English Food by Jane Grigson

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English Food by Jane Grigson

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Category: Cookery
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: The one cookery book I would hate to be without. It covers all foods prefering quality over quantity or cheapness and the writing is sublime. I'm about to buy my third copy as the previous two have fallen apart from over-use.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: June 1998
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
ISBN: 0140273247

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My mother had always told me that I couldn't cook. As a young woman it's the sort of thing that you believe and it wasn't until I found a Delia Smith recipe in The Radio Times - for Gratin Dauphinois, a delicious concoction of potatoes, cream and garlic - that I realized that she might, just possibly have been wrong. I bought Delia's 'Complete Cookery Course' and discovered that I could prepare perfectly good meals. I bought the ingredients, followed the recipes and we ate tasty nutritious meals. There was only one snag. I still couldn't cook.

Delia, you see, teaches you to follow her recipes and in fairness they're usually pretty foolproof if you follow them to the letter. What she doesn't do is help you to think beyond her recipes, to consider the food you're preparing and how you can make the most of what's available in the shops - in short, to cook. I looked beyond Delia and found other writers who did teach me to cook. The first was Elizabeth David, the doyen of cookery writers, but I found her mainstream cookery books a little too awe-inspiring at first and it wasn't until I found 'An Omelette and a Glass of Wine' that I really came to terms with her. A little later I found Jane Grigson and in recent years I've relied on Nigel Slater, but it's Jane Grigson and her book 'English Food' that I'd like to tell you about today, as she's not nearly as well-known as she ought to be.

There is a similarity with Delia, in so far as neither was trained as a chef. Jane Grigson took an English degree at Cambridge in 1949 and worked in art galleries, publishers' offices and then as a translator. In 1968 she began to write for 'The Observer' and this continued until she died in March 1990. At the time of her death she was working on her third revision of 'English Food'; fortunately she almost finished this - the final chapter on 'Stuffings, Sauces and Preserves' being all that remained untouched.

In her introduction to the book her daughter, the food writer and broadcaster Sophie Grigson (sometimes known as 'her with the dangly ear rings') says that it's rare to find a second hand copy of one of her mother's books as they generally fall to pieces and have to be replaced by the original owner. I'm on my second copy and even this is beginning to look a little the worse for wear. It's not, you see, just a collection of recipes; it's about the history of our food, its strengths and limitations and the things which tickled her, such as the fact that the winner of 'The Great Yorkshire Pudding Contest' was a Chinese gentleman from Hong Kong, with a rather unorthodox recipe. It's not a book of nostalgia, a dreaming about 'how food once was' - she's more than happy to see advances in food, but deplores the lowering of standards in many areas.

Something I've never been able to understand is the title of the book: 'English Food'. It's not purely English food you see. There are dishes from all over the United Kingdom and she's not even averse to pitching in with a recipe she picked up during the time she spent in France, or anywhere else for that matter. It's not food FOR the English either, as that wouldn't be Mrs. Grigson's way. She's even reluctant to categorise food as coming from a particular county, never mind country. So, what is in it?

Her introduction remains for me one of the most telling pieces of food writing that I've had the pleasure to read. One sentence sums up her views for me and I'll quote it in full: "Words such as 'fresh' and 'home-made' have been borrowed by commerce to tell lies." She is fanatical about her opposition to cheese imprisoned in plastic, sliced bread and frozen poultry believing that they are not ever worth buying. She's not elitist though. Her concern is that we should eat good, locally-produced food which has been appropriately cooked and served. Amazingly it is generally the cheapest option too. She's about quality and I find it sad that although the introduction was written in 1979 there has been no improvement in the quality of the food that we eat - if anything the situation has deteriorated.

The first chapter about a specific food is about soup, which dates back many hundreds of years. For the poor, soup would have been water thickened with a grain such as oatmeal or bread and flavoured with such vegetables or pulses as could be found in fields and gardens. With a little more wealth some bones or a little bacon could add more taste and interest. The development of the dish is followed through and we see it becoming less the main part of the meal and rather the appetiser. There are recipes for soups to cover every occasion and each season. I particularly like the green pea soup (which can be made with frozen peas in winter) and the tomato soup which can be served hot or chilled. This is the recipe that I use when I have my glut of tomatoes in the summer and I want to freeze some sunshine for the cold winter months. Be warned though, her recipes do expect that you use proper stock rather than stock cubes.

The next chapter on egg and cheese dishes begins with a reminder that cheese should not be wrapped in plastic. She recommends that it's tightly wrapped in foil and stored in the bottom of the refrigerator if it's not possible to store it somewhere where it's cool and dry. She likes the fact that English cheeses are good for cooking although there are occasions when it's too fatty and Parmesan should be used to give the appropriately intense flavour without such a high fat content - you don't need to use as much Parmesan, you see.

Jane was delighted that there had been an upsurge in the making of English cheeses by the more traditional methods. On the other hand she felt that eggs were in deep trouble. This was 1979. I doubt that nearly a quarter of a century later she would be any happier with the current situation. Nowadays anyone with a regular supply of good, freshly-laid, free-range eggs keeps the fact a closely-guarded secret. One useful tip is that quail eggs do not suffer from salmonella so three quail eggs baked in a ramekin make an appealing dish for someone who would otherwise be in one of the groups of people (including pregnant women) who need to be careful about eating eggs.

In the recipes for egg and cheese dishes you'll find one of my favourites - Glamorgan Sausages. They're made without any meat and would be suitable for a vegetarian. I often serve them as part of a fry-up breakfast if we have a vegetarian staying with us, but they're equally good with a salad, and even when they're cold. I love the rabbits too. We often have them for lunch. There's an excellent recipe for a cheese soufflé but my only quibble would be that it's for six people, which makes it more of a dinner party dish. I'm afraid for a soufflé I turn to Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course.

Next we move on to vegetables. It was as late as the eighteenth century when the word came to mean that which we eat. Before that it meant the plant world generally and what we know as vegetables were called herbs or potherbs. They would be grown in a herb garden, which could sometimes be a field and certainly wouldn't match the rather romantic vision of herb gardens which we now have. The recipes given are excellent. I regularly make pease pudding and serve it with bacon (or gammon) and jacket potatoes. The leek pie goes well with bacon too.

Mrs. Grigson believes fish to be the scandal of English eating. We live on an island surrounded by seas with abundant fish and yet we eat few varieties and those not even the best. She favours eel, but I'm afraid I have to part company with her there! I regularly use her recipe for salmon in pastry with a herb sauce, although, having called it "her recipe" I have to add that she credits it to The Hole-in-the-Wall restaurant in Bath. Most of the recipes in the book are not originally hers - in fact few recipes ever are original - and sometimes I'm quite surprised by how many brains she has picked to produce the book.

Next comes one of my favourite chapters - the one on meat poultry and game. The introduction on the development of meat in this country is a work of scholarship in itself. Unfortunately much of what she has to say tempts me more towards vegetarianism. In the course of the recipes she talks about the development of mincing machines (previously "mincing" meant chopping something with a knife) and we have the wonderful thought that "with the first mincing machines, prison, school and seaside boarding house cooks acquired a new weapon to depress their victims, with watery mince, shepherd's pie with rubbery granules of left-over meat, rissoles capable of being fired from a gun."

I'm not going to detail specific recipes from this chapter, as I've used so many. Most of the dishes that I prepare on a regular basis have grown from these recipes, even if they are no longer true to the original. There's something for every occasion in there.

I love puddings and here we have a full range from delicate egg custards, through to the more substantial steamed puddings and ice creams. I particularly like the gooseberry fool which is a delight in the summer when you can get the young gooseberries. If you want to be indulgent try the little pots of chocolate and rosemary cream - the combination does work rather better than you would expect - but I think our winter favourite has to be the steamed ginger pudding. It's delightful served with custard, but if I feel like going totally over-the-top I serve it with ginger ice cream.

Following on naturally from the puddings is the chapter headed "Teatime" and I rather regret that most modern lifestyles don't allow for the ritual of afternoon tea. It's civilised. The recipe for Tea Loaf - which requires only dried fruit, sugar, cold tea, self-raising flour, an egg and the foresight to start preparations a day before you want to cook the loaf - has been cooked countless times and the recipe passed to many others. It's one of those soothing, easy foods and what's more, it's fat-free provided that you can resist the temptation to butter the slices. I've never tried the recipe for parsnip cake, although I have to confess that I regularly make carrot cake and I can't understand my own reluctance.

The final chapter, on stuffings sauces and preserves is the only one that remained unrevised at Jane Grigson's death, but I don't think that it spoils the book. I've long used her recipe for mayonnaise and I use her Cumberland rum butter to accompany mince pies as she uses less sugar than most recipes recommend. The mince pies are so sweet that they hardly require a lot of extra sugar.

It's taken me a long time to write this review. The problem has been that every time I've started to write I've looked up a point in the book and an hour later I've found myself still there reading a book that I've read so often that I'm soon going to have to buy my third copy. I'll have notes on my scrap pad of ideas for meals, and I'll have completely forgotten what I went to look up in the first place.

It doesn't matter though. I can cook!

Booklists.jpg English Food by Jane Grigson is in the Top Ten Books about Britain, Britishness, and the Brits.

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Buy English Food by Jane Grigson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy English Food by Jane Grigson at Amazon.com.


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