In his book Beef and Liberty, Ben Rogers reminds us that, if there is one food capable of stirring up English patriotism, it's "the Roast Beef of Old England". But if John Bull comes over all misty-eyed at the thought of tucking into his favourite Sunday roast, there is no prospect more enticing than the rich brown sauce that accompanies it.
The origins of gravy go back to the 18th century, when English and French chefs engaged in a contest every bit as hard-fought as the two nations' current footballing rivalry. The French (naturally) kicked things off, by inventing myriad complicated sauces. This might not have mattered, except that 18th-century English aristocrats took to aping the styles of their French counterparts. To this end, French chefs became a fixture in English stately homes, along with French dancing masters and French tailors. Not surprisingly, this soon provoked a patriotic backlash, with writers such as Joseph Addison and Richard Steele denouncing the Gallic invasion.
In culinary terms, what English writers objected to most was the high costs involved in preparing the quintessences, or stock-based preparations, that had become the foundation of French cooking. Quintessences took hours to prepare, and were very expensive. In the eyes of patriotic English cooks, they were an unforgivable extravagance. In her 1747 work The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, Hannah Glasse famously wrote: "If a gentleman will have French chefs, then they must pay for French tricks . . . I have heard of a Cook that used six pounds of butter to fry twelve eggs, when every Body knows, that understand cooking, that Half a Pound is full enough."
The alternative to quintessences proposed by English cooks was plain old gravy. In the 18th century, the highest praise a chef could receive was to be complimented on the simplicity of the gravy, just as the greatest insult was to be accused of an unpatriotic reliance on French sauces.
Gravy, when properly prepared, is indeed a glorious thing. There is something deeply satisfying - beautiful, even - about the idea of using only the flavour that has accrued from cooking the meat to flavour the accompanying sauce. So it is a pity that the art of gravy-making has become so debased. These days, in a grotesque parody of the French practice of importing extraneous elements into their sauces, British cooks flavour their gravies with such abominations as Bisto and Paxo. For the sake of our national well-being, I believe that proper gravy-making must be reinstituted immediately. That way, even when England crash out of Euro 2004 and Tim Henman makes his inevitable exit from Wimbledon, John Bull will still have something to cheer about.