The Taste of Britain by Laura Mason and Catherine Brown

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The Taste of Britain by Laura Mason and Catherine Brown

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Category: Cookery
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A scholarly look at Britain's traditional foods across the length and breadth of Britain (but excluding Northern Ireland) is impressive in its range but would benefit from better presentation.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 544 Date: October 2006
Publisher: HarperPress
ISBN: 0007241321

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If your food comes from a supermarket or if you eat in chain restaurants, or, indeed in all but a handful of rather special eateries, you could be forgiven for wondering if there is such a thing as 'British Food'. In each shop, in each restaurant you will find that the food on offer is depressingly similar; there because it can be mass-produced and sold at a good profit rather than because it has taste, flavour and local provenance. The artisan producers are steadily going out of business because the local independent shopkeepers who stocked their produce are being forced out by the heavy hand of the supermarket giants. Having nowhere to sell means that it's not economically viable to produce.

Does this matter? Is it not better that we get food easily and cheaply from the supermarkets? I can only answer a resounding 'No' to that question. I don't want my food produced as cheaply as possible with little regard to taste, quality or the dignity of the people - or animals - producing the food. I don't want my food with thousands of food miles attached.

I want food that's been produced locally. I want food that tastes good because it comes from an area that's perfect for its production. I want food that has been produced by an expert - not someone who knows when to flick a switch. I want to know that the people, the animals, involved in the production of my food have been treated with dignity. It's actually not a lot to ask, but it's becoming a lot harder to find.

This is the sort of problem which has exercised the mind of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who writes the foreword to The Taste of Britain and he commends the book not just as interesting browsing material, but as a directory to enable you to find the local treasures on your own doorstep. So, how well does it do that?

The book looks at Britain region by region, from the Channel Islands in the south to the north of Scotland, but not including Northern Ireland. Let's look at North England, the area with which I'm most familiar. Essentially this is Yorkshire and Humberside (which might have been a less confusing title for the region) with occasional sorties into the Lancashire borders. Ideally I'd have liked some introduction to the area covering such factors as how the climate has affected food production and any relevant economic influences, but we're straight into the various foodstuffs.

There is where the first of my problems with this book arises. There's no obvious ordering of the various foodstuffs. I did eventually work out that there seemed to be a general fruit and veg - dairy - meat and fish - bakery - sweets - drinks arrangement but if you're looking for say, a fish product from a particular region, without knowing exactly what you're looking for then there's an awful lot of flicking back and forth to be done.

The selection of foods is good, though. Knowing Yorkshire well and having a life-long interest in the local foods I couldn't spot any omissions and even found a few things of which I wasn't aware. Each item has been researched with meticulous care. Take, for instance, the Fat Rascal, a teacake containing currants and candied peel. We're given a visual description of the teacake plus rough dimensions and weight. The origins of the name are not known, but it can be traced back to the eighteen-sixties. Methods of leavening the teacake are given as well as the different ways in which the rascals have been cooked over the years. The technique is given as well as ratio of fat to flour and an experienced cook would have no difficulty in making a batch from the details given.

Fat Rascals are quite widely available in parts of Yorkshire, so sourcing them should cause no problem, but other products are less-widely available. Take for instance, the Ripon Spice Cake, a sweet, aromatic and heavily spiced loaf. "There is" we are told "but the one maker of Ripon Spice Cakes... " Apparently the recipe was bought with the shop which houses the business twenty years ago. We're not told who or where and trawling round every bakery in Ripon could be very time-consuming. This is my next quibble with this book. I don't want just to be told about a food - I want to know exactly how I can get hold of it. I want names, addresses, telephone numbers and websites: I want to be able to eat this food. Mind you, if you really want the recipe for Ripon Spice Cake this looks very close to the description in the book.

This is an elegantly produced book with a grey canvas cover of the sort that gets to look old and loved very quickly. The print on the cover is in raspberry and there's a matching raspberry-coloured silk book mark. The raspberry theme is continued through end papers and the colouring of illustrations and it's these that are the cause of my next quibble. Some of the illustrations seem to be there for the sake of being there. They don't serve any purpose to illustrate to text and sometimes intrude upon it. This wouldn't worry me if the text was easy to read in the first place, but it's what I would call an under-forties font. If you're over forty your eyes might struggle. Nigel Slater says that it now seems to take as long to decide on a typeface as it used to take him to write a book. Perhaps a little longer thinking about the font and fewer illustrations would have produced a book that's easier to read.

I feel saddened when the presentation of a book lets down the effort that's been put into it by the authors, and make no mistake; a lot of effort has gone into this book. It's scholarly. The breadth of the research is impressive, the foods covered are exhaustive and given the nature of the content it's relatively easy reading. It's such a pity when better arrangement would have made the book so much more useable. Better proof-reading and editing would have helped too. I found several rogue hyphens ('li-quorice' anyone?) and typos (Yorkshire Mint Pasty becomes a Mint Pastry) which really should have been eliminated.

My thanks to the Publishers for forwarding this book.

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Magda said:

Oh, I can see where my next Amazon cerificate's going.

PS. Ebay advertises Slimming World & diet recipes next to this, how amazingly inappropriate (but funny).