This article first appeared in the Guardian on 4 July 2012.
There has been much talk in recent years about a British
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
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.
Boxer’s Book of English Food, first
published in 1991 and reissued this week [4 July 2012], offers such an
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.
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
Boxer explains how austerity and post war rationing
prevented this culinary renaissance from filtering down through the social
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
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
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