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?

HEINZ BAUMANN/GALLERY STOCK
Show Hide image

With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad