My mother was a good cook. I’m inclined to say simple but good, but in retrospect her cooking required the patience, timing and talent that rendered the technically difficult outwardly simple. Two of her dishes – tripe with onions and brawn (which required soaking a pig’s head in brine for 24 hours and simmering for another 8 hours before the gelatinous meat could be picked off the bones) demand more time and effort than most would nowadays be prepared to spend. “It must be tasty” she would say as I watched her poaching a piece of smoked haddock for my father’s breakfast or dragging a sizzling joint of silverside from the oven. She was unafraid of offal and her pies were as they should be, with a roof of light, sugar-dusted shortcrust pastry punctured by a ceramic chimney that supported it and allowed the steam to escape. She claimed that her own mother’s food was uneatable and that she had learned her cooking from her father, a chef on the railways in the days when dinner on the Brighton Belle or The Flying Scotsman was an enjoyable 3 course meal instead of a factory produced sausage roll and tea in a Styrofoam cup. The need for speed and convenience has done much to take away one of life’s great pleasures, the preparation of food and its enjoyment in company.
Home-made brawn may seem adventurous to today’s Sydney housewife but Mum would not have been considered an adventurous cook in her time. The culinary revolutions that did occur, such as that created by Elizabeth David with the publication of “Mediterranean Cooking” in 1950, passed her by and she was still serving up her same roast-based repertoire even when Dad’s teeth could no longer deal with meat.
Like most kids in post-war London, I was permanently hungry and kept alive in that era of food rationing by the humble but potentially lethal cuisine of the times. Mid-meal hunger was assuaged by doorstep sized slices of bread liberally covered in dripping (the congealed fat from the last roast) or an assortment of sandwiches, their fillings ranging from butter and sugar to Marmite and even evaporated milk. In spite of this diet and a supplement of halibut liver oil capsules and a daily spoonful of Virol (a malt extract), photos of me in the late 1940s reveal a spindly pair of legs dangling like pieces of string from a pair of oversized shorts. Our cat however, ate in a feline “El Bulli”, tucking into fresh fish and boiled rabbit. If Mum had cared to read “Mediterranean Cooking” the family might have dined occasionally on lapin au moutarde while the cat roughed it on Jellymeat Whiskas. As it was I developed a taste for rabbit by picking at the cats’ food as it was being prepared; together with stealing lumps of raw beef and bacon this habit prepared me for an instant appreciation of steak tartare, lapin chasseur and jambon de Bayonne when I arrived in France.
Along with every other citizen my diet was severely limited by the introduction of food rationing in January 1940, occasioned by the volume of imports lost in mid-Atlantic to German submarines. Rationing continued for 15 years, ending finally in July 1954, when the last remaining restriction (on meat) was lifted. I was 12 years old when Mum handed me a bent, yellow object, which she described as a banana. I was 9 years old when chocolate and candy became derestricted and I no longer had to hand over a coupon for an ounce of Bulls Eyes. To my knowledge the Germans never had to endure rationing and continued to tuck into their pig’s knuckles and sauerkraut delivered under the Marshall Plan.
At prep school, lunch was always accompanied by an obligatory quarter pint bottle of silver top milk. There was a greater choice of milk in those days, which in the 1940s was delivered by horse and cart along with the horse droppings, which Mum scooped up and dug into our rose beds. In later years real horsepower was replaced by batteries powering a small electric float. The different qualities of milk were distinguished by the colour of the foil capsule, silver, green, red, and best of all the gold with three or four inches of bottleneck filled with yellow cream. You needed to be on hand soon after a delivery of gold top in case a tit or blackbird decided to stick its beak in.
Now you collect your own carton of milk from the supermarket where the creamiest product would not even merit a silver top; after that there’s a rapid downhill slide through Lite and Pura to disgusting soy milk, fit only for oiling the lawnmower although I’ve frequently seen it used to contaminate a perfectly good coffee. Along with full cream milk, the milkman also passed into history, depriving many a bored housewife of his casual company and eliminating the source of a thousand dirty jokes.
Alan Davidson, in his “Penguin Companion to Food”, confirms my suspicion that cream no longer tastes like it did. He attributes this to the introduction of mechanical separation (so that cream is no longer allowed to “ripen”) together with pasteurisation. Surely a few people can be sacrificed to the odd batch of lethal bacteria to provide the majority of us with the taste of proper cream.
England has always endured a harsh reputation for its cuisine. In fact the word “cuisine” hints of a refinement that only seems apposite to the country of the word’s origin. In France, I became accustomed to hearing “On ne mange pas bien la-bas, n’est ce pas?” whenever I told someone my nationality. England was the land of over-roasted beef, of vegetables boiled until the colour of army fatigues, of fish encased in batter the thickness of the Polar Ice Cap. It was a country of five cheeses and a thousand and one types of cake. In 1582, while the English were gnawing bones, the French were using forks on the duck course at La Tour D’Argent. While French and Italian housewives were using olive oil and butter my mother was using enough lard (pig fat) and suet (beef or lamb fat) to grease the wheels of the entire rolling stock of British Rail. Our larder (from the Latin Lardarium) was what it sounded, a place for storing fat. Behind this unfortunate but largely merited reputation lays the fact that ever since 880 AD, when King Alfred (distracted by an invasion of Danes) allowed a peasant woman’s cakes to burn, women have been in charge of the nation’s cooking. Where we had Hannah Glasse, Mrs Beeton, Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson, France had Vattel, Parmentier, Brillat-Savarin and Escoffier and more latterly Paul Bocuse and the Troisgros brothers.
In the early sixties there was a shift in the English attitude to food. Coffee, once poured in essence form from bottles sporting a picture of an Indian Army Officer, diluted with hot water and sweetened with a spoonful of evaporated milk, was now discharged from Espresso machines and enjoyed in coffee bars. Olive oil, previously only available in chemists for medicinal purposes, now appeared in litre drums in Soho delis. Importantly, Simone de Beauvoir published “The Second Sex” encouraging women to abandon their aprons for a two piece suit, while Len Deighton, famous for spy novels like “The Ipcress File”, published “Ou Est Le Garlic?” making cooking an acceptable interest for blokes. The Swinging Sixties placed English cuisine in the hands of men; we were now fighting on a level playing field with the French. But the sixties had only sown the seeds and it was another 20 years before there were tangible signs of the revolution. Raymond Blanc was one of the first of the men-cooks to achieve fame with his Manoir aux Quatre Saisons, which as you will gather from the name, is heavily influenced by Blanc’s native France. It was in the mid 90s that Jamie Oliver, who would normally have been a shipping clerk, became the first male celebrity cook, spawning Gordon Ramsey, Heston Blumenthal, Fergus Henderson and many others. The X-rated Nigella Lawson is the exception to the rule.
The fact that England and Australia are both currently represented among the top ten best restaurants in the world, says nothing for the overall standard of cuisine in those countries. Heston Blumenthal’s signature dishes at England’s Fat Duck include snail porridge and smoked bacon-and-egg ice cream – the sort of thing a 12 year old would dream up to shock his parents. The people who voted Fat Duck into the top 10 are the same people who judge the Turner Art Prize and the Man Booker. It’s a vote for multiculturalism; these are dishes produced in a country that no longer has an identifiably English cuisine although it did have some recognisably English dishes once upon a time – potted shrimps, Lancashire hot pot, Simnel cake, Yarmouth bloaters, Melton Mowbray pie, syllabub, pikelets, popovers and Johnny cakes to name a few. In between “Ou Est Le Garlic?” and now England has opened its doors to Eastern Europe and the Indian sub-continent and its cuisine has been largely lost in a sea of curry and kebabs or even worse, “Fusion”. If English is your thing, make for my favourite London restaurant, Fergus Henderson’s “St John” in Smithfield and try his Roast Bone Marrow on Toast, Bath Chaps and Baked Treacle Pudding. Brilliant.