In Defence of British Cooking

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.

32 thoughts on “In Defence of British Cooking

  1. I can identify with much of what you have said. Neck of lamb, liver, boiling fowl were the meats of my childhood. My father, when he had a car, was a dab hand at giving rabbits a glancing blow and bringing the resultant dead creature home for my mother to skin and cook. Because my father was Polish, we also had boiling ring and sauerkraut, and we also often ate pasta and risotto – yes, in the late ’50s and early 60s. I yesterday had the opportunity to eat a lemon meringue pie, and that brought back childhood memories of Sunday dinner, when we always had something like that, or maybe Queen of puddings or an apple or rhubarb pie. Like you, I lived in a household with a mother who could cook, having learnt from her mother. It was by no means all bad.

    • Haha, my dad did that thing with the car too, usually in pursuit of pheasants. You clearly had a much more multicultural upbringing but clear parallels nonetheless. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Lx

  2. Ah yes, the Land that Thyme Forgot!!
    We are well when growing up. My mother did the most fabulous suet crust steak and kidney pudding which would boil away in its cloth all afternoon long. I can taste it now.
    And my dad made us an incomparable chicken soup which I have tried and failed to replicate.
    I also love the way different parts of the country have their own individual dishes.

  3. well written Linda! I am Italian, I cook mostly Italian and yet my first book was about.. English Puddings!..
    I have always said that British food can be excellent, even if it has almost disappeared, at least judging from what I see around me here in London but even before when I was living in rural Devon: I mean, it has disappeared as a living, even changing and yet firmly rooted in the nation’s past “way of dealing with food”: EVERY DAY, as a natural daily occurrence in people’s life. This is what makes the difference between here and Italy/Spain/France/Greece: in these countries, the national food is an everyday, “normal”, occurance, here in the UK, in my experience, “cooking British” is, for many people, something that one does almost exceptionally, as an event…

    If I ask a 30 something British person to name me ten British dishes, he/she would have difficulties (I tried). Whenever I browse through my British cookery books, I am always amazed by how delicious most recipes sound, from soups to puddings… yes, of course, it is a cuisine based on butter, lard, cream, meat and these days all this lovely food has had a bad press and, as a cuisine, it is not as easy as most Mediterranean cooking (lots of last minute sauces, roasting and grilling, which are not that easy techniques to get right), yet I think it has really unjustly forgotten.

    The cookery world has also itself to blame: when is the last serious book on British food published? (oddly enough a recent good and serious book on British puddings, Pride and Puddings, was written by a foreigner – is it easy, from our external view point, to acknowledge and see how good your food can be??) Now everything is middle eastern, with the Italian and French slant still very strong (by the way: from my Italian point of view I regard most so called Italian recipes published here pure trash, what the wonderful Anna el Conte calls Britalian food, which is rarely done well…): where are the British recipes? why no one of the big shots in the food writing wolds embarks on a new Food of England project, gastronomically touring the country and bringing forgotten dishes to the fore? I am still using as reference Jane Grigson, Arabella Boxter, Hartley, Maragaret Costa, Hume, Florence White, Michael Smith.. but these are old books.. at one point it looked as if Gary Rhodes was going to be the champion of British food and he produced good stuff, then he sort of changed direction (perhaps, Henderson’s St John’s books are the last serious books on English Food, but they are severely biased towards meat).

    Some of the typical British ingredients are difficult to get: good lard, tripe, rabbit, cream, unless one has access to a good farmer’s market & has the disposable income to spend on such items + British food is also very much meat and fish based and, more and more, there are environment and ethical issues connected to the consumption of animals for feeding ecc….

    as your main point: that good British food still existed also after the war and before Med food became omnipresent…judging from what I have read (mainly in Jane Grigson) and from what I have been told by many British of a certain age (in their 80s), I feel u r right…my partner is 58 (born well after the war) and he said he ate very very well thought his childhood: solid home made food, lots of stews, soups, pudding, vegetables….I guess u ri right: there has been a saintification (can I say that?) of the Elizabeth David phenomenon and a lot of what she wrote became The Truth, when perhaps (without denying the effects of the war efforts on the nation’s way of living) it was just HER experience and point of view (as much as I love her and her excellent writing/by the way, David herself towards the end of her career seemed to have changed a little her opinion on British Food: hence the beautiful Bread book and the Salt and aromatics one…)
    … apologies if there are spelling mistakes in my rant.. but, even if I am Italian, it is an argument dear to me too. ciao stefano

    • There are lots of things I want to say in response to this, Stefano, but I don’t have time right now. Can I come back to you in a day or two? Watch this space! Lx

    • Ok, I’m back at my kitchen table … this is a really interesting take on British food, Stefano, and it’s completely alien to my experience. Although I cook different cuisines (Italian, French, Indian, Chinese, Thai) I still also cook much the traditional dishes my mum made when I was growing up. I think a lot of people do, just not all the time … comfort food like Shepherd’s Pie, Cottage Pie, fish pie, stews, pickles and jams. I’m not suggesting everyone does it and I do know people who live off ready meals but in my particular circle (admittedly self-selecting for those with an interest in cooking) that’s a rarity. I, and they, could easily name 10 British dishes.

      There are quite a few books on British food, and you’re right that a couple recently have been written by foreigners … the lovely Regula (Flemish) and also Colman Andrews, who I think is American. But lots of other (British) people have written British food books too, including popular TV chefs like the Hairy Bikers and Jamie Oliver, who along with Rick Stein all did food tours of Britain highlighting local produce and recipes.

      I agree that a lot of traditional British recipes are fish and meat based. Environmental issues weren’t much to the fore when they were created and we had a tradition, historically, of being rather good at roasting (les rosbifs). Poorer people though would have seen much less meat in their diet and would have eked it out with vegetables and pulses. That was, in my childhood, still a way of making a small amount of meat go further and I think it’s one people are returning to … meat as a seasoning rather than the main event.
      I live in the country so it’s easy for me to gets rabbits and pheasants (free, usually), and good cream and cheeses direct from the producers. You live in London where prices are inflated by comparison.

      Your point about Elizabeth David moving towards British food and ingredients towards the end of her career is well made, in fact someone at the Oxford Symposium of Food and Cookery at the weekend said exactly the same thing. I think in the drab post-war years people just loved the idea of sunny Mediterranean food as an antidote to everyday life under rationing. And I should say I still love her recipes, all of them, and still cook from her books, along with Jane Grigson’s and others of their generation.
      Thanks for taking the time to write such interesting comments … and hopefully to read this response. All the best, Linda. x

      • thanks for your thoughts. Yes, I forgot Stein, u r right: he had done solid work. I like him. I do not know the Hairy Bikers (I mean, I know who they are, but I have never read them). As for Jamie… I like what he does with kids, but I cannot take him seriously as a food writer/recipe developer: I find he is often “dumbing down his food”.
        After reading your post, I went back to my collection to check other books on English food and I found other good Ibooks I had forgotten, one of which has the lovely title of English Provincial Cooking, by Elizabeth Ayrton , which stands pretty well against its most famous French “cousin” by E. David – lovely notes on each recipes and solid food.

        London prices are indeed over-inflated, due to the unrealistic business rates mainly. However, one of the positive aspects of living in one of the richest cities in the world is that there are niches of excellence: I am not a great meat eater, but when I want to eat a good piece of “good” meat, I go to Ginger Pig or Turner and George: expensive, but excellent knowledge and the possibility to buy almost any cut, which, in my experience, was ialmost mpossible when living in Dorset: when we had the restaurant I remember bashing my head against the wall when asking for more unusual cuts – the amasser was often NO, No, NO.
        Maybe I was unlucky in finding the wrong butchers.
        … and now.. off to make either a trifle of a summer pud! 🙂

      • You are right about business rent and rates, of course. I used to love the Ginger Pig . I’m lucky living where I do that I can often buy meat direct from the farmer, which of course cuts out the middle men (not that I’d want butchers to suffer, there are fewer than there used to be). Our butchers locally are good about cutting the meat as you’d like it, given sufficient time and notice, ie not on a Saturday morning when the shop is jammed. Enjoy your pud! Thanks for stopping by … we really should meet up for coffee in London some time if you have the time. Lx

  4. It’s astonishing that otherwise intelligent and well-traveled people in the States will still say, “oh I can’t believe you’re going to Britain, the food being so awful there.” WTF??? During every visit I’ve made I’ve sent them pics of delicious pork belly with applesauce and such and asked what the hell they think they’re talking about. I assume that things were bad during and after the war, as they were here to a lesser extent. And then came the horrible ’60s and ’70s when people like my maternal grandmother decided they were tired of cooking the good meals folks (including her) had been cooking for generations (even in bad times) and go for the faster opening a can and pouring it over idea—despite the fact that she lived on a farm and they obviously had access to the very best of local ingredients. Thank goodness some folks in both our countries have decided that going back to the older ideas (local, seasonal, etc.) about food is the best idea.

    • I don’t know, maybe I was lucky in that my mother always cooked from scratch. She would have been appalled at the idea of using, for instance, a canned fruit pie filling when she had fresh or her own bottled fruit handy. I do remember a salad she made for dinner parties though (which I though terribly glamorous at the time) which involved tinned sweetcorn with bits of red pepper in it, topped with spokes of canned asparagus. *gag*

      • I guess, after decades of cooking family dinner and one or maybe even two meals a day for farm hands, my grandmother was just ever so ready for modern conveniences! Though she did still can from the garden and I remember how good those things were.

        And, good lord, gag indeed. Whenever anybody gets nostalgic for Seventies or Eighties food, I’m like, no thanks!

      • Well, I can empathise with that … I didn’t mean to sound critical of your grandmother and I’m sure I would have felt the same way. Still, 1960s and ’70s cookery books do make me laugh in retrospect … so much aspic and piped potato! Lx

      • Oh I didn’t take it that way. Good lord, it’s a running joke in our family how horrible her cooking became. I did really mean ’60s and ’70s above, but my biggest nightmare came in the ’80s when somebody else’s grandmother served green jello with pineapple and shredded carrots and my manners were at least good enough that I managed to choke it down.

      • Haha, you obviously had a similar upbringing to me. I was talking to a couple of people I didn’t know the other day, explaining why and how much I hate beetroot (force feeding at infants’ school) but was quite shocked when someone suggested I’d turn it down if presented with it at dinner at someone’s house … of course I’d eat it, and smile politely and say thank you. It does make me want to upchuck though. 🙂

  5. in the mid 1970 s my mum unfortunately started making her own yogurt using bulgarian worms ( this is what the culture looked like)- slimy, sour, thin … it tool me yrs to recover + gimme piped mash any day!

  6. Wow I can’t believe that stereotype is still an issue in the UK! From a mainlander’s view, at least an fairly-educated-in-all-things-food one, you guys on the islands actually lost the icky-food label quite some time ago. Thanks to the large number of UK authors/chefs/TV hosts like Ramsay, Blumenthal, Kerridge and Slater we’ve learned that you guys were suffering from basically the same kind of long outdated food stereotypes we do. (No, we don’t live off of two items, your bangers&mash/fish&chips being our sauerkraut/beer, and we don’t drown everything in thick sauces to hide ghastly things beneath and all that) Thanks to the growing number of really good chefs at our very popular Irish and British pubs, we simply know better than to pay any mind to that faded label, too. I think, those myths are mostly kept alive by hotels and restaurants in the big cities, catering to tourists, giving them what they expect. I don’t know how many times I all but exploded, crying “Nobody ever eats that!” or “Only a tourist (that hasn’t done his homework) would eat that!” when a host of a Travel Channel show pulled a face at the “signature dish” of a country or region, served in a capital city’s “signature restaurant”. And here I was, thinking it was common knowledge that you had to go off the beaten path if you wanted to get to know the real cuisine of the country you’re in. *sigh* This is a topic I could rant on and on about for hours (I’ve already re-written this about 3 times and had two “french breakfast” breaks, black coffee and a cigarette, to calm myself down again >.<), so I'll wrap this up now… all of the European cusines have taken serious hits during the wars and the culinary dark ages of the 60's-80's and all of them evolved far past their reputations by now. With the increasing presence and popularity of the whole food topic in today's world, anyone still going by stereotypes kind of deserves the bad meal they expect in my book… And just on a side note… pheasant, nuts and blackberries? Guess, what's for dinner ^.~

    • Oh, that brought a smile to my face! I wrote this because I was so cross when I watched a famous UK TV cook (who shall be nameless) interviewing an an equally famous cookery book writer who wasn’t English but had lived here for many years … it was an otherwise excellent programme but the writer reeled off that stereotypical stuff about post-war British cooking and the TV cook just went along with it without questioning it. I was steaming and I wrote the piece in a temper! And as for German food, some of the best food I ever ate was in a hotel restaurant in Germany that we stumbled across quite by accident, so you won’t find me spouting the ‘sausages and beer’ nonsense. Thanks for taking the time to write. Lxx

      • Yay! I’m glad to hear that~! Well, I suppose, tonight we’ll all raise our glasses to the results of sore spots being prodded, lucky discoveries, open minds, really good food and the delicous meals narrow-minded people like the chef and writer who set you off are missing out on~

      • hum…. hummm.– famous food writer who is not english-but has lived here many years… not so many around 🙂 (by the way, and I say this emphasizing this was her opinion: Anna del Conte in her autobiography does say the food in 1950s London was bad + products difficult do find)(as does Roden every time she is interviewed :)))) )

      • The difficulty in finding non-English ingredients I’m sure is correct. As for lousy food, they clearly never ate at my mother’s table. 🙂

    • ..I beg to disagree actually.. food has got immensely better here in the UK, but still the lack of knowledge in restaurants, especially at medium level, I find astonishing: I have found a generalized lack of knowledge that starts from the buyers and goes up to the chefs. I know it is a hard job (I had a restaurant myself and I cooked professionally), but I think that very few English chefs find the time to sit and read about British food, from Hanne Glasse to Florence White – if u don’t know about your past, how can u push the boundaries for the future? end of rant 🙂

      • I know you’re responding to Nahdala’s comment here but if I can add my own response … I was of course originally talking mainly about home cooking but I would agree that quite a lot of restaurant food in the UK is still pretty average … there have been occasions when a wait person on automatic pilot would ask if I had enjoyed my meal and then had to stand there for 10 minutes why I explained exactly why I had not. (Don’t ask if you don’t want an honest answer and if your kitchen relies on frozen deliveries from Bookers.) But then I’ve had some dreadful meals in France too, with inedible food and surly wait staff. I don’t think it’s a uniquely British problem.

  7. in the mid(a) 1970 s my silent unfortunately started making her ain yogurt using bulgarian worms ( this is what the culture looked like)- despicable, dark, tenuous … it putz me yrs to rule + gimme piped mash any 24-hour interval! I make out it is a surd Job (I had a eating place myself and I cooked professionally), but I tenuousk that very few English chefs rule the clip to baby-sit and register about British solid food, from Hanne Glasse to Florence White – if u get into’t make out about your retiring(a), how can u push the boundaries for the next?

    • Hi Arsenio and thanks for the follow. I can understand you being scarred by the wormy yoghurt! And I agree, a familiarity with the great recipes of the past is a good basis to build on for any cook.

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