Recreating a country’s cuisine after capitalism, imperialism, and self-inflicted wounds have “fucked it to pieces” is no easy task. It’s necessary to find a balance between the old and the new–to retain or revive traditions (such as steaming, smoking, and salting) and ingredients (please love the humble turnip, it wants to be loved) while accepting the enormous debt England and its neighbours have always been in to trade, to external ideas, and increasingly to the influx of other traditions and ingredients from around the world. It’s especially necessary to remember that interconnectedness is the core of the culture of the isles and has been since before a bunch of Italian empire-builders stomped all the way up to the Borders and complained that they didn’t have thick enough socks.
With a largely temperate-oceanic climate and some bad soils in parts of the UK it’s tempting to view the country as largely barren–it’s certainly not the breadbasket of Ukraine or the garden of the Fertile Crescent. But the British Isles as an environment yield plenty of food much of which we’ve moved away from; some of it indigenous, some of it introduced.
A natural resident of the islands, usurped by the more nutritious and starchier potato, turnips have a bad reputation and have been used as a comedic byword for deprivation. But a variety of hard root vegetables grow well in British soils, and benefit from long, slow cooking in fatty stews, providing bulk and sustenance, and a little variety to go with the potatoes and carrots we still eat. Also, turnips make great pickles.
Remains of Romano-British meals dug up in London tell us we were eating “celtic beans” (like broad beans, but not as broad), chickens and their eggs, oysters, and a bunch of indigenous and roman-introduced plants (alexanders, now largely forgotten about, were a Roman favourite; hazelnuts just grew here) alongside our fat round bread–all at 1800 years ago.
Cheese has been made in this country for thousands of years, although hard cheeses like cheddar, associated with this country, are a relatively new development. In addition to formerly-indigenous animals like aurochs and their smaller cousins oxen, wild boar, and the remaining deer and hare, we also ate wildfowl, small birds (blackbirds, for example), and animals like voles. Farmed animals, such as horses, pigs, cattle, and sheep, also provided mostly winter sustenance, with sheep turning the thin grass of mountainsides into edible animal proteins, and pigs transforming acorns into stew and cooking fat. On the coasts and by the rivers, fish and plentiful shellfish–not just oysters but limpets, mussels, whelks, and winkles–helped to bulk out diets. Stone tanks for limpet-farming have been found in Orkney dating back well beyond writing.
Away from complex animal proteins, the country has produced a variety of plant foods–peas and beans might originally have been imported, but both flourish in our climate, runner beans in particular. Cereal crops such as wheat in the south, and barley, oats and rye further north have provided the starchy basis of the British diet before the introduction of potatoes from Peru in the Renaissance period. Vegetables included kale-like winter and spring greens (which have since diversified into spinaches and other leaf vegetables thanks to the miracle of selective breeding, agricultural fact fans!) as well as the ubiquitous cabbage, alliums like leeks and onions (garlic, usually imported from the continent, was highly prized), and more flavourful wild life plants like wild garlic, nettles, and watercress. Peppery plants abounded. We also consumed bull-rush pith, and during the Tudor period a Chinese relative of the parsnip, Skirret (a root with a complex flavour profile) enjoyed a brief vogue on the tables of the wealthy. Oh, and the kings of the 13th century were obsessed with fennel.
Whether we ate flax as well as using it for cloth fibres is debatable, but it grows here. We also have and, unlike the land-based wealth of plant and animal biodiversity which has vanished from out landscape as well as from our tables, continue to have a huge range of seaweed, all of it edible, some of it still eaten. We’re also not short on edible mushrooms, and have a couple of species of immediately-edible nuts and one or two that make decent flour if leeched long enough.
What does this result in?
Many of the plants and fruits which grew and grow easily in this country (with exceptions of strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries, later joined by apples and pears and stone fruits) taste, bluntly speaking, pretty bloody awful when they’re raw–if not actually toxic. The winters are bitterly old in many parts of the country and sodden in all of them. Although the first nation on earth to industrialise (which did a number on our food culture and social structure that we still haven’t recovered from, thanks capitalism), storage solutions for food were still slow in coming in the interim between “everyone has a nice cold cellar and a shed for their ham” and “congratulations on your new fridge-freezer, Mrs. Bucket”.
Breads and porridges exist more or less everywhere in the world where forms of grain/cereal are grown, in one form or another. The British Isles are no exception. Drying plants must have been a chore and a half in our perennially-damp climate, but with hard roots and protein-filled pulses it was worth the effort. Perhaps less so for leaf vegetables.
Some of our traditions for preserving meat and fish–smoking and salting–remain in the form of kippers, smoked salmon, and cured ham, but a lot of them seem to have fallen by the wayside. Looking to cultures with more unbroken food traditions and similar climates turns up a far greater inventive variety of meat preservation methods that also act as flavour-enhancers; there’s also a dearth, these days, of pickling and preserving of fruit and plants.
Once ingredients are dried, they’re harder to cook with quickly, but fortunately the British have long had a solution to that: the soup, the stew, and the “pottage” (basically stew but like, mushier). Frequently a pot could be kept on a low simmer for days on end, with ingredients added in and taken out meal by meal, water added, and flavours intensified and altered with each passing day.
Added bonuses of making a multi-day stew, in a climate that’s frequently cold and wet, before central heating is a thing and when “poo in the water” isn’t something we know enough to avoid…
- Warms the room being cooked in, for multiple days
- Helps to clean both the water and the ingredients for consumption, by killing most of the pathogens.
- Hot water creates steam, and steamed puddings (fat, flour, and water all being readily accessible, never mind blood and sausage ingredients for a black or white pudding), perhaps unsurprisingly, are Our Thing.
Rich to Poor
This the direction new ingredients travel in the UK and always have: the wealthy get the fancy new ingredients and their cooks spend a while puzzling how to use them, and then these dishes finally stop being expensive and therefore fashionable, and the dishes become available to the poor, and then they’re “bad, crappy food”.
The Crusades, when half of Europe picked up and fucked off to the Eastern end of the Mediterranean to do a lot of murdering and generally behave like English people on a stag do, brought mostly men of a huge variety of social classes into contact with radically different ingredients and cuisines. For those who remained in Antioch, palates changed. For those who returned then to England, the desire for spice and heat beyond the rare experiences provided by the indigenous herbs came with them.
By the time Richard II commissioned The Forme of Cury, the taste for sweet and spicy foods (the recipes contained within use a lot of sugar) as symbols of wealth and power had combined with the use of rich meats for the same purpose for some centuries. Even in this first English cookbook the influence of trade and travel was embedded deeply: recipes cribbed from France, Portugal, and Arab Spain.
In waves of discovery, oranges, coffee, potatoes, tomatoes, pineapples, tea, chocolate, and bananas were added to the English palate and many have become staples (pineapples perhaps less so). And, in an amusing parallel with that first cookbook, the English became obsessed with curry.
In light of all this, it would be absolutely absurd to suggest that “traditional” English cuisine is or ever should be limited to indigenous and local ingredients–especially since one of the end results of a brutal expansionist policy in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries was the acquisition not only of new ingredients but new ways of cooking as citizens of what were to become Commonwealth countries in the 20th century came to England and brought with them the condensed power of millennia of cooking traditions the English hadn’t even touched on.
As a result of which, the English once again became obsessed with curry. I think it’s possible that with at least three separate iterations of “being obsessed with curry”, it’s something that has to end up in any English cuisine, even before we consider the impact of fusion dishes like the imperialist period kedgeree (the marrying of English tastes with traditional kitchiree), mulligatawny, and chutneys, and more recent, England-based inventions by British-Indian and British-Pakistani chefs such as the Birmingham Baltis and the nationally-beloved chicken tikka massala.
A taste for novelty (and a tendency to bastardise it) is as much part of English food as root vegetables and butter, pie or sandwiches (and as many businesses have proven, combining chicken tikka massala with pie or sandwich formats is a sure-fire winner). It would be madness to ignore that English cuisine and culture is heavily impacted by its relations with the rest of the world, and has its roots from all over Europe, if not the rest of the world too.
One Tradition, One Trade:
Savoury porridges using different types of grain or cereal (frumenty, using cracked wheat, was popular in England, kayu made with rice in Japan) are a common staple food. As “cracked wheat” is a bugger to acquire on a budget and then a bigger bugger to find something to do with regularly enough to not just have it Sitting In The House Taking Up Space, I’ve been playing with porridge oats instead. You can almost certainly do this with barley too.
1/2 pint (250ml) of stock, whatever stock you want
1 tsp oil (or equivalent butter)
salt, pepper, mixed dried herbs
about 30g whole porridge oats
1 puck (about 30g) of frozen spinach
40g (about 3 tbsp) of frozen peas
about 1 tsp of lemon juice, lime juice, or whatever vaguely acidic citrus juice you have to hand
- Get you a small saucepan. Milk pan is fine. Oil or butter goes in the bottom, heat it up. Gently cook your onions until they’re starting to be a bit see-through
- Turn the heat right down, add the stock, porridge, and seasonings, acidic ingredient (lemon juice or whatever, and bring back up to the boil.
- Stick a lid on it and simmer it for a few minutes, stirring occasionally so the oats don’t stick to the bottom.
- Add your peas and spinach, carry on cooking until most of the liquid has been absorbed and the oats are soft. If the liquid is absorbed and the oats aren’t soft yet, add some more and keep going.
- FOOD. Put some butter or something or chopped nuts on the top and eat it.
Curry Worts (I did indeed call it that to be Smart) — ie, The Trade Enhanced Version
onion, porridge, stock, salt and pepper as above.
2 tsp oil (or ghee)
mashed garlic (1-2 clove)
1/4 tsp each ground cumin, ground ginger, and turmeric
1/2 tsp paprika
1 tbsp tomato paste
about 30g mung dal or other lentil/pulse
- Soak your pulses according to instructions on packet or whatever, except salt the water instead of just soaking in plain water. drain, but hang onto the water separately.
- oil, garlic and onion go in the pan together and cook until the onions are getting see through. stir so the garlic doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.
- Turn the heat down, add the lentils/mung dal, tomato paste and spices, stir until the dal and onion is properly coated and simmer for a few minutes.
- Add the stock, mung water and porridge, cook as before, until liquid is absorbed and the oats are soft. You should have a thick glutinous porridge with a nice vivid colour which is Well Spicy.
- NB I’ve made this to my taste, you may find you prefer more or less spices. Experiment.
As you can see, working with the same base for a dish of oats, onions, stock and some kind of plant protein & seasoning is pretty much open to relentless interpretation. For frumenty, for example, it’s sometimes advised people add milk or cream in slowly while cooking, or saffron and wine. Switching out the grains (and frying them briefly in the oil beforehand, if you don’t want them to stick together) can provide a different texture. Adding more liquid gives you a cereal/grain soup. Throwing in a bit of meat and some plant starch (potato or something) takes you part of the way to a stew… and so on.
All hail THE ROLLING BOIL and stay tuned for more.
Overwhelmed with gratitude? Tip jar.