The Reading Room

In Defence of English Cooking

George Orwell’s defence of English food…

dig-on-for-victory-posterIt is only in the last twenty years or so that England has established itself on the culinary map with London now considered by many as the current food capital of the world despite the protestations of the French, Spanish and Japanese. For an Englishman it makes a refreshing change, far too long have we suffered cruel jibes about our well done beef and fried fish but in the interest of fairness it is not entirely without reason.

Anyone who has glanced through a book on English cookery pre-1960s will no doubt recall eyebrow-raising recipe instructions for ‘boiling fish vigorously for fifteen minutes’ or the copious amounts of lard and flour used in sauces and soups, small wonder the French enjoyed many a joke at our expense.

But one cannot tar everyone and everything with the same proverbial pastry brush. There are good and bad cooks in every country and in pre and post war Britain a decent meal depended almost entirely on the household income, a fact understood by George Orwell who had first hand experience of both eating poorly and witnessing fine food being created in both England and France. In the collection of his essays ‘Some Thoughts on the Common Toad’ (Penguin Books) he makes a staunch defence of his nation’s dishes and in a time of post-war rationing it makes for a worthy read.

What is interesting to note is how keen the government of the time were to increase the number of foreign tourists visiting the UK, Orwell rather amusingly (and correctly) points out England’s two worst faults from a foreigner’s point of view; ‘the gloom of our Sundays and the difficulty of buying a drink’. There’s an argument to say that nothing has changed on that particular front. Orwell bemoans, rather naively in my view, the fact that certain English delicacies cannot be found abroad and that constitutes some kind of proof that the nation’s cuisine is better than perceived. He lists the lack of kippers, Devonshire cream, crumpets and Yorkshire puddings in his various out postings and more staggeringly, the absence of haggis. Why he thought other nations would crave a boiled bladder of sheep’s lungs escapes me but it certainly caused him a degree of irritation.

He champions English biscuits, puddings and cakes but misses the point of the general inference about the overall standard of food in the country. A well made Madeira cake is a wonderful thing indeed but unless it is made consistently well across the country it cannot be considered a worthwhile argument in the eyes of a visiting tourist subjected to a poor version. Where I do agree with him is in his annoyance with legislation and by-laws, most of which were based on religious argument that hampered tourists and businesses alike with out of date opening hours and licensing laws. A fact which, in part, remains to this day.

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