This is the book that I was setting out to write 25 years ago when I got side tracked into ‘special diets’ – but Clarissa has done it so much better than I could ever have done that I am really quite glad that I got distracted….
It is hard to pull such a huge canvas – a mere thousand years of eating – together without it becoming a catalogue of dates and styles. That Clarissa manages to do so is largey due to her very personal involvement with so many aspects of English culinary tradition, be it the ‘living larder’ of the mediaeval period, the Tudors’ passion for hunting, her affection and admiration for the eighteenth century cookery writer Hannah Glasse, or her childhood memories of salt beef bars in the East End of London.
She has also, obviously, spent many pleasurable hours poring over household accounts, diaries, notebooks and letters – the daily trivia which make the study of social history such a fascinating occupation. Thus the account books of Sarah Fell, stepdaughter and housekeeper to the famous quaker, George Fox in the 1670s, reveal that although they lived in a relatively remote part of Cumbria,‘horse messengers could be send to Kendal and Kirkby Lonsdale to buy brown sugar and oranges. Wine and brandy also came from Kendal as did such medicinal aids as cinnamon water, juniper berries, saffron and treacle. Holland cheese came via Newcastle. Goods could even come from faraway London, the extra cost being split between a group of wealthier families who would club together to keep the cost of carriage down.’
From her favourite authors, she quotes liberally and, what gives her quotes an extra patina of interest, is that, so often, she has cooked the dishes that they are describing. Here she is talking about eggs:
‘The sixteenth century transformation of the egg has long fascinated me. Eggs had always been plentiful in both the town and the countryside in spring, summer and autumn. But until early Elizabethan times, unless someone wanted to make a custard filling for a tart, they were largely eaten roasted in the ashes or, occasionally fried in lard or butter, or poached in water or broth.
Andrew Boorde, writing in the reign of Henry VIII, approves of a newly laid egg, rare roasted and eaten in the morning with a little salt and sugar, but my own experience is that it is difficult to roast eggs in the embers because they dry out so quickly. Certainly, roasted eggs aren’t particularly digestible. Presumably others felt the same way too because, at some point in the sixteenth century, boiling eggs in their shells became common practice….’
Or, quoting a very tasty sounding recipe by William Verrall in the mid 1700s for a side dish involving anchovies and Parmesan cheese, she adds, ‘I’ve served these myself at my cocktail parties and they are delicious.’
And again, quoting her mid 18th century favourite, Hannah Glasse – her recipe for roasting a hare – she says: ‘I can vouch for this recipe as I cooked it myself for my television programme about Hannah and I was impressed that all the baste was used up when the hare was cooked. I can also vouch for the wisdom of Hannah’s observations on the broiling of steaks when she says:
If you love pickles or horseradish with steaks, never garnish your dish, because both the garnishing will be dry and the steaks will be cold, but lay those things on a little plates and carry to the table. The great nicety is to have them hot and full of gravy.
I’ve spent my entire life telling chefs in restaurants to do precisely that. Sadly, most like to pile garnishes on your steak willy nilly. I’m with Hannah Glasse all the way on this.’
She is also extremely knowledgeable, not only about food and about her personal passions such as hunting, but about, for example, wood… Here she is talking about the wood used in a great 15th century kitchen:
‘They would have largely used wood for fuel. Those of you who, like me, have a wood fire will know that different woods burn hotter than others, some spit and some give a long slow burn. Mediaeval cooks knew a lot about wood in all its various categories. Bowls for keeping meat or mixing were always made of sycamore: its close grain ensured that it did not harbour germs. Bowls of willow wood were ideal for keeping liquid marinades. Ash was ideal for a kitchen fire as well as for tool handles. The light coloured woods of beech and lime were used for dairy work and butter tubs. Birch twigs could sometimes be laid in the bottom of cooking pots and the meat placed on top when making soups or stews to stop it from sticking. Oak was crucial for mediaeval buildings, but oak chips played their part in cooking: they were perfect for smoking. An old story claims that the chippings from the building of York Minster were so plentiful that they were the origin of the particularly delicate smoked York hams.’
And then there are her own memories of her childhood in their very modern house in St John’s Wood in the 1950s:
‘Our kitchen contained a large and very modern fridge – a Westinghouse. I can remember my mother saying how difficult it had previously been, even with a north facing larder, to keep things really cold in the sumer. Those not fortunate enough to have a fridge would sometimes boil their milk in the summer to make it last longer. I even heard of one women who, when frozen chickens first came in, would place one in a cold oven to defrost and put the milk next to it to keep it cool.’
‘On occasion my mother would send me out with her shopping list to make the round of the relevant shopkeepers (in St John’s Wood High Street). Sometimes things came in packets, but many items had to be cut up and weighed in front of you, and you had a choice of streaky, back, green or smoked bacon. Cheese was cut with a wire – something that never fails to fascinate me…….’ For someone who was brought up in the same era but whose only food memory of her formative years is that she was sharing a Sally Brown chocolate cake with a school friend when President Kennedy was shot, these memories are magic!
All said, this is an excellent book – a pleasurable and fun read for those who know little about the history of English food, still enlightening for those who know quite a lot, and fascinating for anyone interested in how and why we eat what we do. A great Christmas present – although you risk losing the attention of the recipient for much of the rest of the holiday!
A history of English Food by Clarissa Dickson Wright is published by Random House @ £25 ISBN 978 1 905 21185 2 From good bookshops.