Food for thought

For decades, it was great sport to knock British cooking. Bland. Boring. Hardly the stuff gastronomic dreams are made of.

Not so. Not so at all. Consider all this...

A long and varied heritage

Since the Middle Ages, what we British like to eat, and how we eat it, has evolved dramatically.

In the days of King Arthur, eating was a very serious and ceremonial business. Courtiers watched their sovereigns, often on their knees for hours, while their royal majesties ate in solitude. There were no forks, sometimes not even knives, so food had to be prodded and pulled apart. Not good news for the unfortunates at the end of the receiving line!

By the reign of Henry VIII life was becoming more sophisticated but standards in the kitchen were still grim. Reputedly, Henry was so horrified when he visited his kitchens that he drew up a set of rules - including one dictating that cooks should wear clothing! Forerunners of today's "Naked Chef'??

In the 17th Century the dining room as we know it became oh-so fashionable. This led to a vogue for folding furniture, hence the invention of the gateleg table. However, the new dining room was often far removed from the kitchen and it's been said that the British aristocracy of the time grew up never knowing what hot food was!

By the 19th Century servants no longer paraded food to the diners, diners went in procession to the food. Strict etiquette decreed who led whom to the dining room and the more great archways and rooms they passed through the better. If they had to ascend a grand staircase well, that was even more satisfactory.

Contemporary British dining has a rich and colourful past. But one wonders what our ancestors might have made of the way we eat, and what we eat, today?

British Cuisine: fact not fiction.

Forget the image of grey boiled meat, stewed vegetables and stodgy puds. Britain now has an enviable reputation for culinary excellence. Calling on the country's rich traditions, today's master chefs add liberal helpings of imagination to create dishes that rival any in the world. And speaking of tradtions...

Cornish Pasties, possibly the original packed lunch. Cornish cooks were so accomplished with pastry that almost anything might find itself wrapped and baked inside a crust. (Hence the legend that the devil kept his distance on the Devon side of the River Tamar, fearing that, should he cross into Cornwall, "they might take a fancy to a devilly pie".) A pasty was meant to be big, and that could mean weighing in at about 330g (11 oz). If it was too much to eat at one sitting, pastry initials were stuck on one corner. They allowed the owner to identify his half-eaten lunch from all the rest when he felt peckish later in the day.

Spotted Dick. How DID it get that name? Well, around 1840 'dick' was used to mean a type of hard cheese. When treacle was added it became 'treacle dick'. Finally, when currants or raisins that looked like little spots were added, the 'spotted dick' was born. The earliest recipes date from 1847. So tonight, when it all goes quiet in the snug...

Steak, Oyster And Kidney Pudding. Oysters? Centuries ago they were abundant and early cooks found ways to incorporate them in many dishes. Today's recipe combines the meats (minus aphrodisiacs) with mushrooms, onions, tomatoes and Worcester sauce, all steamed in a suet pastry.

Cock-a-Leekie. A Scottish dish classified as either a soup or a stew. It combines beef, chicken, leeks and prunes to unusual and spectacular ends.

Hasty Pudding. A simple and quick (hence the name) steamed pudding of milk, flour, butter, eggs and cinnamon.

Likky Pie Leeks. Not a leek in sight, this dish combines pork and cream in puff pastry.

Mulligatawny Soup. What this soup is depends upon who's cooking it. Originally a south Indian dish (translation: pepper water), British versions contain chicken or meat or vegetable stock mixed with yogurt or cheese or coconut milk, seasoned with curry and various other spices.

Syllabub. Seventeenth Century milkmaids sent streams of new, warm milk directly from a cow into a bowl of spiced cider or ale. A light curd formed on top, a delicate whey lay underneath. This, according to Elizabeth David, was the original syllabub. Today's recipes mix sherry and/or brandy, sugar, lemon, nutmeg and double cream into a custard-like dessert or an eggnog-like drink, depending upon the cook.

Faggots. Today, they consist of pig's liver made into meatballs with onion, beef suet, breadcrumbs and sometimes a chopped apple. Faggots originated, however, as a savoury way to recycle unsavoury pig parts after slaughter. Yum!

So what's our favourite?

It's official - at least that's what they say. While we still love our steaks, prawn cocktails, fish and chips and the Sunday roast, the country's favourite dish is curry. Unless you know better...

Val Valentine, advertising and direct mail copywriter

Copyright 2005 Val Valentine

Val Valentine is a B2C and B2B advertising and direct mail copywriter based in the Midlands, UK. With over 25 yearsí experience, she also writes commercials for TV and Radio, brochures, sales letters, articles, web content and has broad experience of strategic brand planning and development. You can reach her at +44 (0) 1684 772 021 or +44 (0 )7802 959 009. For further information, please visit

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