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Writing a history of English food, and to some extent drink, must be a daunting task, but as an experienced TV presenter (as one of the 'Two Fat Ladies' with the late Jennifer Paterson) and as one who was born in the post-war rationing world in 1947, Clarissa Dickson Wright is well placed to do so.
As she says in her introduction, this is the book that she always knew she would write one day. Her account is strictly chronological, taking a path through the centuries, from around 1150 to today. In the first chapter we learn about the importance to the larder of rabbits, pigeons, deer and fish, the later being particularly important as in medieval society, most people came out of winter suffering slightly from scurvy which could be cured by eating vegetables and fish. Pigs served a dual purpose in that they kept the streets clear of garbage and sewage that might otherwise have led to disease, as well as tidied up the London market sites afterwards, being sold or butchered once they had reached a suitable weight. (Before anyone says 'elf'n'safety', fear not - the risk of tapeworm was overcome by proper cooking).
Foreign cultures had an impact on English cookery since the days of the Crusades, when the soldiers brought back spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg. These both feature strongly in 'The Forme of Cury', which was probably the first in a long list of English cookery book titles, dating from around 1390.
Like a good cake, this book is stuffed with so many goodies that it is hard to know where to start, or what to include and what to leave out. Sack, or sherry, began an English love affair with the drink from the time of Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII, onwards. Elizabeth I regularly issued proclamations encouraging people to eat fish on fast days in order to sustain England's fishing fleet, and the celebration of Shrove Tuesday with pancakes was begun around the same time to use up milk and eggs before the Lenten fast began. Tea, coffee and drinking chocolate were first recorded in England during the 17th century, and Samuel Pepys' diary is an invaluable source of various titbits of contemporary food and drink. The origins of fish and chips are still debated to this day, although we can say for certain that they began and rapidly caught on in mid-Victorian times. Charles Dickens, who died in 1870, mentions a 'fried fish warehouse' in 'Oliver Twist', while both London and Oldham, Lancs, claim the credit for giving us the first chippie.
Mention is made of some of the famous characters who left their mark on English cuisine. Mrs Beeton was the major name of her day, although the author wonders whether all her recipes were tested before they went to print as some are far from appealing. A century later the celebrities were stars not of print but of TV, among them Philip Harben, Fanny Cradock (whose spectacular rudeness was quite amusing in small doses, until she overstepped the bounds and in one notorious programme managed to kill her broadcasting career stone dead), Graham Kerr, 'the Galloping Gourmet', and Delia Smith. The author herself can rightly claim her own place in that hall of fame.
What particularly enlivens the last chapters of this book is the fact that the author or her parents were generally there, and she can add some personal reminiscences to round off this superbly-researched labour of love. Her family can just recall how Britain's dependence on imported food can be traced back to the end of the 19th century, as became severely apparent during the First World War. She remembers that food shortages and rationing paradoxically worsened after the Second World War, with coupons for sugar and sweets in force until the Queen's coronation in 1953. Also part of her adolescent years were the coffee bars, which were everywhere in the 1950s but almost a thing of the past by the 1990s, when she visited one of the last surviving ones in Swansea, still furnished with linoleum-covered tables and coffee which had still not improved from the early days.
She does not shrink from pointing out that not everything has improved with the modern age. During wartime, rabbit was an obvious choice for the pot, and the deliberate importation of the myxomatosis virus from Australia a decade later was devastating, with the result that a useful source of meat available to everyone largely vanished from the national diet. Many would agree with her that the big supermarkets have much to answer for in the loss of variety and traditional foods, and that with pot noodles and ready meals we have ceased to be a nation of cooks and are now a nation of food preparers. Above all, she castigates the then government's mishandling of the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001 and the fact that a DEFRA stand at a Yorkshire show that year had absoutely nothing to say about British farmers or food production, on the grounds that 'you can import it cheaper'. (Real life imitating 'Yes, Minister'?) Nevertheless she concludes that English food is a moveable feast, constantly evolving, and that it is now possible to eat better and more interestingly than at more or less any other time of our history.
This is a wonderful book which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. The author's research has been first-rate, her experience lends colour to a work which might otherwise could have become efficient but impersonal, and she writes with good humour as well as occasional anger when merited. It ends with a selection of historical recipes, and the five sections of colour plates, showing us everything from old kitchens and laden dining tables to market stalls and corner shops, complement the text (almost 500 pages) to perfection. If you like food and history - and I suspect that includes many of us - I thoroughly recommend this book. It is a feast in every sense of the word.
[This is a revised version of a review I originally posted on Bookbag and ciao]