George Orwell once wrote “It will be seen that we [the British] have no cause to be ashamed of our cooking” *, but it seems to have taken about 50 years for us to actually realise this.
Over the past five to ten years Brits have started to realise that the produce on their own doorstep and the recipe books lining their shelves, passed down from parents and grandparents, (Mrs. Beeton, Good housekeeping etc) are just as good (if not better) than those in the ‘exotic’ cook books that stand next to them. Orwell decried the demise of good old British cooking when rationing was still in operation. He stated that as a country we did ourselves no favours with our lack of decent eateries serving traditional British food, but this was in the post-war era when Britain’s were becoming upwardly mobile and aspiring new and greater things.
The cold austerity of rationing was followed by a desire for the new and exotic. For the moneyed set, it was the French restaurant, offering ‘class and sophistication’, while the less well off, but similarly experimental, sought out the new influx of Greek, Chinese and Italian restaurants that were popping up on the High Street corners of our major cities, offering cosy niches and a taste of warmer climes.
Meanwhile, Orwell craved kippers, yorkshire pudding, muffins and crumpets, treacle tarts, Oxford marmalade and a variety of very traditional pickles and preserves.
British food hadn’t exactly disappeared, it was simply hidden behind closed doors, replaced on the high street by the new and exciting. British traditional food became the preserve of the poor working classes, while those that could afford it were looking for a new trend. Additionally the post-war period saw the American influence leave its mark in the form of fast food; burgers, milkshakes and fries hit the streets and so saw the dawning of a fast food generation.
Now as the young affluent middle classes begin to return to their roots, have children and hanker after the home comforts of their own childhood, there is a rediscovery of British traditions and a recognition that buying local and cooking fresh seasonal produce is better for the pocket as well as the planet. It is a choice based on conscience as well as necessity in the current economic climate.
We are seeing more people choosing to eat ‘Modern British’, more restaurants fusing traditional dishes with diverse elements from other cultures, more growing our own produce and a greater celebration of what Britain has to offer.
This essay by Orwell was a major inspiration to me as I returned to cooking traditional British food, although like any cook I still love top experiment and make dishes from across the world. Over the years I have collected quite a few cookery books and plenty have simple British recipes much used in my kitchen. My favourites are Hugh FW, Nigel Slater, Gordon Ramsey and of course Nigella’s cakes. Two of my favourite books (which will be used for two very British secret suppers) are not by any well-known chefs but are simple reflections of British fare. The 1980’s book The Taste of Britain by Kim and Marc Millon, bought for me years ago by my rather eccentric uncle and Eating for Victory a stocking present from my hubby. A tongue in cheek gift due our skintness at the time and my assertion that we did actually live on war-time rations!! The former has been well used and I just love looking over the 80’s pictures and modifying some of the recipes for fantastically named dishes such as Tweed Kettle, Cruibins, London Particular, Bubble and squeak, Toad in the hole, Star gazey pie, Kentish Huffkins and my favourite Angels on Horseback. I’m sure there will be similar experiments with the latter when I get a minute.
All this reflection is down to the fact that I’m cooking for the new series of Britain’s Best Dish and of course having a show that celebrates British food is another testament to the Brits return to celebrating their own. As far as I’m concerned there’s no better British Dish than trifle and I hope my Scottish variation, Tipsy Laird, comes up trumps! It uses the best of my own local produce and fuses Scottish, Welsh and English elements…can’t get more traditional than that eh?
* George Orwell Shooting an Elephant and other essays (2003) Penguin Books