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The unheralded elements of English food

Editor’s note: Has England managed to overcome its reputation as a nation of historically underwhelming food? Considering the attention paid to the tables of “Downton Abbey,” the country’s record-breaking number of Michelin-starred restaurants, its beloved celebrity chefs and some of the most engaging food TV and magazines on the planet, we’d say so. As Clarissa Dickson Wright’ argues in “A History of English Food” (Random House, 2011), there were plenty of good bits in early eras — and ways in which English and American cooks have learned from each other.

Turkey: indigenous to North America and the quintessential feature of Thanksgiving. And yet, by a strange quirk of history, it’s more than likely that the Founding Fathers actually carved their first turkey in England.

It is generally agreed that turkeys arrived in Europe, probably via Spain, in the early 16th century, and by the reign of King Henry VIII (1491-1547) they were to be found on many English tables. They even featured on a 1542 list, drawn up by the Archbishop of Canterbury, of what could and could not be eaten on particular days. His intention, incidentally, was to stop his fellow clergy from overindulging themselves — an endeavor in which he utterly failed.

The word “turkey” came about because early diners mistakenly assumed the bird came from the East (as did the French, who called it the “coq d’Inde,” later shortened to “dinde” or “dindon”). And the word “turkey” stuck, even though the early settlers in North America, encountering the bird running wild in their new homeland, must have spotted that someone had gotten their geography seriously wrong.

The convoluted history of the turkey nicely points up the close, sometimes complicated relationship between food in the Old World and food in the New. In the early years, inevitably, the influences tended to flow from Europe to America. I have a strong suspicion, for example, that North American clam chowder is ultimately descended from the fish and oyster stews so widely eaten in England in the 17th century, particularly in the use of crushed biscuits (now generally sprinkled on top; once used to thicken the stew) and the occasional use of pork. Similarly, cobblers, the sweet or savory dishes adorned with what are basically lumps of scone dough cut into circles and placed around the edge, were eaten in England in the Stuart era (though not called by that name) and are today popular all over the American Northeast and elsewhere.

For much of the 18th century, American cooks relied heavily on English cookbooks. “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy,” by my great culinary hero, Hannah Glasse, first published in London in 1747, was just one title to be widely reprinted in America, although with some adaptations. It was not until the appearance of Amelia Simmons’s “American Cookery . . . Adapted to This Country, and All Grades of Life” in 1796 that an American ventured into print with a recognizably American cookery book, albeit with a noticeable English accent.

English food in the 18th century was food to be proud of, so it is scarcely surprising that it should have been popular on both sides of the Atlantic. Glasse includes an astonishing array of dishes in her book: lots of meat and fish; plenty of sauces and soups; the first recorded curry dish in the English-speaking world (inspired by Britain’s trading presence in India); good substantial bread, fruit and rice puddings for which the English were famous, even among the French; and plenty of cakes and biscuits, cheesecakes, jellies and syllabubs.

Unfortunately, in the following century English food took a wrong turn. With the Industrial Revolution in full swing and with so many people now moving to towns and cities, access to fresh, good-quality food became increasingly problematic for the poor. And for those who did have money, appearance seems to have become more highly regarded than taste.

This is the era when the strong, interesting flavors of earlier times gave way to blandness. Garlic fell out of fashion. The wonderful spices that had been a mainstay of English cooking since medieval times fell by the wayside. Instead, Victorian cooks, armed with their copy of “Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management,” came up with dreary dishes of brawn (head cheese) and mock turtle soup made with a calf’s head, ham and a pound of butter; vegetables were over-boiled and limp. All too often, when people think of “English cooking” — if they think of it at all — it’s the less-than-inspiring food of Victorian times that comes to mind, food that continued to be eaten in England until after World War II.

This is a great shame, for if you look at the best of English food both before and after Victorian times you will find plenty worth trying. Take, for example, a delicious recipe for salmon created by the 17th-century cook Robert May: It involves covering the fish with sliced oranges seasoned with nutmeg and salt and cooking it in a sauce made from an orange and some red wine. Served with triangles of toasted bread, it is one of the nicest ways of cooking salmon I know. Or, from rather further back, what about this recipe for “tartlettes,”’ which I have rendered in modern English, from the 14th-century recipe book “The Forme of Cury” (cury: “cook”):

Cut up some pork and boil it, mix it with saffron, eggs, currants, spices such as cinnamon and mace, and some salt. Roll out some pastry and dot spoonfuls of the mixture on to it, making each one up into a little separate parcel. Boil the tartlettes and then serve in a pork broth.

English food today has undergone something of a renaissance. Flavors are back in. People want fresh ingredients. The best of “traditional” dishes remain popular. Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding (a batter made with milk, eggs and flour) often features in polls of “England’s favorite dish”; quite rightly given the nation’s long love affair with beef (for many years the French nickname for their near neighbors was “les rosbifs”).

But at the same time, foods from all over the world have become part and parcel of everyday eating. Wander around London streets long enough and you will find restaurants dedicated to just about every national cuisine you can think of: French, Italian, Polish, Lebanese, North African, Mexican, Japanese.

And, of course, American. Hamburgers and the rest are as ubiquitous in England today as they are in the country that created them. At perhaps a more gourmet level, many restaurants have been influenced by American modernist cookery, and some of the best English chefs have worked in American kitchens.

One of my personal culinary heroes, Sally Clarke, for example, spent 14 years in California where she met and was inspired by Alice Waters, co-founder of the Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley. She then returned to London to open Clarke’s, her own highly successful restaurant.

This interest in and borrowing from other national cuisines seems to me a very healthy one. It’s also been going on for centuries. Medieval English food was influenced by contact with the Islamic East via the Crusades. My own theory is that King Henry II’s wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), who we know spent time in the Holy Land, helped popularize the practice.

Three hundred and fifty or so years later, King Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, brought with her from Spain a love of salads. The diarist Samuel Pepys in the 1660s recorded a growing love among some of his countrymen for French food. Sometimes, “foreign” food has become so embedded in popular taste that people totally forget that it originally came from somewhere else. Ask the average English person to name a typically English dish and they may well say “fish and chips.” In so doing, they forget that the fried-fish element came from Jewish immigrants to Victorian England and that the potato from which the fries are cut would have been totally unknown to most English people until the 18th century (although it first arrived in England in the 16th century). It is, of course, a South American import.

Which is why when English people sit down to that most festive of meals, Christmas Day lunch, they think that they are about to overindulge in just about the most English meal there is. They conveniently forget that they have America to thank for the turkey, and for the cranberry sauce that goes with it.

RECIPE:

SpicedWine Custard

Wright starred with Jennifer Paterson in the BBC cooking show, “Two Fat Ladies,” from 1996 to 1999; reruns appear on the Cooking Channel. Her “History of English Food” will be released in paperback (Arrow) in October.

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