Notoriously slow on the uptake, and quite often utterly oblivious to what’s going on around me, even I haven’t failed to notice the recent trend for historical British food that seems to be influencing high end restaurant menus and cookbook publishers output alike. Yes, it seems that this year the combination of old and British is a winning one.
But not just anything ancient and of this green and pleasant land will do. That’s way too easy, British nursery food has been done to death in the past few years and is now almost a default choice on pub menus across the land. No. It seems it also has to be obscure.
Before featuring on the menu at Heston Blumenthal’s new London restaurant ‘Dinner’ how many of you had heard of the 17th century salad dish, salmagundi? I know I hadn’t. Sounding perhaps like a particularly loathsome venereal disease, it’s been plucked from historical culinary obscurity, rediscovered and reinvented for the 21st century. (Just so you know, it’s a salad comprised of cooked meats, seafood, vegetables, fruit, leaves, nuts and flowers and dressed with oil, vinegar and spices).
The Gilbert Scott, Marcus Wareing’s brand spanking new St Pancras restaurant (It opened just last week, and I’m gagging to eat there) similarly has a menu littered with forgotten British dishes that probably haven’t been served to a paying customer for at least a hundred years. Dorset Jugged Steak or Tweed Kettle anyone?
So you’re excited about all this unusual yet strangely familiar British food. But can’t wait 3 months for a table at Heston’s ‘Dinner’ and St Pancras isn’t handily located in your particular ‘hood’? You want to get in on the act, and you fancy cooking up some 19th or 18th century British food of your own. Superb. But where to begin?
Luckily, most of the cookery book publishers anticipated this trend and are re-releasing classic and quite often, downright obscure culinary texts as we speak.
Particularly interesting are the Penguin ‘Great Food’ paperbacks. This beautiful series of re-printed classic books cover a range of authors from Victorian cook Eliza Acton to 18th century housewife and the original domestic goddess - Hannah Glasse. Not all the books in the series deal with British food, but the majority have a link.
What I find fascinating, flicking through the pages is quite often, how little anything has actually changed. Many of the recipes and dishes are not a hell of a lot different from the versions you might find in a much more modern book. However, just to keep you on your toes, the very next recipe will be a ‘certain cure for the bite of a mad dog’ or a ‘receipt against the plague’ (If you’re interested. It’s a rather heady mix of rue, sage, mint, rosemary, wormwood and lavender cooked in white wine vinegar for 4 days, then mixed with camphor – wash your loins with that concoction, and you’re free to strut around town with no chance of contracting the plague at all).
My absolute favourite from the series is ‘Recipes from the White Hart Inn’ by William Verrall. An 18th century landlord from Sussex, who had trained as a chef in France and was trying to introduce the ‘modern and best french cookery’ to his customers. The preface where he describes being hired to cook a dinner in a Gentleman’s house, and the resulting woeful lack of equipment and culinary knowledge on the part of the incumbent cook and indeed the diners had me in hysterics. Surprisingly, most of the recipes seem very up to date (which is indicative perhaps of how little French cuisine has changed). Williams’s thoughts on the use of fresh vegetables, herbs, ‘mise en place’ and good kitchen management are just as valid today as they were then. All imparted in impossibly elaborate, beautiful Georgian prose with a mile wide streak of gruff pub landlord running through it. Hilarious. I can’t recommend it enough, if only for the sheer entertainment value.
Quadrille are also in on the act with a selection of re-released, long lost, volumes in their ‘Classic voices in food’ range. Eliza Acton features again, in a rather hefty and beautifully printed ‘Modern cookery for private families’. It’s incredibly comprehensive with 34 chapters covering pretty much, every conceivable facet of cooking. From soups to preserves, including unusually for the period, a whole chapter on ‘foreign and Jewish cookery’. Once again, it’s a fascinating and rather useful book, especially if you’re looking for some ‘on trend’ historical British grub inspiration
I absolutely love this unexpected direction British food has taken. Looking into it’s distant past and rediscovering itself. Instead of feeling like the red-headed culinary step child and constantly looking abroad to other cultures for ideas and influence, it seems that we’ve finally realised that once upon a time, way back when, we had some pretty bloody good food of our own, right here. I’m so proud and getting just a bit teary; after I’ve finished belting out a verse of Jerusalem, I might start hunting around for a tricorn hat on Ebay.