Dave the Taxi Driver's
Guide to London
England has long revelled in its worldwide reputation for unimaginative, bland cooking and has ridden on this as a symbol of England itself. English food, particularly during the past one hundred and fifty years, reached an all time low in its international reputation. It had become very plain. As tasty as our traditional dishes might have been, we were never going to win any medals for producing such dishes as Sausage and Mash or Shepherd’s Pie. If the roast beef dinner was the zenith, then surely the Cold Collation was the nadir. Imagine being offered this at dinner parties and international conferences, as representing our nation. In fact, maybe it was a subtle attempt to say, “Look how unexciting we are. We are no threat to your stability”. Look! even the edges of our eggs are grey”, as endless plates of ‘cold collation’ were slowly and painfully consumed by the guests. Maybe that is where the ‘stiff upper lip’ came from, the guests trying desperately to feign enthusiasm for the paltry dish that was presented before them, who couldn’t bring themselves to show their appreciation by opening their mouths wider.
The cold collation, (the gourmets among you might already be reaching for the matchsticks to prop open your eyelids), in case you have not had the misfortune to come across it, is/was a pale excuse for a salad which became popular, or maybe was forced upon people in places like Guantanamo Bay, particularly from around the early 20th century. The prospect might seem fine at first with fresh tomatoes, boiled eggs, lettuce, cucumber, a slice of corned beef or chicken, and beetroot with an option of salad cream to enhance the flavours. Unfortunately it was a dish that was rapidly affected by a short space of time, deteriorating by the second. Rather than fast food, it was fast waste. As you hesitantly sampled the dish, it soon hit you that the salad cream was the flavour! The tomatoes were like slices of frog eye jelly held together by soft wrinkled skin. Eggs were boiled so dry that they sealed up your mouth for half an hour. The lettuce? Well, it was limp and Viagra hadn’t been invented. The cucumber tasted like small sections of slightly damp cardboard and the chicken had obviously died long before it was cooked. The beetroot was full of vinegar, but that was useful in that it reactivated your juices after you had eaten the egg, or it dissolved the fat of the corned beef stuck between your teeth.
But seriously, as they say, the cold collation has been an extreme. It represented more austere times. The first half of the 20th century was a difficult period. Two world wars, with the depression in between, necessitated strict economy and frugal meals. Food rationing lasted for years after the second world war. The simplest, no frills food was the order of the day. Unfortunately, the plane style became symbolic of British cookery, whereas it was actually symbolic of the times as well. Most people though, didn’t know any different. Travel abroad for the average person was virtually unknown, unless there was a war, and anyway, Europe was full of foreigners and their food was all garlic and oil. There was an odd kind of pride about our culinary failure, “We have proper food here” it was said. This parochial attitude prevailed until probably the late 1960s and early 1970s.
What were the reasons for this decline in our cuisine? In short, class, wealth, population growth and a large slice of apathy pie.
Going back hundreds of years, in fact as far back as the Norman Conquest, our cuisine was much more interesting. Notwithstanding the then current Saxon culture, with its broths and venison, England began to be heavily influenced by French cuisine and style (plus ca change?). The warmer climate in those times, ensured a much more fertile island. >From around 950 AD to the early 1300s, grapes could be grown in the far north of England. Annual crops increased because fields could be farmed on much higher ground. In effect England was a land of plenty. Throughout the Middle Ages and thereafter though, underlying the often tortuous life people had to endure, was the consistency of our cuisine. It remained full of interest and flavour with fish, meat, and poultry dishes flavoured with herbs, spices and wine or ale sauces. Dishes which were full of flair, as we would say today, were available. Available that is, mainly to the wealthy Lords and Ladies, while the commoners or the peasants, who worked the Lords’ land, had to be content with what was left.
A substantial meal in the 14th century, although probably not served in the way with which we are familiar, might have been a Meat Soup of Venison and Offal, flavoured with Saffron, Roasted Heron or Roasted Swan with a Ginger sauce (we would certainly get it in the neck if we cooked those nowadays),or maybe Rabbit cooked in sweet wine, flavoured with cinnamon, cloves and ginger, cheeses throughout and Fruit Rissoles (including figs, raisins and wine) or Honey Glazed Pastries to finish.
This quality continued through the centuries.
In the early 1300s however, a sudden change in climate brought severe winters and colder weather generally for several hundred years. England suffered famine until the people adjusted to the leaner times. Nevertheless food remained varied and interesting. Much later, recipes from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries still included among many, all manner of soups, a variety of poultry dishes, including birds such as larks and quails, flavoured with herbs and fruit, stewed fish dishes and desserts that would grace any table today, made of apricots, plums and oranges.
Long before we were afflicted by mediocre cookery, in 1348 we were visited by pestilence in the form of the Black Death. The 1300s were dire times. The plainness of the food that was to become the future, was also in part brought about by religion. More puritanical attitudes which prevailed from the1600s, regarded anything other than plain food as overindulgence, tantamount to sin.
In the 18th century, the onset of the Industrial Revolution began to change the way we lived. The cottage industries in the small towns and villages declined, as people migrated to the ever growing industrial cities, in search of, or for the promise of, work and a more stable existence. Consequently, this also began the decline of our country cooking. Ingredients were not as easily available on your doorstep. The gathering of herbs was virtually impossible. The land was being swallowed by the rape of the landscape.
The Industrial Revolution, although it transformed the relative uncertainty of a subsistent way of life into more of a surety, with a weekly wage for the workers, also brought about a different form of poverty, the poverty of existence in the grimy city. The rapidly increasing population was the beneficiary of the new industries and, paradoxically, also the victim.
Being incarcerated in back to back town houses, without access to open land, meant you couldn’t just get out your bow and arrow and shoot the first thing on four legs that walked past your door. It might have been your neighbour crawling home after a boozy night, and cannibalism was as much against the law then as it is now. People lost their connection with their former culture and they now depended on what could be provided as quickly as possible, as urbanisation took over the country. The country life of hunting, with the readily available ingredients of seasonal organic vegetables on the local markets, was transformed into a supply market of convenience. Does this sound familiar?
The dependence was on the food supply of merchants in the towns. There were markets in the cities, but the increasing demand, the cost of transportation of foodstuffs and the lack of refrigeration in those days, resulted in fluctuations in prices. In the turbulent economy, low wage earners and the poor, often could not afford what was necessary for a decent diet, let alone be adventurous to create a culinary masterpiece. As a result, plane food was the only option.
The origin of fast food was in the second half of the 19th century. Street food became available from stalls. In London, Pie and Mash, Jellied Eels became available at this time as well as Fish and Chips.
Meanwhile, back at the mansion, the Victorian masters of Empire were able to indulge themselves in the culinary spoils of imperial expansion. With land to farm and the ability to hunt, they were able to maintain their cuisine which now included exciting new dishes from India, or at least adaptations of them. An Anglo Indian trend had actually begun many years earlier in the 18th century. Kedgeree, a dish of curry flavoured eggs, rice and smoked fish, was already a respectable aspect of the breakfast menu. I am sure that no one in those times would have believed that in our times, curry/Indian food would be as popular as it is.
There was also a new, growing, upper middle class and also a middle class emerging. Those that filled the hitherto non existent gaps in society were fed by Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Published in 1861,it contained around 2000 recipes and became the veritable bible of the English housewife.
After World War 2 came the expansion of business in the new world that had arrived. By the 1970s new convenience foods complemented our already fading cooking skills.
The cavalry came in the form of interaction with Europe and other cultures. It is only relatively recently that we have been stirred into creative cooking once again. Chefs such as the flamboyant Heston Blumenthal have catapulted our past into our new world of fusion food and Neo English Cuisine. I don’t think it would be expected, by the average guest at your dinner party, for you to come up with dishes to the level of a mediaeval banquet, or desserts such as fluorescent jelly, which looks like it was cooked at Sellafield, but thankfully, we are now remembering our culinary heritage. Adventure is returning to the kitchen and there is also a resurgence of interest in our mediaeval food. We are recapturing our imagination, instead of just being satisfied with mediocrity. The firework excitement of fusion in our capital, which indeed which has spread throughout the country, with dishes that are now served up piled on several levels on your plate and flavours from every corner of the globe, is the glossy veneer. In the background that is Middle England, traditional English fare is still served on the horizontal.
Despite what I consider to be my rightful disrespect of the cold collation and the boring, apathetic attitude to food, which after all, is one of the greatest pleasures of life, real English food is wholesome, individual and it is our heritage.
The Women’s Institute has long been regarded as representing Middle England and the reserve of our nation. They are also the preserve of the preserve, the ladies symbolically sealing our safe reputation, as they fit the elastic band on the cover of the home made jam. The world of village greens, country fetes, fruit pies and charity functions is alive and well.
I once sang in a choral concert to an audience of about 800 members of the WI. During the refreshment break one of the ladies approached us and said that she would like to “eat us all on toast”. I was flattered by the approach of our newly acquired groupies. So if you visit one of our beautiful English villages and a function organised by the Women’s Institute, you might have a much more exciting time than you thought. There is an old saying, “ the French live to eat, the English eat to live”. The French have always had a less than gentle derisory attitude to the culinary ineptitude of the English, the ‘rosbifs’ or ‘roast beefs’, over here across the Channel; the observation being that the traditional roast beef English dinner is seen to be the pinnacle of cuisine, by us that is. This is smugly smirked at by the French, the self regarded geniuses of culinary creation.
See also London Restaurants
My name is David Bromiley. I have been a Licensed London Taxi Driver for many years having passed the famous ‘Knowledge of London’ back in 1984. As many will already know, the ‘Knowledge’ is the strictest testing system for prospective taxi drivers in the world. As I am an Official London Guide it will be my pleasure to escort you on private tours of London, during which you can ask as many questions as you like and stop to take photographs wherever you want to. There are various aspects of London life that can be incorporated into a tour with a particular theme. Whatever you would like to do just contact me at my email address below. I hope to meet you soon. firstname.lastname@example.org