Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

English cuisine today : Farewell to the “goo anglais”

December 2012. Winston Churchill, when First Lord of the Admiralty, is quoted as saying, “British naval tradition? Nothing but rum, sodomy, prayers, and the lash!” Had he been asked about British culinary traditions, he might well have characterised them as “fry-ups, ketchup, and orange tea” (he never did so, however).


Only recently has cooking in Britain started to recover from the devastating effects of the industrial revolution which, of course, started in these islands. This vast and irresistible process, brought about by what Tolstoy, in another context, called “the most melancholy laws of necessity”, herded the vast majority of the British into crowded, near-slum dwellings, severing all their contact with the land while ensuring that few of our huddled masses, languishing under the shadow of Blake’s “dark satanic mills”, had the insight or inclination to devote much time to the preparation of food.


This is in stark contrast with the situation in France, where almost the whole population, rich and poor, ignorant or educated, retained a passionate interest in what they ate. A British traveller in late 18th-century France, Arthur Young, observed with something close to awe: ”The variety given by their cooks is astonishing; they dress an hundred dishes in an hundred different ways, most of them excellent; and all sorts of vegetables have flavourness and flavours.”


A century later, a corresponding passion for good eating among France’s urban poor is vividly described in Zola’s “L’Assommoir”, in which a group of working class Parisians, blithely disregarding their lack of money, plan a sumptuous wedding feast, discussing in minute detail, dish by dish, and with great relish, the multi-course feast they plan serve up to the betrothed couple. As to France’s remarkable peasantry it is they who, using immensely varied produce from some of the finest farmland on earth, conceived such fabulous dishes as foie gras, confit of duck and goose, cassoulet, and hundreds of other delicious comestibles. They also literally unearthed the finest truffle on earth (whatever the Italians may say about their white truffles) – melanosporum – which was used both in peasant and haute cuisine to transform all manner of dishes, whether in the earthy mode (e.g. potatoes à la truffe) or refined. Not content with that, they managed to create a different cheese for every day of the year.


But we British didn’t just get separated from the land, gastronomically; we also failed to grasp the excellence and variety of the finest fish and crustaceans that teemed in our rivers, lakes, and seas; in this country, squid, oysters, and lobster are still seen by many as something akin to slugs, worms, and poisonous spiders. Indeed, I’d hazard a guess that, even today, a majority of our nation shudder at the thought of swallowing oysters, while our attitude to even some of the more “normal” fish betrays a peculiar kind of squeamishness.


In her seminal work “Food in England” (1954), Dorothy Hartley writes, “I’ve seen turbot, mullet, and many good fish left unsold in country markets with the indignant query : Haven’t you got any proper fish?”. She also recounts how, during World War II when all foods were subject to strict rationing, some of the very finest fish were rejected with a shudder, as outlandish or simply unfamiliar. For some, only such common fish as cod or rock salmon (perfectly good fish, of course) were acceptable, anything else being beyond the pale. Only a couple of years ago a fishmonger gave me, free, a spider crab – much prized on the continent – because none of his customers would touch it.


But, as we all know, things have been changing for the better for some years now and what I used to call the “goo anglais” is in retreat. Even the Oat Cuisine of Scotland is loosening its hold – that country now has a smattering of starred restaurants and, let us not forget, it has given us Gordon Ramsay, one of the most brilliantly inventive chefs in the world. His cookery books (I don’t comment on his innumerable restaurants) offer ordinary people a vast array of simple but brilliantly imaginative recipes that, for those willing to abandon routine, can transform their daily meals into toothsome dishes or even downright feasts. And many of Ramsay’s inventions feature ingredients that would never have had a look in in the old days.


At long last, British cuisine is coming into its own. Partly because we have at finally learned, like the French, to assimilate the best aspects of the cooking of other lands and cultures. Far from weakening us, this new openness has greatly strengthened the hand of our professional chefs and broadened the horizons of millions of amateur cooks. This should not surprise us: the lasting superiority of French cuisine is precisely due to its literally omnivorous, all-embracing approach, its ability to assimilate and make use of any good idea, whatever its source (or sauce for that matter). For at least 200 years, the French – not only in the culinary sphere but also in the arts – have always welcomed any foreigner who could contribute anything positive to their culture, irrespective of his or her origin. That’s why those crafty French, to this day, can count Picasso, Soutine, Modigliani, van Gogh, Gauguin, and many others as members of the “French School” without in any way obfuscating the fact that they were born in another country entirely.


By the same token, in the field of gastronomy France’s classical cookbooks feature dishes originally created in almost every country in the world but which today can be counted as elements of French cuisine. Think of cod à la Portuguese, French adaptations of Italy’s ravioli, or more recently, their adoption of England’s crumble technique, for use not only in desserts but also in savoury dishes as well. So what we call “French” cuisine is probably the most all-embracing school of cuisine the world has ever known. It is the world cuisine of good eating, just as English (a synthesis of all the languages of Europe and of others far beyond) is now the world language of written and spoken communication.


One could almost think that Britain – or at least London – is in the process of supplanting France, or at least Paris, as world centre of gastronomy. Curry and chips may well have been adopted as a “British” speciality (we even have curried baked beans on toast, for God’s sake) but we also now have a number of authentic Indian restaurants good enough to have earned Michelin stars precisely because of the marked authenticity of their dishes – an authenticity that does not preclude a new kind of inventiveness sparked by those restaurants’ physical presence in this country, and by their access to our specifically British range of products. Some of France’s very greatest chefs also have a presence here; and I like to think that the influence flows in both directions, with these Gallic cooks, sleeping in English beds and treading English streets, coming into direct contact with new, sometimes outstanding ingredients not always available in France, which can be used to give a new accent to their cooking or even allow them to create something entirely new.


To prove the point, three of France’s most eminent cooks, Joel Robuchon, Hélène Darroze, and Alain Ducasse, not only run restaurants in our capital but have also separately declared that London is now the culinary capital of the world, with an infinitely bigger and more diverse range of cooking styles than Paris.


What are our strong points? Splendid ingredients, not least seafood, which our cold, northerly waters endow with a delicacy not always to be found in those produced in warmer seas. They include Dover sole* (even the French pay us the tribute of using that English name, accepted as the definitive term), scallops on the shell, lobster, etc.; excellent meats such as Welsh and Romney Marsh lamb, Angus and dexter beef, label anglais chicken; the occasional rare breed of pork; and a number of cheeses like Cheddar and Stilton which can be counted among the world’s greatest (just taste a farmhouse Stilton or a Montgomery, Lincolnshire Poacher, or Isle of Mull Cheddar and you’ll see what I mean), not to mention a whole range of completely new cheeses. Some of the latter might have begun as imitations of foreign originals but have since developed their own distinctly English character. Others are successful revivals of half-forgotten cheeses that were on the verge of extinction.


*It’s fascinating to compare French sole with English Dover sole. They actually are different. The French has a more delicate flavour, almost like a refined lemon sole; while its English cousin has a richer, meatier taste, and is more of a heavyweight. Going back to the slow but steady maturation of Britain’s cuisine. Mrs Beeton, of course, made a huge contribution in the 19th century by providing the bien pensant British bourgeoisie with a vast array of eminently practical recipes based on a deep-seated and shrewd understanding of what good cooking was all about.


Many years later, immediately after World War Two, the great Elizabeth David made Britain’s intelligent bourgeoisie aware of the manifold delights of good eating in her superbly well-written books about the kind of dishes then being eaten on the mainland of Europe – dishes that contained such exotic and enticing ingredients as foie gras, garlic, snails, duck confit, truffles, asparagus, langoustine, virgin olive oil, olives, and pine nuts. Since then, quite a few people have made useful contributions to this steady progression towards better eating; the now largely forgotten Philip Harben, Len Deighton, the thriller writer, who had a column on food in the “Observer”, and the American Robert Carrier, who settled here many years ago (He died a few years back). He opened several pace-setting restaurants and also published a series of highly informative cookery books filled with good advice and many eminently practical recipes.


This process has been accelerating. Not only have top French chefs established Michelin-starred restaurants here but English cooks have collected an impressive number of stars and have actually started to challenge, in terms of sheer culinary skills, the long-accepted superiority of their French colleagues. Phil Howard at the Square in London already holds two Michelin stars, and richly deserves them (I’ve actually eaten less well, and more expensively, at several three-star places in France and Spain than at The Square); while Gordon Ramsey at his eponymous restaurant in Chelsea holds three. There are others, in different parts of the country, who likewise strive to raise our culinary standards and enrich our experience in the realm of good eating. This is of vital importance to our nation, not only from the purely gastronomic point of view but with regard to our calibre as a civilized culture.



As Brillat-Savarin wrote, “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are.”



© Frank Ward 2012


* It’s fascinating to compare French sole with English Dover sole. They actually are different. The French has a more delicate flavour, almost like a refined lemon sole; while its English cousin has a richer, meatier taste, and is more of a heavyweight. Going back to the slow but steady maturation of Britain’s cuisine. Mrs Beeton, of course, made a huge contribution in the 19th century by providing the bien pensant British bourgeoisie with a vast array of eminently practical recipes based on a deep-seated and shrewd understanding of what good cooking was all about.


One Response to “English cuisine today : Farewell to the “goo anglais””

  1. […] * English cuisine today – Farewell to the "goo anglais" […]

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