Taste of a nation

Is there such a thing as English cuisine?

Is there such a thing as an English cuisine? It is telling that we've even had to borrow the word from the French. As far back as 1861, Mrs Beeton was lamenting that: "Modern cookery stands so greatly indebted to the gastronomic propensities of our French neighbours that many of their terms are adopted and applied by English artists."

And it's not just our near neighbours whose food we've co-opted: the American turkey has replaced the pre-Victorian choice of goose or duck at Christmas and Sir Walter Raleigh's potatoes quickly overtook earlier staple root vegetables. Indeed, very few historically "English" delicacies stand up to scrutiny as such, from roast beef (we were a nation of boilers for most of our history, according to the chef Fergus Henderson) to the ubiquitous cuppa, as imported from our colonies.

Startlingly, the menu -- sorry, "bill of fare" -- from which Chaucer or Shakespeare would have eaten is full of ingredients and recipes that are all but forgotten today. As Annette Hope records in Londoners' Larder, a medieval noble would have eaten birds such as larks and heron and had his "worts" -- root vegetables -- supplemented by dandelions, hyssop and nettles. The best-known cookbook (or scroll) of the late 14th century, The Forme of Cury, contained recipes for peacock and porpoise, as well as the lampreys that famously did for Henry I.

The other side of the coin is that many foreign dishes came to England far earlier than you might think. The Forme of Cury also offers recipes for "macrows" (macaroni cheese) and "rauioles" (ravioli), meaning that these were eaten in England well before bangers and mash or strawberries and cream. The latter, after all, was reputedly first paired up by Thomas Wolsey -- although the native wild strawberry he would have eaten, Fragaria vesca, has since been cast aside in favour of larger varieties.

Similarly, the English had a thing for spices well before the first curry house opened in Portman Square in London in 1809. The country was an enthusiastic importer in the Middle Ages -- after all, our only native spice is mustard. Saffron Walden in Essex was called Chipping Walden until it became the nation's centre of saffron-growing in the 1500s; and ginger -- now the mainstay of countless Thai and Chinese takeaways -- arrived then, too.

Seen against this background, the emergence of that ultimate British bastard dish -- chicken tikka masala -- seems almost inevitable. Some claim it originated as Punjabi street food in the 1850s, others that it's the result of an Indian chef in Glasgow, armed only with a tin of condensed tomato soup, trying to appease a customer who had complained that his meal was too dry. Whatever the truth, we order it by the bucketload -- and now export it to hotels in India.

The result of all this mixing and matching is that although many regional English dishes still survive, it's hard to pinpoint a distinctive cuisine in the way you might with France or Italy. According to the latest figures from the British Hospitality Association, we now have 11,000 "ethnic" restaurants (primarily Chinese and Indian but increasingly Mexican, too) and 5,500 "European" restaurants in this country. That leaves 11,000 "other" restaurants -- tellingly, the association doesn't record how many are English or British. "It's very difficult to define," says a spokesman.

It's probably most helpful to think of English food as being like the English language: unusually elastic and relaxed about incorporating foreign influences, even at the expense of its own identity. But when you can walk along a high street in even a smallish English town and smell peri-peri, cinnamon and garlic alongside the salty tang of fish and chips, who would have it any other way?

Helen Lewis-Hasteley is an assistant editor of the New Statesman

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 04 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who are the English?

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear