English cuisine is criticised despite a rich heritage and culture that compares with most culinary traditions. This classic extract will inspire both cook and gourmand.
Afternoon Tea, Mrs Beeton, Toast, Yorkshire Pudding and More
The Pleasures of English Food by Alan Davidson is an extract of The Penguin Companion to Food and forms part of the English Journeys series of inexpensive reprints of classic works from Penguin that celebrate English life and countryside.
An A to Z of English Culinary Tradition
The book is an alphabetic guide and starts with the very British, Afternoon Tea, which Mrs Beeton described as “... little more than tea and bread-and-butter, and a few elegant trifles in the way of cake and fruit”. Davidson provides a potted history of afternoon, and high, tea and the associated cultural context and sets the journey off on the right foot.
Ingredients and Produce
England is an island nation with a long agricultural history that has been subject to many external influences: Danes, Normans and Romans amongst others. Its seafaring history brought other produce from around the world. The English cook has therefore always had a wide choice of ingredients and produce from land or sea, wild or cultivated.
Some are briefly introduced but others which have a particular importance or history are covered at length. Apples are therefore considered in some depth because of the wide range of varieties and, perhaps uniquely, England makes a very clear distinction between apples for cooking and dessert apples for eating raw.
Traditional and Obscure Dishes
Many dishes are described and placed in a historical and cultural context. They are then supported by information on how they were traditionally served and eaten; with guidance on how best to prepare them. For example, Yorkshire Pudding, that most English of dishes needs very hot, even boiling fat,. It was not just an accompaniment to beef and in Yorkshire it was always eaten before the meat. In other places it was served with sweet or savoury dressing as a dish in its own right.
Many others dishes are described, many well known even if rather detached from their historical context which is corrected here, and others, less well known, such as Posset have their development mapped from their medieval origins to more modern fools and syllabub or even “suck cream”.
Recipes and Cooking
Although The Pleasures of English Food provides guidance on the preparation of classic English dishes it does so without actually providing step by step recipes. Based on the descriptions an accomplished cook should be inspired and able to to make their own satisfactory version from first principles or motivated to research traditional recipes.
Inspiring Interest in Traditional English Food
Inspiration should be felt by all readers even those whose interest in food is only in the pleasure of eating interesting meals. Many readers will be encouraged by this little book to read more widely around English food, history and its cultural or social role.
Such inspiration is due to the quality of Alan Davidson’s writing which will cause readers to look for more of his work. The writer of this review will certainly be doing so; probably starting with The Penguin Companion to Food – just as Penguin no doubt intended by publishing extracts from such major works in these inexpensive volumes.
The Pleasures of English Food (ISBN: 978-0-141-19102-7) by Alan Davidson is published by Penguin Classics at $4.99 (Can$9.99) as part of their English Journeys series of classic reprints.
This is a book to be enjoyed slowly like a good meal but can be dipped into as a quick snack.