The received wisdom is that Britain is not a tasty place. Thanks to foreign holidays and Terence Conran, we have allowed ourselves to believe that France and Italy are paradises on earth and that Britain is a desolate, culture-free and pleasure-hating country of rain and boiled spinach. "I'm fed up with this country," we say to one another, and dream of the good life in the Languedoc.
While it's true that we have much to moan about in the UK, what is forgotten is that we have much to celebrate as well. The stuff to moan about is created by the authorities and the big companies, while the stuff to celebrate is created by individuals and small enterprises. This timely book, the product of many years of research, embraces the latter and reveals the enormous diversity and richness of British ingredients and British cooking. In so doing, the book also makes a political statement: it is a protest against the bland uniformity of global megabrand culture, the stifling lack of variety and sheer boredom that our Murdochian overlords are attempting to impose on the world.
Projects similar to this one have been going on since the beginning of the industrial revolution. William Cobbett's Cottage Economy (1822) was a conscious attempt to re-educate an urbanising population, increasingly dependent on wages, in the arts of bread-making, beer-brewing and the rest of the old household skills.
In the 1970s, Jocasta Innes and John Seymour, in The Country Kitchen and Self-Sufficiency respectively, wrote of the simple delights of looking after yourself. Today, we have Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, whose River Cottage Cook book includes advice on keeping hens and growing vegetables, as well as recipes - and who, indeed, has written a punchy polemical foreword to this book.
The Taste of Britain is different in that it is encyclopaedic: a cook's companion rather than a recipe book. It is divided into 16 sections, one for each region of the UK, and one each for foods common to the whole of Scotland and the whole of Britain. In an order that occasionally approaches alphabetical, the book explores local cheeses, fruits, vegetables, beers, breads, cakes, breeds of cow and sheep, jams, jellies and pickles, rounded off by a huge directory of producers.
Naturally, readers will turn first to the section devoted to their own area - in the one on south-west England, I discovered the Mendip Wallfish, blueberry pie and Sally Lunn, a cake from Bath. The Taste of Britain conjures up an image of a vibrant, productive kitchen, the eaves hanging with strings of onions, tomatoes ripening in the windows, bread in the oven, chutneys on the dresser: a far cry from the sterile, empty, white plastic kitchen of contemporary aspiration.
This book adds weight to the argument that our salvation lies not in "organic" food - which, after all, can be mass-marketed by any old rubbish supermarket - but in local food. It shows also that avoiding supermarkets is not some grey penance that we choose to impose on ourselves in order to save the world but, on the contrary, an embracing of pleasure, variety and quality. And for all the attempts of television chefs to encourage locally based cooking, TV by its very nature as a medium encourages sitting down and staring rather than cooking - so really TVs should be thrown out of the window, and the money saved should be spent on books like this. The Taste of Britain helps us to remember that you don't need to move to Tuscany to live the good life. It can be done right here, right now.
Tom Hodgkinson's "How to Be Free" is published by Hamish Hamilton