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Whatever Happened To English Cooking?


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I'm Portuguese but my mother's English so please excuse my exaggerations.

For the last ten years, when visiting London or Manchester (where I studied for nine years, 1975-1984), I've found it more and more difficult to find restaurants that serve traditional cooking. I've practically made a home of St John's.

It seems to me (as someone who had to buy his olive oil in small vials from Boot's the chemists) that the English have completely abandoned their culinary traditions. All of a sudden, everyone discovered garlic, olive oil and the ill-defined Mediterranean.

The problem is that most (all?) cooks, both professional and amateur, have no idea how Medierranean ingredients should be used - so what you find, even in very expensive restaurants, is tragically over-spiced dishes, far too garlicky and hot - often suffering from both faults at the same time. These are people who grew up on bacon butties and Daddy's sauce and, all of a sudden, feel themselves experts on how to be Andalusian or Provençal...

Watching "Ready Steady Cook" in Italy, Spain or Portugal is considered more humorous than "The Offfice" - those pasty-faced "chefs" loading garlic, peppers and garlic into every dish come across as surrealistically as Italian mothers who rely exclusively on Bisto and piccallily.

The English seem gripped by a fever for Mediterranean herbs and vegetables - for which they have no feeling whatsoever - combined with an inordinate fondness for anything that's "spicy" It's considered "naughty" and "sexy", a sure sign it's being misused. Every single dish (and recipe) is an unholy alliance of far too many herbs and spices, masking tasteless base ingredients. Chicken, fish and now meat are regarded almost as a stretch of characterless canvas, waiting to be "livened up" by the usual battery of coriander, chile peppers and garlic. What you "do" to a perfectly good ingredient (of which the British have thousands) is what matters and the aim seems to be to make everything taste the same: hot, spicy and colourful. There can't be, anywhere, a less Mediterranean objective than this. In the native countries, the goal is to honour the ingredient - and get on with it, with the minimum of fuss or interference. Our weather is perhaps the single most important ingredient - er, it's not supposed to be served when it's rainy or cold. British trends now remind me of the pathetic attempts of Bradford residents of painting their living rooms yellow and light blue to "evoke" the Mediterranean.

I, for one, lament that this pseudo-cooking, so unsightly and uncharacteristic,, has replaced the great traditions of English and British gastronomy. I miss it - and so do all Mediterraneans, who tend to truly respect and love British cooking, in its single-minded concentration on goodness and flavour.

It has nothing to do with the British weather or the British landscape. It's, in fact, ridiculous - like trying to recreate sunshine in the rain. Even the best British food writers are obviously challenged when it comes to writing about essentially Mediterranean food.

Food is about location; weather; tradition. Good cooks are formed when they're still children. Their mother's or grandmother's influence is the most important. How many English, Scottish or Welsh cooks have had this sort of essential eating experience? So why is British cooking behaving as if it's everything but?

British cooking today, as I see it, is like the English way of enjoying the very occasional sun. It has a vest on; it's lobster-red and far too eager; it's not sincere; it's a waste of time.

When one thinks of all the many marvels of English and British cooking - surely one of the European greats - and how difficult it now is to find it, the question arises: surely you're not expecting French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese cooks to revive it?

Cooking should be geography, truth, tradition. British tastes for Asian and Mediterranean cooking, badly and illogically served, is not an addition to international gastronomy. It's a subtraction; a fake; a con.

Self-hatred has its place but good British cooking is far too valuable to put aside.

(Sorry for the rant, but it was sincere).

Edited by MiguelCardoso (log)
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Blame Elizabeth David, the evangelista of Med... et. al.., cooking

"There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty. The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What's up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don't think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass!" Terry Pratchett

 

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It seems to me (as someone who had to buy his olive oil in small vials from Boot's the chemists) that the English have completely abandoned their culinary traditions. 

I, for one, lament that this pseudo-cooking, so unsightly and uncharacteristic,, has replaced the great traditions of English and British gastronomy. 

When one thinks of all the many marvels of English and British cooking

Cooking should be geography, truth, tradition. 

clearly, nostalgia isn't what it used to be.

Having grown up as a poor boy in the badlands of West London, I think that I must have missed out on the glories that were English cuisine in the 1960's and 1970's.

Remind me of our top 10 crowning glories that make our current culinary environment so barren

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For the last ten years, when visiting London or Manchester (where I studied for nine years, 1975-1984), I've found it more and more difficult to find restaurants that serve traditional cooking. I've practically made a home of St John's.

i'm not sure that st john serves traditional british cuisine. i've never seen angel delight, crumpets, findus crispy pancakes or spam, egg and chips on the menu :-)

the dishes listed above are, to me, my culinary history. now, i agree that my culinary history is not helped by my mother's hatred of cooking and her inability to fry the aforementioned crispy pancake without burning them on the outside and leaving them frozen in the middle. but it goes a long way.

when people start to talk about british cuisine they tend to start with steak and kidney pie, move on through fish and chips and linger over spotted dick and a jam roly poly. and it stops there. there doesn't, to me, seem to be any rich tradition that you speak of. but i'm more than happy to be wrong, someone point me in the direction of the right books to read!!!!

my kitchen shelf if *filled* with regional cookery books from all around the world. tuscan from italy, southern indian vegetarian, at least 4 books about the street food of south east asia. i can't imagine a publisher ever countenancing a book of welsh cooking or scottish.

what we do have are great ingredients here. but i don't believe that norfolk can anymore take credit for oysters on the half shell than 300 dozen seaside villages in france.

now, if your tirade is really about programmes like "ready steady cook" and the fact that people don't treat ingredients with the respect they deserve...well i'm right there with you!

Suzi Edwards aka "Tarka"

"the only thing larger than her bum is her ego"

Blogito ergo sum

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Jane Grigson occasionally surprise by coming up with Welsh receipes - she has a whole chapter on laver bread and I was reading the other day in her section on Parsley about a Welsh pancake version of omlette aux fines herbes. I have no doubt that if you went back 500 years the "peasant" cooking of England was the equal of anywhere in Europe. But the discovery of the new world brought vegetables that grew better in the Med, and the rise of Protestantism denied pleasure and the industrial revolution etc etc. So much of cooking is in the collective memory, and I think a lot of dishes that were once British have been lost - Grigson's receipe for charter pie is a case in point, which she had to guess at on the basis of a brief medieval dining entry.

Funnily, I never think of St John as an English restaurant. Perhaps because in my mind I have no archetype of an "English restaurant" (other than the sort of Bisto-thickening place Gordon Ramsay sorts out on TV). Places like Simpson's and Wilton's (and I haven't been so I may be wrong) seem to me a fictional recreation of an English restaurant rather than the thing itself. St John always reminds me of a Tuscan joint - the meat presented unadorned, the lack of frippery. But perhaps that just shows the extent to which English food has been lost.

Having said all that, I'm sure the production values of Ready Steady cook are too high for Italian TV. Add a model in a swimsuit counting down the time and give Ainsley a porn star assistant and I could see it.

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The problem is that most (all?) cooks, both professional and amateur, have no idea  how Medierranean ingredients should be used -  so what you find, even in very expensive restaurants, is tragically over-spiced dishes, far too garlicky and hot - often suffering from both faults at the same time.  These are people who grew up on bacon butties and Daddy's sauce and, all of a sudden, feel themselves experts on how to be Andalusian or Provençal...
Blame Elizabeth David, the evangelista of Med... et. al.., cooking

Elizabeth David may have catalysed Med-mania, but she at least recommended restraint in using herbs!

Miguel, what are some of the dishes that you would classify as representative of "the great traditions of British gastronomy?"

Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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i can't imagine a publisher ever countenancing a book of welsh cooking or scottish.

LOL! Sitting in here in Manhattan, I have at least a dozen cookbooks devoted to Brit food, and one on Scotts cooking (lots of game, berries, fish). I love English food, or at least what I think of as Engish food -- pretty much the Jane Grigson lexicon, from boiled bacon collar with pease pudding to cauliflower soup to chicken with bread sauce to raised pies to mackerel with gooseberries (which I had to be dared into trying, 20-odd years ago, and instantly loved) to mmmm smoked haddock topped with a poached egg to really good butchers' sausages (and JEEZ, roast pork with crackling and applesauce), and let's not even talk about the puddings. American desserts mostly leave me cold -- layer cakes and cupcakes and brownies just don't send me. But gooey puddings are my downfall. And bacon sandwiches -- ideally, spread with a little Coleman's mustard -- is my idea of junk=food bliss.

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To complain that British food has been recently polluted by outside influences from other parts of Europe and Asia misses the point. While a number of dishes (such as those mentioned above) can, I would think, be considered native delicacies, so many more; Coronation Chicken (made with 'curry' powder), Macaroni cheese (which came from Italy in the 18th century), jacket potatoes (16th century imports from South America), just to name a few are staples that originated elsewhere. This is not even to mention the variety of 'British' condiments (piccalili, chutney and brown sauce) which were re-created back in Blighty in the 18th and 19th centuries by those who had enjoyed similar things in India.

British cuisine has a habit of absorbing and modifying outside influences. I'm sure Italian and French cuisine are similar and those dishes that you think have been eaten since the dawn of time may have only just arrived in the 19th century. The French by the way, seem equally as enamoured with Middle Eastern and North African influences as we are with Southern European. On a recent trip to France, I enjoyed a tagine of scallops and an ice cream made with rose water and cardamon, both at a 'traditional' French fish restaurant.

I think the recent wide scale absorption of far-flung influences is more of a haut cuisine phenomenon than something that seems to be strictly afflicting the 'traditional' cuisine of the British Isles. And, as with most things, trends that start at the top end of the market eventually find their way into the main stream in a more modified form. I don't think British cuisine is anymore under threat from this than it was from similar influences one hundred, two hundred or three hundred years ago. Its a simple case of evolution.

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Every single dish (and recipe) is an unholy alliance of far too many herbs and spices, masking tasteless base ingredients. Chicken, fish and now meat are regarded almost as a stretch of characterless canvas, waiting to be "livened up" by the usual battery of coriander, chile peppers and garlic.

Couldn't agree more, Miguel.

I think the real problem is not our promiscuous attraction to foreign cultures (something which, as Hallie pointed out, we British have always been guilty of), but our willingness to accept ever-blander and more mediocre raw ingredients.

I admit that I sometimes buy Sainsbury's pork chops - for a quick, convenient mid-week dinner. They taste of pretty much nothing (even the organic ones), so I'm afraid I tend to marinate them in just the kind of unholy everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Mediterranean melange that you describe in your post.

But when I take the trouble to get decent chops (and here let me put out a shout to the melting, unbelievable sweet pork chops I bought from the Ginger Pig on Moxon Street last week), I just rub them with some sage and the result is really memorable.

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Our weather is perhaps the single most important ingredient - er, it's not supposed to be served when it's rainy or cold.  British trends now remind me of the pathetic attempts of Bradford residents of painting their living rooms yellow and light blue to "evoke" the Mediterranean...

It has nothing to do with the British weather or the British landscape.  It's, in fact, ridiculous - like trying to recreate sunshine in the rain...

I also think you've hit on something really interesting here: the link between climate and cuisine. Or more specifically, between weather and the waning of northern European cookery traditions. (Sorry if what follows seems bit left-field: it's an old hobby-horse of mine.)

If you look back to some of the most powerful evocations of British cuisine, such as Fielding or Dickens (especially in A Christmas Carol - remember Tiny Tim), one of vital characteristics of the food - almost as important as its taste and smell - is its warmth.

To state the bloody obvious, it is usually pretty cold outside in the UK. Until relatively recently (the introduction of central heating, double glazing), it was also generally pretty cold inside for most of the year. I don't know about you, but I find a lot of the most traditional English food most appetising when I'm cold. Having a pasty on a wind-swept high street; eating porridge on a cold morning; sitting down to roast beef after a bracing walk.

Nowadays, most of us spend most of our time in warmth - even in winter, we generally work indoors in heated buildings before returning home to heated homes. Food that once would seem restorative now often seems stodgy and cloying. Is it any wonder that the foods of warmer climates appeal to us (even if we cooked them ham-fistedly)?

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It's so interesting you say that, Stigand -- I was thinking along the same lines. The Asian and Med flavors you (and others) see sweeping over British cuisine are all what I think of as "warm weather" or "front of the mouth" flavors. To my mind, they're all about exciting the palate -- perhaps because the appetite dulls in the heat, and bright flavors tempt us to eat more. Traditional English cuisine really isn't about brightness...maybe it isn't about flavor at all, so much as satiety. I tend to think of English food as classic comfort eats, reminding the body that it's happily alive despite the winds (emotional or actual) howling outside.

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To complain that British food has been recently polluted by outside influences from other parts of Europe and Asia misses the point. While a number of dishes (such as those mentioned above) can, I would think, be considered native delicacies, so many more; Coronation Chicken (made with 'curry' powder), Macaroni cheese (which came from Italy in the 18th century), jacket potatoes (16th century imports from South America), just to name a few are staples that originated elsewhere. This is not even to mention the variety of 'British' condiments (piccalili, chutney and brown sauce) which were re-created back in Blighty in the 18th and 19th centuries by those who had enjoyed similar things in India.

Hallie - I think that this is a very good point, British food is fushion food I guess. One thing that may account for peoples observations of 'what happened to English/British food' is the many of the new flavours techniques that have been absorbed, don't at first appear form a logical progression from 'Traditional British food' to 'Med/SE-Asian bright flavours'. But I imagine that when you are part of a transition period it never seems as logical as to somebody with a retrospective view of the events.

I was looking a survey of British food preferences, the most common home cooked Sunday main meal was Spag. Bol. (except in Yorkshire, who prefered the Sunday raost still). I wonder how long it will be until Spag. Bol. is considered 'English'?

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Hey, it is a big weekend! :smile:

Getting back to Britishness ( or Englishness etc ) in food, it would be nice to know what this actually ment. For instance I made a green roast the other day (pork leg cut down to the bone, cuts filled with heavily herbed forcemeat, leg tied and roasted, from Northern England), served this to some English/Scottish friends none of which have ever seen anything like it and would have guessed that it was Italian, not English. So can the cuisine be defined at all?

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To state the bloody obvious, it is usually pretty cold outside in the UK. Until relatively recently (the introduction of central heating, double glazing), it was also generally pretty cold inside for most of the year. I don't know about you, but I find a lot of the most traditional English food most appetising when I'm cold. Having a pasty on a wind-swept high street; eating porridge on a cold morning; sitting down to roast beef after a bracing walk.

This is quite true.

I think I was shivering - except for the heatwaves - for the entire 1970's. It wasn't until I moved to America that I knew what 'real' central heating was.

As you say: a hot pastie on a cold and windy high street. A bowl of stew to chase away the damp. A cup of tea in the afternoon to banish the sniffles. Fantastic stuff.

"Gimme a pig's foot, and a bottle of beer..." Bessie Smith

Flickr Food

"111,111,111 x 111,111,111 = 12,345,678,987,654,321" Bruce Frigard 'Winesonoma' - RIP

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On Sunday I joined some friends for a pleasant Sunday lunch.

There were several beautiful bowls of berries on the table -- raspberries, strawberries, blueberries -- and a pitcher of thick cream. We ate the berries and cream and talked, somewhat rhapsodically, about how wonderful summer was. We had a few moments of sunshine, then a shower, then another moment of sunshine, then a blast of cold rain that lasted a few hours. Now and then the sun would shine through the conservatory windows...and then the clouds would gather again. But it felt summery.

A long winded way of wondering whether the summer puddings and Pimms and strawberries simply confirm the general trend in these islands toward cold and dampness: we make much of these summer foods and of summer warmth and sunshine precisely because they are so rare.

On the other hand, British weather means that you can sensibly have an Aga cooker without, as one Houston socialite did, installing industrial air conditioning to carry away the heat generated by the thing. A consolation, like cups of tea.

Another hypothesis about English cookery: a tendency toward the unadorned and simple. I don't have the literary references to hand to check, but wasn't (isn't) "French" viewed as connoting overly fancy, frilly, hyper-refined; as opposed to plainer and simpler English fare. Perhaps this explains some of the affinity for Mediterranean cooking, which tends to be a bit simpler than classical French cuisine.

Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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Another hypothesis about English cookery: a tendency toward the unadorned and simple. I don't have the literary references to hand to check, but wasn't (isn't) "French" viewed as connoting overly fancy, frilly, hyper-refined; as opposed to plainer and simpler English fare. Perhaps this explains some of the affinity for Mediterranean cooking, which tends to be a bit simpler than classical French cuisine.

Something like this 18th century rant?

"When Mighty Roast Beef was the Englishman's Food, It ennobled our veins, and enriched our Blood, Our Soldiers were brave, and our Courtiers were good, On the Roast Beef of Old England, And Old English Roast Beef! But since we have learned from all-conquering France, To eat their Ragouts as well as to dance, We are fed up with nothing but vain complaisance, Oh the Roast Beef of Old England, And Old English Roast Beef! Our Fathers of old were robust, stout and strong, And kept open House with good cheer all Day long, Which made their plump Tenants rejoice in this song. Oh the Roast Beef of Old England, And Old English Roast Beef! But now we are dwindled, to what shall I name, A sneaking poor Race, half begotten-and tame, Who sully those Honours that once shone in Fame, Oh the Roast Beef of Old England, And Old English Roast Beef! When good Queen Elizabeth was on the Throne, E'er Coffee, or Tea and such Slip Slops were known, The World was in terror, if e'er she did frown. Oh the Roast Beef of Old England, And Old English Roast Beef! Oh then they had stomachs to eat and to fight, And when Wrongs were a-cooking to do themselves right! But now we're a-I cou'd[?]-but good Night. Oh the Roast Beef of Old England, And Old English Roast Beef!"

These types of rants against the French and French ways were very popular during the 18-19th century. More to do with trying to kill each other a lot during this period then the food. Although, dishes like 'Ragouts' where singles out as a contrast with 'Roast Beef' (which I believe is still a French insult for the English now). Remember it was the new-style cooking from France ( as typified by La Varrene) that actually simplified the combinatons of flavours in English cooking from the more synergistic  medieval/renaissance cooking.

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ah .. roast beef! but doesn't that take us back to the Yorkshire pudding / popover thread?

Think my first reaction was this thread was that to be truthful, am not sure I have a cohorent description or picture in my head of what the English identity actually is! Or at least, not without resorting to some awful P G Wodehouse parody or some reference to stoicism and creativity during rationing.

However, if I try and ramble back to the subject of food, then I am in total agreement that the schizophrenic magpie end of the culinary spectrum can produce some real horrors (sort of curried peking duck pizza type thing) … but surely borrowing and trying to adapt to local constraints is not necessarily bad?

If I were to try and find the silver lining in the (rain) cloud, could this trend be interpreted as a step on a longer journey (hopefully without sounding like a new-age food hippie)? I.e. that this painful “stage” is all about raising people’s general interest and awareness levels of what they are eating. Hopefully, once they start to take an interest in good food, then they will become more aware of how important seasonality and good basic raw ingredients are in cooking. If we are lucky, maybe they (or even me!) will then start to move towards the simpler home produced end of everything, and saving the theatrics for those who know what they’re doing. Or just try and go on holiday more often so that you can eat the real thing in the right setting!

I’m sure that someone else can tell me when this mass media obsession with food started, but I seem to remember it was much less mainstream in the seventies?

Yin

X

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... 'Roast Beef' (which I believe is still a French insult for the English now).

Yes. The English are still referred to as "les rosbifs", an almost exact parallel to the use of "frogs" to describe the French.

Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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growing up reading enid blyton i thought english food was wonderfully exotic. and then when i moved to the u.s i encountered watercress for the first time. but i've always associated pies, particular kinds of roasts, a whole array of breads and sandwiches, puddings etc. etc. with english food. and i've never thought of it as dull and boring--perhaps because in india we don't really have anything that resembles most traditional english food. in the european context i suppose it may look less exciting/bold and cause feelings of inadequacy among some.

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was googling for something on the Leeds food festival and found this instead ..

British Food Fortnight - runs from 18 Sep 2004. 

might be worth keeping an eye out for maybe?

I take it all back - clear proof that there is a magnificent british culinary tradition after all.

Just look at those lovely red tomatoes (one has even been sliced in half - rather artistically), the baked ham looks nice and I think that there may even be a lettuce on display.

With a beautiful apple and cheese (could it be stilton?) to finish, food fit for a king

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