'British Food: an extraordinary thousand years of history' is by Colin Spencer, food writer and food historian, who currently writes for Country Living and is a former president of the guild of food writers.
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The book sets out to answer the question: "How did the mixture of peoples that became the British come to have such definitive culinary tastes?" and "why did their particular style of food decline so direly that it became a world-wide joke?"
The author achieves this goal by exploring the connection between historical events and food. The struggle for control of the land between conquerors and natives, the church and the nobility, the peasant and the wealthy all came into play in creating what we eat and why.
The wealth of food from the land and the sea attracted invaders early on. The Roman influence in husbanding the land and its resources was lost after they left. The founding of the Christian church in Britain was another early influence--from its custom of non-meat eating days that supported the fish industry, fast days, and the requirement of the peasant to pay tithes. The growth of the nobility and the Crusades that brought back strange spices and recipes from the east both contributed to the emerging cuisine.
Certainly, natural catastrophes such as the 10th century's extreme weather and the plague played their parts in the crops grown and ultimately in what the diet of rich and poor alike became. As the author states, "Gastronomy cannot flower without a secure context." The author quotes from 'Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom', "War is probably the single most powerful instrument of dietary change in human experience.' This is the background to his section on the 14th century where nobility with its rarified cuisine began to filter down to the simplest table.
The section on Tudor wealth and domesticity is of particular interest. According to the author, it is this time in history where "we can clearly recognise our own cooking, our own food, our own traditional dishes---." Royalty got into the act, trying to control food and its supply by royal proclamations.
There are numerous fascinating tidbits, such as hops being regarded as a pernicious weed before 1530. After they began to be used as an ingredient in beer, traditionalists criticised their use. This was also a time when, with the rise of the middle class, printed cookbooks came into their own.
The century following Tudor rule, with its civil war, republic, and return of the monarch saw further changes as market gardens and coffee houses became popular with the middle classes.
Land enclosures and the industrial revolution put paid to peasant cooking. The rise of the country estate and the emergence of technological innovations in the kitchen further altered national cuisine. Our British breakfast and Mrs. Beeton came into prominence in the 1800s. Our changing food habits continued into the 1990s.
Historical recipes are included in the book along with lists of crops grown and imported, how various dishes were cooked, what was found in the kitchens, table service, and farming. There is a valuable glossary and a listing of wild food plants.
While the wealth of minute detail is proof positive of the author's extensive and exhaustive research into his subject, it is perhaps of more interest to readers with a background or interest in food than for the average reader. Nevertheless, this book is valuable in itself as research and thus demands a place on the bookshelf of all interested in British history.
10 Chivalry Rd
London SW11 1HT
ISBN 1 904010 16 4
Bookcover courtesy Grub St London publishers