Feeding the nation
Taste: the Story of Britain Through Its Cooking
Kate Colquhoun Bloomsbury, 4
Our national cuisine is enjoying a resurgence, both in the kitchen and on the page. Trendy new restaurants these days are as likely to serve British fare as foreign dishes; shops and markets make a point of selling locally sourced ingredients; Gordon Ramsay, with characteristic bullishness, plans to export British cooking to Paris. The corollary of this culinary reawakening is an expanding interest in Britain's food history. Academics are foraging about in libraries and public record offices, applying themselves to the task of uncovering our long-concealed culinary roots. One result of their endeavours is the emergence of a new publishing genre: the tastefully packaged, lavishly illustrated popular food history, exploring some aspect of our culinary heritage, or the life of some long-forgotten "celebrity" chef.
Kate Colquhoun's Taste is firmly in this mould. Though it sells itself as a "story of Britain through its cooking", it is in fact something less than this. The "cooking" part is not the problem: Colquhoun offers masses of information about the often bewildering things that our ancestors ate (gilded peacock, anyone?). Her account falls down with the "story" part. The history of Britain usually gets told in terms of kings and queens, battles, the comings and goings of governments, the development of trade, the expansion of empire, and so on. There is a good reason for this. These are the things that give it life and colour, a sense of purpose, human drama. Col quhoun maintains the conventional chronology (she has chapters on the Romans, the Normans, the Tudors, the Stuarts and so on) but, apart from the odd bit of cursory scene-setting, leaves out the stuff that binds the story together.
Instead, she presents us with a more or less unconnected series of facts and vignettes about the various foods eaten at different stages of Britain's development. Individually, these are often interesting. It was nice to learn that monks were responsible for restimulating gastronomy at the end of the Dark Ages (something they were able to do by cannily interpreting St Benedict's injunction against eating the "flesh of quadrupeds" as excluding birds and fish), and that turkeys were introduced, following the discovery of America, in about 1525. But a few choice nuggets do not a historical banquet make. Over the long haul, one needs some ideas and arguments to get one's teeth into.
A certain stylistic stodginess also impairs the readability of Colquhoun's account. Her fav ourite sentence construction is, essentially, the list. Here is a typical example: "As was becoming the vogue, the dish was garnished with a wild medley of friend sweetbreads, oysters and bone marrow, with pistachios, sliced almonds and the juice of two or three oranges." This sort of thing is fine in and of itself - but repeated hundreds of times, it becomes tedious. Colquhoun also has a tendency to misuse words. She tells us, for example, that at medieval banquets farting was "circumscribed" - which conjures up an extremely odd image. Nor do her occasional excursions into non-culinary territory suggest that she is a real authority on British history. She writes that "under Queen Anne, the prime minister Robert Walpole promoted . . . self-interest and greed" - which is surprising, given than Walpole only became prime minister after George I's ascension.
So what might a more engaging account of Britain's food history have looked like? For a start, it would have attempted to take us into the world of its subjects, to have given us a real sense of what life was like at a time when there were no ovens or microwaves, no fridges or freezers, when meat didn't come in neat pre-packaged portions and when generating and sustaining the heat to cook with was not simply a matter of flicking a switch but an almost Herculean daily labour. The foods people eat, and the way that they cook them, have profound implications for how people's lives - and indeed whole societies - are structured, and so Colquhoun might have told us something about the relationship between culinary development and social organisation. The story of cooking is also, to a large extent, the story of technology - of how humans have gradually overcome the barriers between the raw stuff of nature and the satisfaction of their bodily cravings. Imagine living at a time when there was no way (or no easy way) to prevent ingredients' almost instantaneous putrefaction. What implications did this have for the way things tasted, for what cooking techniques were adopted, for how kitchens and store cupboards were organised?
Occasionally, Colquhoun does home in on an aspect of our culinary development, and her book comes to life. She offers an entertaining account of the invention of ice cream in the 18th century, something only made possible by two discoveries: first, a way of making ice formed in winter last into summer (through the construction of underground pits), and second, a way of using that ice to freeze liquids (achieved by packing it round the container containing the liquid and mixing in salt). The result is an absorbing description of the origins of a foodstuff that we now take for granted but which, when it was first tasted, must have inspired the sort of wonder that today only Heston Blumenthal's liquid nitrogen foams can.
These are the sort of sustained narratives that a book like this needs - but for the most part Colquhoun confines herself to piecemeal summarising. The ability to absorb and regurgitate primary sources is a useful skill in history-writing. But being able to tell a story in an engaging way is an even more important requirement.