I’m at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery this weekend and although we’re pretty much guaranteed some delicious meals, with so many overseas delegates in attendance, it made me wonder what they really think about British food.
Our cooking lost its way after the Second World War and P.E.D. (Pre-Elizabeth David) we lived in a culinary wasteland of Brown Windsor Soup, grey meat and soggy veg. Right? Wrong! Balderdash, codswallop and poppycock.
It exasperates me that as a nation we have bought into the myth that we all ate so badly. With typical British self-deprecation we take it as gospel when pious commentators tell us that years of food rationing meant we forgot how to cook. Or, going further back, that the rapid industrialisation of the Victorian era uprooted us from our rural traditions and the habits of growing our own veg and keeping a pig in the back garden. Although it may have been true of some I would argue that it wasn’t true of the majority.
I am prepared to grant that post-war, the British restaurant industry went into a serious decline. I can vouch for that myself, having grown up in the ’60s and ’70s. It probably explains why foreign visitors thought, are often still in the habit of thinking, that our food is so appalling.
And it’s certainly true that my mother, born in 1921 and cooking for her family from the ’40s onwards, hadn’t got a clue how to make a basic spag bol. Hers was mince with a bit of tomato served over claggy pasta. But I’d be willing to bet that the average Italian housewife of the period wouldn’t have known how to set about a glorious, beefy, steak and kidney pudding. Why should she?
We go on about terroir without looking in our own back yard (the modern conventions of food writing appear to demand French or Italian words, as though we don’t have our own vocabulary. Cucina povera? We called it dinner). British cooking, mid 20th century, was alive and well and sometimes still kicking shortly before it hit the plate.
My mother’s family, who worked on the railways, circumvented the lack of meat during World War Two by sending freshly-caught rabbits to relatives up and down the tracks. My Great Auntie Gertie, a woman famously as far round as she was tall, could skin and joint one faster than blinking and made a rabbit pie that caused my mother to go misty-eyed with remembered pleasure 40 years later.
My parents and grandparents kept pigs, raised hens and slaughtered and cooked them with quite as much facility as their French and Italian counterparts. Grandad Duffin cured superlative hams. Mum and dad, as hard-up newly-weds, fattened cockerels for the Christmas table and gave them to their parents as presents. Grandad Wynne, once forced by circumstance to get over the idea that men didn’t cook, made a stonking beef pie with sliced new potatoes under the crust. I can taste it now.
My parents weren’t well-off but we ate extremely well all through my childhood. Stews made with shin of beef, its collagen breaking down into lip-smacking goodness, bulked out with sweet, juicy root veg grown by my dad. Mutton with caper sauce, my favourite as a five-year-old. Buttery shortcrust and flaky pastry, all measured by eye or with mum’s trusty tablespoon. Light-as-a-feather sponges. Sticky parkin that got better as it aged in the tin (when it got the chance). We never had shop-bought cakes. The Battenberg served up by my grandma when we visited was an exotic treat.
Pheasants and hares would hang in the chilly passageway outside the kitchen to give you a start when you went to the loo late at night and the light caught their dead eyes. It never put me off eating them though. Our hens provided fresh eggs then, when they got too old to lay, were sacrificed for the pot.
We foraged for blackberries, nuts and mushrooms and my mother made industrial quantities of jams, jellies, pickles and preserves from the produce dad grew in a small back garden. So don’t tell me we lived in a culinary desert, it was more like an oasis. I don’t think we were unusual.
We genuflect before the cuisine grand-mère of northern France as though it was the Holy Grail and yet our own mothers and grandmothers were cooking food with similar ingredients which were just as good. No, we didn’t have access to Mediterranean food stuffs and it’s probably true that olive oil was only available in tiny bottles from the chemist and was used to cure earache.
We had butter and lard instead and we thought it was a huge treat when we were allowed to have dripping on toast for tea, scraping up all the good brown meaty jelly from the bottom of the basin. Nowadays we think we’re breaking new boundaries if we make Polish smalec flavoured with herbs. Yes, it’s lard.
And yes, I thought I was hard done by when I lived on Teesside in the 1980s and the market stallholders looked at me askance when I asked for an avocado. They had (it is winter in my memory) root veg and cabbages and cauliflowers, take it or leave it. Today we go on about seasonality as though we invented the concept.
Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t want to be without my repertoire of French, Italian, Indian and Middle Eastern recipes. I love them and I’m eternally grateful to Elizabeth David and her ilk for writing about them with such passion. But it’s surely time we stood up to the cultural bullying that tells us our post-war cuisine was all make-do-and-mend until the day we learned to love garlic.