full English breakfast, which appears in every best of British list that I found. Often near the top. And here's a thought. Even though those lists always include the stodgiest and in some ways the most unappealing dishes, does that very fact mean that the compilers of those lists - often Americans - actually love them. Are we ashamed to say we like things like fish and chips and roast beef?


That breakfast though. Here it is in all its unhealthy glory. This would set you up for the day. We were always served a smaller version of this when young. I used to hate having to wade through it all. As I have said before, I am not at my best at breakfast time, and in fact ours was even more unhealthy in that the bread was fried not toasted. But my mother firmly believed that it was the right thing to have to get us through the day.


In Jamie's Great Britain, there is a breakfast section which includes a version of the full English, and also Bubble and squeak, but it also includes dishes from elsewhere - some so long ago that their origin is almost forgotten - Kedgeree; some updated versions of old things - Glasgow potato scones with best scrambled egg and smoked salmon (alright this is Scottish); food from modern day immigrants - Yemeni pancakes and also completely new 'healthy' breakfast food - Sticky prune muesli; and a completely modern kind of café breakfast - Delicious smoked haddock, poached egg, spinach on toast - a selection that encapsulates everything that is British food today I think.

But I couldn't leave this without a nod to Ottolenghi an immigrant himself, but now firmly entrenched in London as a British chef. And this is how breakfast (or brunch) has been transformed by his influence with his Rougaille - a sort of twist on the eggs and tomatoes theme,and Grilled pineapple with maple lime dressing and chilli salt.

But what about the Australians, who once were English and were once famed for their steak for breakfast, and roast lamb for dinner - Anglo influences clearly showing there. Australia is so different now. Like Britain it has had a post war influx of immigrants but on an even larger scale than in Britain and from a much wider range of countries - most notably from just about every Asian - and, increasingly, African and Middle-Eastern, country. Well from everywhere really. And our cuisine reflects that.


The only cuisine that is not represented is that of the indigenous peoples. Is that because they don't have a cuisine? Of course they ate, and of course they cooked but my guess is that it was fairly simple and uncomplicated cooking. There is an increasing interest in native ingredients, but it seems to me that they are being used in modern ways by creative chefs, rather than reproducing how they were eaten by the Aboriginals.


Australia does have the world's breakfast king though - Bill Granger - and he has taken this to the world with cafés around the world. So here are a couple of his breakfast dishes - one vaguely Middle-Eastern, the other vaguely Asian: Chickpea pancakes with spiced roast cauliflower and carrots, Brunch bowl with green tea noodles, edamame and salmon plus a modern twist on the full English - Baked green eggs with roast tomato and chilli salsa.

"No cookery belongs exclusively to its country, or its region. Cooks borrow - and always have borrowed - and adapt through the centuries. ... this is as true, for example, of French cooking as of English cooking. We have borrowed from France, France borrowed from Italy direct, and by way of Provence. The Romans borrowed from the Greeks, and the Greeks borrowed from the Egyptians and Persians. What each individual country does do is to give all the elements, borrowed or otherwise, something of a national character." Jane Grigson


The website I have mentioned before Neil Cooks Grigson focuses on this particular book of Jane Grigson's. I think he has finished his aim to cook his way through it now. And this is his conclusion:


"I always really enjoy making these sorts of recipes in the book – I don’t even mind if they’re not that nice – it’s just interesting cooking and tasting these old, old recipes. I’ve said it before, but it is great that such books like English Food exist, it’s also great to see that many of these unfashionably historical recipes are tasty and interesting." Neil Cooks Grigson


And able to withstand centuries of messing - sometimes to improve them, sometimes not.


There seems to be a bit of a revival of these old tried and true recipes - it's time and it's also great that modern chefs are playing with them, as well as the reverse with immigrant cultures massively impacting what the English (and Australians) now eat.

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