Is English food having a revival?

This article first appeared in the Guardian on 4 July 2012.

There has been much talk in recent years about a British food renaissance.   But what is meant by British, let alone English food?   Everyone has a different answer. Shaun Hill, chef of the Michelin-starred The Walnut Tree restaurant in Wales, believes it to be “a style of eating that the English identify with, even if the menus are sometimes in French”.   Chef Fergus Henderson, one of our great exponents of British cooking, says: “It’s all about a plain English approach and enjoying the limitations that the English seasons set.”

Often, you can see things more clearly in hindsight. Arabella Boxer’s Book of English Food , first published in 1991 and reissued this week [4 July 2012], offers such an opportunity.   In this classic, Boxer depicts English food of the 1920s and 30s. For a brief period, there was a flowering of English cuisine as Edwardian pomposity gave way to a more relaxed attitude to eating.   There were fewer courses, the elements of each dish were cooked separately, contrasting flavours first meeting on the plate.   Sharp, sour or spicy sauces enhanced plain, good-quality ingredients.  

Boxer explains how austerity and post war rationing prevented this culinary renaissance from filtering down through the social classes.   By the 1950’s any sense of national culinary identity had been lost and the English went overboard for Elizabeth David’s escapist vision of Mediterranean food.

When Boxer’s book came out, it showed me a world of English food that I had glimpsed only in references made by Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David.   Boxer brought the period alive, through the recipes of food writers, socialites, bohemians and upper class households. Everything from the lack of servants amongst the poorer intelligentsia such as Virginia Woolf, to the arrival of electric ovens, influenced this modern, relaxed style of English cooking.   The book includes sections for breakfasts, picnics, first courses, savouries and drinks; and the recipes gently guide you through making a dish, be it cold spiced beef, jugged peas or raspberry ice.

As the youngest daughter of Francis Stuart, 18th Earl of Moray, and his American wife, Boxer knew the society she was writing about. Her first book, write First Slice Your Cookbook came about after a suggestion from her husband, Mark Boxer, the cartoonist and magazine editor, who designed it.

Hill remembers her Book of English Food ’s publication. “Boxer’s recipes are the sort of dishes Mark Hix might put on his menu now” he chuckles. Chef, Jeremy Lee, who has spent much of his career cooking stylish British food, is another fan: “Her dishes like fillets of sole with horseradish sauce which brought me back to the idea of very beautiful, simple food.”

Lee and Hill believe that part of what makes a perfect English meal is cultural. “We delight in a pastoral ideal with everyone sitting cheek by jowl to eat natural, fresh, beautiful ingredients, cooked simply.   I think Arabella has an instinctive understanding of this in her book,” says Lee.  

If you are unfamiliar with this book, seek it out, cook and enjoy.


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