English Cooking: “A Backward Glance”

Chapter One, “A Backward Glance”, from English Cooking: A New Approach by Rupert Croft-Cooke (London, 1960), pp. 17-30:

A Partir de 1940”, Jean Cocteau is reputed to have said with a bewildered admiration he no doubt sincerely felt, “les Anglais sont restés seuls . . . avec leur cuisine.”  To the French whose conception of English cooking has been largely gained from the fare provided in restaurant cars, multiple marble eating-houses and provincial teashops we must have seemed a hardy and heroic nation when after the fall of France we were thrown on our own culinary resources.  Even today, the foreigner says, when one can eat as well in London as anywhere in the world, we owe it to French, Italian, Greek, Swiss and German cooks who—with one or two notable exceptions like Wheelers, Simpsons and Scotts—not only prepare our food but import their national dishes and use their own names for them.
“There is no English cuisine,” says the returned holiday-maker after a fortnight on the continent, and may even be so rash as to add, “There never has been and never will be.”
I want to nail that lie.  There is and there has been for at least six centuries (for as long as there has been an English language, one might say) an English way of cooking, and it still exists.  It is, let us admit at once, not one of the finest or most subtle, like the French or the Chinese, but it can hold its own with the minor national cuisines, the Spanish or the Swedish for example.  It has produced, as they have, a few sovereign dishes, a few things which are better in our country than anywhere else.  It is forthright; simple perhaps, but like that woman’s dress described by Colette “so simple that everyone noticed it”.  Its very simplicity is both its strength and weakness.
The trouble has been that having the finest materials in the world we take them too much for granted.  No vegetables are better than ours when they are fresh from the garden or small plot and knowing this we cook and eat them unadorned.  To boil in a little water with salt and a sprig of mint is the only sane way in which to prepare fresh spring peas just picked, but nothing could be nastier and drier than field-grown yellow peas done in this manner.  The traveller, too often the townsman, given poor quality peas cooked thus, says that we do not understand the preparation of vegetables and he is right if he is speaking of vegetables in that condition.  A French housewife would turn them into delectable petis pois, using a piece of diced dried ham, and onion, a little sugar, nutmeg, butter, flour, chopped parsley and cooking them in stock.  It would make of those shrivelled pellets something worthy of her skill.  But my point is that the French housewife, all too probably, would do the same thing with tender, bright-green, newly-picked peas and it would rob them of their unique savour.
It is the same with most green vegetables and it is the same with fish.  Ours, from the North Atlantic, so much better than any Mediterranean or more Southern fish, is best presented in some elementary way, meunière, perhaps, or poached.  But Italian, Arab, Indian cooks, working on the rather tasteless products of more tepid seas, have had to evolve highly flavoured methods.  All is well while each sticks to his own, but to do a Dover sole à la Cingalaise with rice, red peppers and curry sauce would be a crime, while espadón, the Spanish swordfish, grilled plain would be quite disgusting.
So English cooking almost by natural selection, certainly through the instinctive good taste of our cooks, has evolved as a way of preparing the finest materials and is badly equipped to deal with poorer ones.  Hence the bad name it has all over the world.  Public caterers cannot commonly afford only the most delicately excellent of provisions and using our methods for others they produce inferior meals.
The English way of cooking is a very ancient one, insular as our own language and character, a thing of our own.  J.C. Drummond and Anne Wilbraham in their magnificent historical study of five centuries of English diet* though they are not primarily concerned with cooking, allow it to be seen that as early as the twelfth century we were going our own way.  They quote an Historical Association leaflet translated from a manuscript written by William Fitztephen about 1183 which speaks of a public cookshop open day and night on the London riverbank where “dishes roast, fried and boiled, fish great and small” might be bought.  Even then, it appears, there was a suggestion of coarseness for “those who desire to fare delicately need not search to find sturgeon or guinea-fowl or ‘Ionian francolin.’ ”  Other accounts of thirteenth and fourteenth century London cookshops speak of pies, puddings and baked meats which could be eaten on the premises or taken home and H.T. Riley in his Memorials of London gives some of their prices:  The best roast pig for 8d.  Three roast thrushes, 2d.  Ten eggs, one penny.  For the paste, fire and trouble upon a goose, 2d.  (In this case the customer provided his own goose.)  The best capon baked in a pasty, 8d.”  It is interesting to see that meat pies and puddings which have remained one of our national accomplishments were already popular.
Nor were our early cooks without vegetables and condiments.  Onions, leaks and garlic were grown in London from mediæval times, (“Wel loved he garlike, onions and lekes” said Chaucer) saffron, pepper, fennel-seed, cane sugar from India and the Near East, and the number of spices could be obtained.
It was a varied and not uninteresting diet which are forefathers had before the seventeenth century.  Fish inland was mostly freshwater though London had fish from the Kent and Essex coasts.  Oysters were cheap and plentiful.  Dried and salted fish came largely from Scandinavia and Iceland.  Salted butter was brought in from the countryside, bread was white, brown or black according to quality, dried fruits, including raisins dates and figs, were imported from Portugal and the Levant, ale was home-brewed.
It was in 1617, however, that somebody said for the first time about English cooks the thing that has been repeated so often since.  “The English cooks, in comparison with other nations, are most commended for roasted meats”.  From the sixteenth century onwards the beer, beef and bread of England were famous.  But our cooks made good soup, too.  Andrew Boorde said that nowhere in Christendom was “potage” eaten as much in as in England, and a good deal of inventiveness was used to make it palatable, fennel being a favourite flavouring. […]
The seventeenth century brought enormous changes and varied conditions.  The potato became a popular food, tea, coffee, chocolate, the tomato and other vegetables became known and table manners were a great deal less primitive.  There are cookery books of the period which shew increasing skill and imagination in the preparation of food, not only for great occasions or even for great houses but among the well-to-do middle classes.  The modern meal began to take shape.  Samuel Pepys, for instance, describes a dinner party he gave in January 1663 which started with oysters, proceeded to a hash of rabbit and lamb, a chine of beef, a great dish of roast fowl, a tart, fruit and cheese. 
But there was another innovation at this time which has stayed with us to the present—the habit initially English of ending the meal with a pudding, tart, a sweetmeat of some kind, which other nations, though they have grudgingly and sporadically accepted it, at first regarded as an example of English gluttony.  “These things,” said an old French gourmet quite recently, “are for the confectioner’s shop window, not for the table.”  Yet a French visitor called Misson, who visited England at the end of the sixteenth century, cried “Blessed be he that invented puddng for it is a Manna that hits the palates of all sorts of people.”  He discovered that it was “made of flour, milk, eggs, butter, sugar, suet, raisins etc. etc.,” just as it is, or should be, today.  It was the growing trade with the East which brought the price of sugar within reach of all but the poorest households. 
The eighteenth century saw the beginning of French influence but it met with a good deal of opposition from the beer-and-roast-beef school of trenchermen as a last quotation of a passage discovered by Drummond and Wilbraham will shew.  This from The London Tradesman (1747) by Robert Campbell.
In the Days of good Queen Elizabeth, when mighty roast beef was the Englishman’s food; our Cookery was plain and simple as our Manners; it was not then a Science or Mystery, and required no Conjuration to please the Palates of our greatest Men.  But we have of late Years refined ourselves out of that simple Taste, and conform to our Palates to Meats and Drinks dressed after the French Fashion:  The Natural taste of Fish or Flesh is become nauseous to our fashionable Stomach; we abhor that any thing should appear at our Tables in its native Properties; all the Earth, from both the Poles, the most distant and different Climates, must be ransacked for Spices, Pickles and Sauces, not to relish but to disguise our Food.  Fish, when it has passed the Hands of a French cook, is no more Fish; it has neither the Taste, Smell or Appearance of Fish.  It, and every Thing else, is dressed in Masquerade, seasoned with slow Poisons, and every Dish pregnant with nothing, but the Seeds of Diseases both chronick and acute.  This depraved Taste of spoiling wholesome Diet, by costly and pernicious Sauces, and absurd Mixtures, does not confine itself to the Tables of the Great; but the Contagion is become epidemical; Poor and Rich live as if they were of a different Species of being from our Ancestors, and observe a Regimen of Diet, calculated not to supply the Wants of Nature, but to oppress her Faculties, disturb her Operations, and load her with, till now, unheard of Maladies.
The case has never been put more powerfully though the passage bears all the marks of the age of pamphleteering.
It would be absurd to suggest the influence of the French, the greatest cooks in the world’s history, has been anything but beneficent, but I think we should be thankful, too, for the robust British tradition that has persisted.  When we read of the Londoner’s predilection for Epping butter we are reminded that to this day in England butter is supplied with any decent meal and in France usually only with hors d’œurvres.  It was not French influence which brought into being a fleet of no fewer than sixteen ships to carry the cheeses of Cheshire and the North from Liverpool to London.  While French cheeses were known only in their immediate districts at the end of the eighteenth century our own Gloucester, double Gloucester, Cheddar, Wiltshire and Stilton cheeses were known all over the islands and in far corners of the world.  We had learned, moreover, to cook all kinds of wild game better than our neighbours and to grow vegetables unknown across the channel. […]
Between Hannah Glass and Isabel Beeton came the greatest changes and the two books shew it.  In Hannah’s time Christmas fare was a boar’s head and our everyday food was honest, a little crude, thoroughly insular.  Contemporary collections of recipes shew that many housewives made their own bread, including Plum and Saffron bread, their own biscuits such as gingerbread nuts and wafers, their own crumpets and muffins, and sometimes their own butter, “clouted cream” and cheese.  Their soups were not in vast variety but their green pea soup was made of green peas (and nothing else but stock and a little sorrel and chervil) and their mock turtle made from a calf’s head.  They knew as much of freshwater as of seawater fish and insisted on eels from running not stagnant water considering that “Dutch eels sold at Billingsgate” were very bad.  Their best oysters came from Colchester, Pyfleet and Milford; Whitstable not yet, it seems, having coming into its own.  They still knew lampreys “cooked in the Worcester manner”.  When they spoke of roasting their meat they meant roasting not baking it in an oven.  They made their own haggis (spelling it “haggess”) and veal-and-ham pie and thought nothing of pouring a pint of cream into any dish that might benefit from it.  They gave instructions for spitting a pig and keeping a haunch of venison for a fortnight.  They had recipes for green goose pie, roasting ruffs and reeves, dressing a moorhen with red cabbage, salting beef, smoking ham, making green-bean pudding, flummery, bockings, syllabub, scalded codlins, bullace jelly, cherry ratafia, oyster loaves, gooseberry vinegar.  They told their readers how to make potpourri and what to do with blistered feet.  They had remedies for sea-sickness (creosote and brandy) and ricketty children.  They even had recipes for boot polish and black ink.  They gave instructions for brewing beer, making hop balm and metheglin, mead and cowslip wine, not to mention an interesting drink called rum booze which came, it seems from Christ’s College Cambridge, and needed the yolks of four eggs, powdered sugar, lemon-peel, a bottle of Sherry, nutmeyg cinnamon and a glass (only) of rum.
What a change had come by the time that enterprising publisher Mr. Beeton persuaded his wife to collect recipes from all sources for her Book of Household Management.  Now the name of each dish must be given in French after its English title and a cosmopolitan air be adopted.  Prince Albert had brought the German Christmas to England and Turkey or Goose had replaced the boar’s head.  Although, because her aim was comprehensiveness, Mrs. Beeton gave recipes for some of the old-fashioned English dishes, she, or her editors in later editions, recommended the purchase readymade or preserved of many things which the eighteenth century housewife would have scorned to buy from the shop when she had her large kitchen and stillroom in which to make them.
But the English tradition, a little solid, only erratically imaginative, liberal and unconfused by contrasts, persisted.  Though Mrs. Beeton might put Rágoût à l’Irlandaise in brackets after “Irish Stew” that dish is given this is pristine glory, and even she cannot find a French equivalent for Oxford John, squab pie, shepherd’s pie, pork pie, brawn, rook pie, pease pudding, baked potatoes, apple amber, pumpkin pie, a score of puddings and jellies, welsh rarebit, while her rendering of scotch woodcock as Anchois à l’Ecossaise is, to say the least of it, suspect, as is Soupe aux Poireaux for cockie leekie.  With the best of Victorian good taste, in other words, Mrs. Beeton could not quite keep the insularity out of our cooking.
In this century the tradition has had to meet other threats.  First of all there was the inefficiency and indifference which came as domestic servants disappeared.  The cooks of our childhood in middle-class homes may have been lazy and pampered old parties but cooking was their trade and most of them did a few things, at least, very well.  As they began to grow scarce during the First World War and non-existent during the second we were left with a generation of housewives who often could scarcely boil an egg and were too disheartened to learn.  They have been succeeded by the housewife of today (who dislikes the name housewife), and her culinary husband, who discuss food rather as they discuss music, sometimes with rather pretentious phraseology, quotations from Elizabeth David and anecdotes of dishes learnt in a wayside restaurant in Provence.  It may be all to the good and it certainly keeps interest in the subject alive but it does not always produce the best meals.  That way of doing mussels with mushrooms which, one is assured, produced such an exquisite dish under the vinetree on the terrace in St. Emilion-en-Daube last summer is all too often uneatable when one’s hostess in Chelsea brings it to the table with glowing pride.  I have suffered more from grandiose cosmopolitan notions of cookery than from rudimentary ones of “meat and two veg” and I have heard of similar experiences among other lovers of good food.  Less dangerous, but sometimes no less irritating, is the other extreme, those sincere folklore-ish people who at the drop of a hat begin talking about obscure and (one imagines) uneatable regional dishes like Essex dunkels and Westmoreland baffins.
Moreover there is television, not a threat to those who care about food and its preparation and who like others to share their enthusiasm, but very much a threat to the diet of the average English household—if there is such a thing.
Then, so far as public catering is concerned, there is the fearsome threat of the substitute and for the first time in our history the use of poor quality materials artfully faked to imitate things which we have always produced well.  I’ve written of this before and sometimes, perhaps, overstated the case.  Every little dirty trick of shady catering is used, even in some places of repute, as, for instance, half-boiling a joint of frozen beef, giving it a spell in the oven to produce the semblance of a roast, carving it cold so that the slices maybe shaved off more thinly and smothering the results with boiling gravy to deceive the customer with the illusion of a hot meal.  Every advantage is taken of the wholesalers’ offer to supply the kitchen trade with huge drums of this or that product, so that scarcely anything one eats has not been preserved in tin and what little has escaped it has been frozen, chilled, deep-frozen, dried, desiccated, dehydrated—in some way messed about until none of its pristine savour and nourishment remains.  A composition like a stream of custard is used instead of eggs, another is called “mayonnaise”; there are cooking fats of unguessable origin and giant tins of a coloured mess made up of cereals, meat-flavoured, and called veal or beef or ham loaf.  Almost all vegetables are tinned (“We can’t get enough staff to prepare fresh ones”) and there are factory-made mixtures turned out for puddings and cakes.  Tinned stews, tongue, ham, jam, butter, milk and fish are found easier for the cook to handle.  This is all the more bitter when English methods are used, for these, as I started by saying, demand only the finest materials.
Finally there are the very real threats not only in England but all over the western world, of sacrificing quality to appearance, of preserving by scientific methods all kinds of foodstuffs and not allowing things once considered essentials and now called uneconomical luxuries to disappear altogether.  Our food shops are beginning to resemble those great American emporiums where everything is wrapped in cellophane and looks delicious but in fact has come from a few months’ deep-freezing.  Is all attractive to see so germ-free that Americans eating the normal diet of less hygienically conscious peoples go down like flies to disorders that come from food and have to carry their tinned and preserved fodder with them.  I have seen an advice leaflet to U.S. servicemen in France which tells them never to eat in French restaurants, poor things.  Pretty polished apples, bread ready sliced, meat that looks like a coloured plate in Mrs. Beeton but in fact comes from the carcase of an animal scientifically butchered last year in Argentina, dappled fish lying on ice, packeted butter mass-produced in Canada, milk that has gone through heaven knows what processes since it left the udder, fruit, fish, meat and poultry tinned and tasteless, coloured pulp labelled jam and coloured cereals labelled meat loaf or chicken-and-ham paste, coffee ground and packeted in some far land a year or two ago, vegetables grown in vast quantities in other counties and pulled from the deep freeze to look green and inviting—is not from these fine meals can be produced, not on these that a more than superficially healthy race can be nourished. 
But as sad is the disappearance from all shops of so many things once treasured.  Since the days of inevitable shortage during the war they have never returned and others may soon be no more.  Where is the half pint of cream that the most modest family demanded from the milkman once a week for the Sunday apple tart?  Where is the sausage of my boyhood?  It is gone, long since, succeeded only by wan parodies, bilious with fat and swollen with old bread, whose proportions have to be controlled by law to ensure that the purchaser secures a little of the gristly flesh of heaven knows what animal.  The Edwardian sausage was not a repository for the machine-minced skin and offal of a pork-butcher’s chopping block; it was made in competition with other sausage makers and it sold on its own reputation.  “Brown’s sausages are very good”.  “I like sausages from the Stores”.  Each his own preference, but no maker could have survived on the rancid miscellany packed into skins today.  Pork neither too fat nor too lean our sausages had, a little veal perhaps, lest they were too rich, breadcrumbs, but not too many, and flavourings known only to their makers, flavourings with which they sought to characterize their own product—nutmeg, lemon-rind, cinnamon perhaps, certainly sage leaves and a few other herbs, none of them too potent for the delicate whole.  They will never come again and not all the advertising of the factory-owners, who now turn out sausages of a kind by the million, will ever convince my generation that they will.  With a flick of mustard and a piece of bread fried in the unadulterated fat which had run from them, they made a food for gods and those lucky mortals born long enough ago to have known them.
Can one still buy, easily and cheaply in England, a Bath Chap?  I doubt if young people today know even what it is.  How many of our grand native cheeses are obtainable?  Cheshire and Cheddar, Gloucester and Double Gloucester, Stilton and Sage, Brickbat and Dunlop, Wensleydale and Stilton, Dorset Blue-Veiny, York Cream and Wiltshire Loaf—how many of these could even Messrs Fortnum and Mason supply?  The very bloater is scarce now and kippers mass-produced while any fish coloured yellow on the outside serves for smoked haddock.  Oysters which throughout our history have been plentiful and four hundred years ago were sold for fourpence a bushel and in Edwardian times for as little as sixpence a dozen bits have become the perquisite of businessmen lunching on the firm’s expense account.  Lobsters which cost a tanner to half-a-crown before the First World War are sold almost exclusively to restaurants for the consumption of the same fortunate people.  Our bacon manufacturers, as I write this, are threatening to close down altogether and I have not seen eels on sale in a fish shop for years.  We are attempting to obliterate the rabbit and where can I buy a York ham?  Does any shop sell turtle?  How many tea-blenders other are there left who know when to add an ounce of Gunpowder Green or a touch of Orange Pekoe to the blend one likes?
All these are gone or disappearing fast, like home-brewed ale, home-churned butter, home-baked bread.  But there are still, thank heaven, a great number of English people who care about good food and who have learned to cook it.  The disappearance of the paid cook from our households was not all loss and men as well as women have realized in the last few decades not only the pleasures of the table the pleasures of the kitchen.  “Cookery is become an art,” said Robert Burton more than three centuries ago, “a noble science:  cooks are gentleman.”  And nowadays gentleman are cooks.
It is to all such that this book, this plea for a reconsideration of English cookery, is addressed.  In our enthusiasm for the haute cuisine of France there is a danger, I think, that we forget the altogether more rudimentary cooking which has been ours since Chaucer’s time.  It sets us very well, and foreigners visiting us, given the best of it and not its feeble parodies, have again and again sighed with contentment.  A gourmet from the continent stopping for lunch and a provincial town wants neither a poor reproduction of his own food, nor a wretched travesty of ours, but one of the things we do well made from the best of our products.  What could be more glorious and memorable, for instance, than a meal of a dozen Whitstable oysters, a roast saddle of Southdown mutton and a Stilton cheese, with a glass of vintage Port (the Englishman’s wine) with walnuts to end it?
Many the dishes I want to discuss are in danger of disappearing, others are scarcely known to the younger generation, others are commonly so carelessly made that they have lost their reputation, yet others are taken for granted till a hostess would feel she was not giving her guests good entertainment if she produced them.  Some have not been popular for many years, a few are regional, a few more have gone out with the great breakfasts of Victorian and Edwardian times.  Some have lost their social status and have turned up the noses not of the gourmet but of of the snob, while others have become the prerogative of certain stall-holders in certain regions and have lost caste, and more important lost quality, in being so.  There are dishes which are now remembered only in literature, like Shakespeare’s roasted crabs that “hissed in the bowl” or Falstaff’s capons or Dickens’s “boiled leg of mutton with the usual trimmings”; others have become almost legendary like boar’s head or stuffed peacock.  There are sublimely simple things like bacon-and-eggs which anyone English can produce and no one else can, just as any French woman can make an omelette and not one in a thousand of other races can do that elementary thing.  There are our more ghastly failures to remember like that nauseating “boiled cabbage” which helped to make English catering a thing recalled with shudders by foreigners, so that as lately as the 1920’s the American Walter H. Page was saying not wholly without justice that we had only three vegetables “and two of them cabbage”.  But there are our triumphs, too, like our strawberries not ruined with Kirsch and such adulterations but plain with cream and sugar, or the discovery, which belongs to us alone, that God intended celery to be eaten raw with cheese.
I do not want to make a case as much as create an appetite.  I do not want to argue the merits of English cooking against any other but recall those merits and suggest ways of taking advantage of them.
So grab your serviette—a far less pretentious word than table-napkin with its repulsive associations and the high-toned giggle of Miss Mitford in every syllable of it—grab your serviette and fall to.  You may be surprised to find how good English food can be. 

*  The Englishman’s Food by J.C. Drummond and Anne Wilbraham.  Cape, 1939.
  Fyne Moryson’s Itinerary, 1617, edited from Hollandshed’s Chronicles, by F.J. Furnivall, 1878, and quoted by Drummond and Wilbraham.