I think I read more cook books than I do proper books or comics these days, which is a little terrifying! So I am probably better able to offer my opinions on these, than whether Will Self deserves the Booker Prize (he did for his earlier work, less so now) or whether Matt Fraction is the new Alan Moore (Yes, but only if he loses his mind).
So here is my first cookbook review. It is a pretty old book, originally published in the 1970s, and as a word of warning, it expects you to know a bit about cooking.
Indeed, one of the principal charms of this book is Grigson’s occasional cutting barb at those who had, even at this time, started to embrace convenience food culture.
Let them not plead poverty as an excuse for bad food… This really is trahison des clerks. ‘Let them have trash’ seems a far worse attitude than ‘Let them eat brioche’.
She was clearly thinking forward, even at this time. Which makes this book all the more interesting, as it’s focus is resolutely on our culinary past.
Firstly, the use of ‘English’ in the title is somewhat of a misnomer. It does also celebrate Welsh and Scottish cuisine. Each section is divided up into the usual categories, but is prefaced with a detailed history of how these dishes had developed in the UK, along with Grigson’s thoughts on their probable future.
The recipes themselves span from medieval eating up to the present day, and where it is interesting, she provides some colour on this matter. Her own recipe for Yorkshire Puddings is told with a gleam of nostalgia for her grandad’s recipe, that has remained unchanged since the 1800s, then immediately follows with a Chinese adaptation that had recently won a competition, by Ting Sung Chan, with a mysterious secret ingredient*.
Most importantly, the book makes the case that the old clichĂ© about English food being bland, tasteless and inferior to that of Europe’s is absolute nonsense. In it’s rich history, there are a great many cases of cross pollination with French cuisine, where it is likely we were the originators, but more importantly she points out our beautiful regional cuisine. There are five recipes for different rarebit, from the traditional Welsh, to an ale soaked English, to a very rich and coronary inducing variation on egg and soldiers (and a lot of cheese and cream) known as Lady Shaftesbury’s Toasted Cheese. As somebody now living in the Black Country, her recipe for faggots** is a sage and nutmeg flavoured delight, which I fully intend to put up a version of soon.(with a little modern adaptation- pork caul is sodding hard to get hold of in the quantities required in this day and age).
It being an old fashioned cookery book, there are no pictures, but Jane Grigson is a very good writer, and there is very little in the book that she doesn’t manage to paint a perfect verbal picture of in your mind.
Really, the only way to get across quite how wonderful this book is would be to buy your own copy. Even if you never cook a meal from it, it is a brilliant read and you will come away with several preconceptions burst forever. I am not a flag waving patriot, and wholly doubt I ever will be, but this is a book which makes me proud to be an Englishman, from a country where we have some of the world’s best recipes, but are far too blinkered or polite to ever admit to it.
* The secret being there isn’t one, it’s just really good.
** I haven’t become a homophobe. A faggot is a pork and sweetbread meatball with herbs, and is named after the original English meaning of the word meaning ‘bundle’. It is delicious, somewhat comparable to the Spanish albondiga, but earthier. A basic version, by the terrifyingly named Mr. Brains can be found in the freezer section of most supermarkets.