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The spice loving English - first recipe

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

"these oriental and Arabian and Mediterranean flavourings are no longer status symbols; they no longer possess the charm of the unattainable; and if we are buying them and using them more than ever before then it can only be because they fulfil a true need." Elizabeth David

In 1970 Elizabeth David, having inspired British cooks with the food of the Mediterranean and France, turned to her native land. Which considering her missionary like zeal over 'foreign food' was interesting. She had great plans. This was to be the first volume in a series:

"English bread, yeast and fruit cakes, creams, ices, syllabubs, trifles and fresh fruit will form the subjects of other volumes in this series. Soups, roast meat and game, cheese and egg dishes and cream cheeses will follow in due course."

Alas only yeast cookery made it into print in 1977. Well that's what I thought. For apparently, she did work on the ice volume, although she did not finish it. However, her friend and editor Jill Norman, who had worked with her, completed and published it after her death. It was called Harvest of the Cold Months, and it was published in 1994. Not to huge acclaim it seems and I certainly never knew about it. I think those other proposed volumes were abandoned anyway but we did get An omelette and a glass of wine - which is a collection of her articles, and Elizabeth David's Christmas - planned and mostly written by her but also completed by Jill Norman and published posthumously. However, she did not write much after 1977 being weighed down by her misadventure with her kitchen shop, and various severe illnesses and accidents which included depression. She died of a stroke in 1992 aged 78 - my age this year. It's a pretty sad tale really.

But here I go again, straying from my subject of English food.

The thing about English food - England and the English generally really - is that it - and they - is/are despised. Lots of jokes are made about boiled cabbage, bacon and eggs, fish and chips and overcooked roast beef. And yes these things still exist and are eaten, but if they are done well - even boiled cabbage, they are actually good stuff. Well you might have to braise the cabbage, or just blanch it, and you shouldn't overcook the beef but the general assertion holds true ...

"I was entering the workforce at the same time as Britain was coming out of some pretty bleak years for food. Although historically Britain had been famous for some spectacularly rich food traditions, a mighty industrial revolution, two world wars accompanied by years of food rationing and the rise of processed foods, among other things, soon put an end to our impressive food culture. Where Britain's food had once been respected and admired by foreign visitors, it was instead known for being fairly confused and uninspiring." Jamie Oliver

However, the main point that Elizabeth David was trying to make in her book, (and Jamie Oliver too in Jamie's Great Britain) was that the English were a nation that had always embraced spices in their food, initially just by the rich because of the cost, but eventually by everyone.

"It was not until towards the middle of the seventeenth century, when the British East India Company ... had become a power to reckon with, that English cooking began to develop along lines which we can recognise today ... Spices and sugar were more readily available and became relatively cheap, were therefore less prized and used with more discretion."

The British embraced the foods of their vast colonies and adapted them to their own tastes. They are an adventurous people and they love to try anything new. And they are still doing it.

"Our history has been one of invasion, exploration, colonisation and immigration, and the evidence of this is everywhere: on our plates, in our supermarkets and in our cupboards ... 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

The English, well the British, don't just embrace new foods, they also make them their own. Those fish and chips were initially Jewish. All of those terribly English bottled sauces - piccalilli, HP, tomato and mushroom ketchup, Branston pickle, Worcestershire sauce - they all contain spices from the orient, and follow a general oriental process and taste.

"It is mainly through the medium of these sauces, ketchups and relishes that as a nation we consume, indirectly, such immense quantities of spices, pepper and vinegar." Elizabeth David

She might be both surprised and delighted to see how many of those spices are now used in their own right in all manner of different ways, some 'authentic' copies of foreign food, some fusions of foods from any number of different sources. And eventually you might get something that began as fusion and eventually is accepted as an English dish - like those fish and chips. I'm not sure about Chicken tikka masala or Chicken butter cream - to me those are still more Indian than British. Kedgeree though may well have made itself into a British dish. Well its origins are older. Complete absorption, I think, takes at least 100 years.

"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." Jane Grigson

But back to history. After the war, the end of rationing, the coming of international travel for all and the waves of immigration the English became so enthused by the spicy food from elsewhere, largely encouraged by Elizabeth David et al. indeed, that they almost began to forget their own traditional foods. Well their own traditional ways of cooking had been debased by all that packaged food, and rationing.

"By the 50s, any sense of national culinary identity had been lost and the English went overboard for Elizabeth David's escapist vision of Mediterranean food." Sybil Kapoor

And that trend seems to have galloped ahead, to the point that any neighbourhood strip or food mall will be filled with cafés, restaurants and takeaways offering food from everywhere but England. I look at Eltham - a very anglo part of Australia and cannot really think of anything English - except a fish and chip shop. We have at least two Thai restaurants, ditto for Indian, and Japanese sushi bars - there's even one of those in the Woolworths supermarket. There are several variations on an Italian theme, a Greek restaurant, a Spanish restaurant and a Lebanese one - not to mention the hamburger place - and I don't mean MacDonalds, though we have that too. And KFC, Subway and Red Rooster so America gets a big look in as well. I don't know how many Chinese restaurants there are - at least three I think. There is also a plethora of modern Australian cafés whose menus offer cakes from Europe, as well as fusion/modern Australian food - the avocado toast/hotcake thing, and examples of dishes from all of the most common ethnic groups in Australia. I believe 150 countries have representatives here. Anyway, both here, and over there in England - perhaps not quite as much over there - there is no definably English /British restaurant movement. I suspect that those that there are, are either like the famous St. John in London - too off-putting - it's focus is offal, or too snobby - an emphasis on game and suchlike.

Is this a good or a bad thing? The French and the Italians, for example would say it is a bad thing. You don't see any foreign food outlets, other than American fast food franchises and some North African places - clustered together in the large towns - there. Both countries cling fiercely to the reputation of their own food and export it around the world. The English do not export - they import and absorb, possibly to the detriment of their own cuisine, possibly not.

"It would be churlish and uninformed to assume that this enthusiasm is a product of our own food not being good enough to retain our interest. Those who peddle that old idea need to catch up. British food has never been more interesting. It is more that we are, mostly, a nation of adventurous eaters. Our appetites are open-minded, our plates ever happy to receive something new. We should not be considered gluttons who eat anything that comes our way, but rather culinary magpies who pick up the best on offer." Nigel Slater

And there is definitely an increasing pride in British produce. You can see that in the various cooking programs that emanate from there. And the same thing is happening here. There is also an increasing interest in traditional foods such as Cornish pasties, syllabub and Lancashire hotpot, but then you get things like that Irish program I saw yesterday and its celebration of jerk chicken from Jamaica. It's complex isn't it?

"Food that's inspired by the cultures and daily needs of an indescribably complex group of individuals. Food with resonance, spirit, challenge, not some faded outdated recollection of a mythical, romantic, classical past." Tim Hayward - The Guardian

But back to Elizabeth David's book. It's a fairly learned tome. Not light reading and occasionally academic. You sort of have to hunt for the recipes amongst the academia. And many of those recipes are not actually hers but are drawn from her vast library of old and notable cookery books. Indeed she has quite a lot to say about cookery books in general too.

"a young woman quite ignorant of cooking techniques but easily, perhaps too easily, beguiled by the idea of food as unlike as could be to any produced by the conventional English cook of the time ... the young and totally inexperienced will usually prefer a book which provides stimulus to one which goes into technical details, makes strenuous efforts to keep the reader on the straight and keeps to the main roads of established cookery."

And so when she comes to her second recipe Sweet-sour cherry sauce for cold tongue (I have ignored the first because it was Cumberland sauce which we did at Christmas time), she cannot resist a small dig at bottled redcurrant jelly:

"When using commercial redcurrant jelly for sauces, it is often necessary, or at any rate desirable, to sieve it after it has melted and before adding the solid ingredients. Otherwise a few undissolved globules of jelly may remain in the finished sauce. In any case it is always preferable to melt the jelly by the bain-marie system rather than over direct heat, for if allowed to come to the boil the jelly will produce a scum of which it is difficult to rid the finished sauce."

Helpful and derogatory all at the same time. But then probably neither you nor I are going to have a go at this sauce. I'm sure you could have it with other cold meats, but still ...

"One thing to note is that the best English cookery writers from Hannah Glassse to Elizabeth David have always been women, in contrast to the Frech tradition of cookery writing by male chefs. Our classical tradition has been domestic, with the domestic virtues of quiet enjoyment and generosity." Jane Grigson

Now is that still true I wonder? Well there are Nigella, Delia and also Prue Leith, who many say is the greatest of those. Delia is very English but even she has absorbed influences from everywhere in her food.

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