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British Chefs

 
Somerset Maugham once said that the only way to eat well in Britain was to have breakfast three times a day. Not everyone would be so generous. Ironic historians even theorize that Britons conquered a quarter of the world because they were either toughened by their grim diet or in search of a decent meal.

When a Royal Navy ship entertained a captured Argentinean officer to dinner during the Falklands War in 1982, Frank Johnson, the veteran British journalist, saw it as an intelligence operation to undermine enemy morale. They'll think twice about taking on our lads, he wrote, "once they've had six inches of cold British food inside them."

As Kate Colquhoun shows in "Taste: The Story of Britain Through Its Cooking," however, this deprecating view is over- influenced by the poor British cuisine of the years 1914 to 1954 that is, from the exigencies of World War I to the end of post-World War II rationing. The full story it wasn't all cold mutton with onion sauce is much richer.

Ms. Colquhoun, a British social historian with a light touch, describes a long upward climb of British cuisine that nonetheless includes lavish medieval feasts, exotic recipes and the fantastical inventions of "celebrity chefs," who are themselves a surprisingly long British tradition.

To be sure, she begins somewhat grimly with the Bronze Age: Its utensils were beautiful, but the bread was "so gritty and dry that teeth were universally worn to stumps." By the Middle Ages, however, the English had recovered their masticating powers and were known to their French rivals as "les rosbifs," in a grudging tribute to a diet rich in meat.

With the Age of Exploration, the British discovered a world beyond roast beef. New vegetables arrived from the Americas. West Indian sugar sweetened both food and drink. Brits also started to become seriously interested in food. The first cookery book a guide to carving was written by an assistant to William Caxton, England's first printer and publisher. Cookery books have tumbled from British presses ever since and are given close attention by Ms. Colquhoun.

So, long before Charles Dickens began writing about pies, roasts and game dishes, there was a distinctive and hearty British cuisine. Occasionally, as Ms. Colquhoun shows, war and social decline would set back culinary progress. Belts would be tightened, recipes lost, skills forgotten, tastes coarsened. When things settled down, a new start would have to be made. Britain was once famous for its fish-cooking skills, for instance one group of medieval monks devised 30 fish dishes and kept fish ponds to ensure a steady supply. But the country's talents on that front went into decline after Henry VIII broke with Rome and discouraged fish on Fridays.

Despite such interruptions, British cooking became ever more adept, varied and cosmopolitan. Imperial Britain brought home such new products as potatoes, tomatoes and coffee. Industrial Revolution Britain offered technical innovation e.g., refrigerated ships that could carry beef from Argentina. Tourist Britain demanded the dishes that it had learned to enjoy in Italy (pasta of every kind) or the isles of Greece (moussaka). Immigrant Britain turned curries and Thai salads into national dishes. Male Britain was taught by thriller writer Len Deighton and his hero, Harry Palmer, to think of cookery as a means of seduction. And a succession of genius chefs, from Alexis Soyer to Marco Pierre White, ministered imaginatively to hungry audiences.


A detail from William Hogart's 'An Election Entertainment' (1754)
British food today is almost the equal of French or Italian and superior to most other cuisines. The persistent myth of its awfulness rests on wartime rationing and shortages. Food became dull, scarce, even repulsive: Snoek and fried spam were utility dishes designed to win the war, not please the palate. Certain vegetables and fruits disappeared for the duration (and after). When Labour leader Neil Kinnock, born in 1942, was asked accusingly by an opponent what he had done in the war, he replied that he had given up bananas.

Then, soon after the last ration book was ceremonially burned in 1954, capuccino bars selling "frothy coffee" sprang up from nowhere. Aubergines and green peppers re-appeared. TV chefs performed wonders in British living rooms. The long national nightmare was over.

Ms. Colquhoun tells the whole story wittily and well, though I have a few reservations. Elizabeth David of "Mediterranean Food" (1947) and "French Provincial Food" (1960) gets attention but not quite enough. She made cooking sophisticated and gave Britons hope of a better world during the lean years. Marks & Spencer's take-away meals are too good to dismiss as "prepared." The culinary history of the past 40 years the time of finally eating well and adventurously deserves more than the 30 pages Ms. Colquhoun allots it. And "organic" is not a synonym for tasty.

But all in all, "Taste" is a book to be savored. As you sit down with it, you might want to have mulligatawny soup, a cold steak and kidney pie, horseradish sauce, a slab of good cheddar, high-baked water biscuits, a Branston's pickle and a decent Australian Shiraz-Cabernet blend within easy reach. That way, you can check Ms. Colquhoun's research for yourself

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