Tuesday, 15 April 2008
It's a Sad Fact...
....but, when it comes to the British National Cuisine, there isn't in practice a great deal to write home about. I've always been aware, to a degree, of this fact - but I suppose some innate sense of patriotism has generally dredged up happy memories of the delicious Jugged Hare or Spotted Dick that used to be served in days of old in The Hungry Horse in Fulham Road, and I would persuade myself that these were just the tip of a gastronomic iceberg, and that a cornucopia of mouth-watering regional delicacies exists just out of sight ...........all that's needed is a bit of effort to remember exactly what they all are.
Well.......not so, it seems. Not really.
Over the past few days, I've been picking at an intriguing volume that the Brancolis dropped off when they came for dinner at the weekend, called The Taste of Britain. At first, I couldn't quite get to grips with it: encyclopaedic lists of regional food specialities, interspersed very occasionally with a recipe from one or other of the usual celeb-chef suspects: I noticed input on this basis from, amongst others, Gordon Ramsay, Rose Prince, and even Galton Blackiston. The main body of the text, though, stops short of recipes, and is frankly pretty dry stuff - nothing of the personality of Alan Davidson's Oxford Companion to Food shines through, or the practical and informative treasure trove that is Larousse Gastronomique. Without wanting to be too damning, picking through its pages is a little like discovering a gastro-version of the phone directory, and I couldn't fathom why anybody had actually bothered to produce it in the first place.
So, I dug a little further, and was rewarded in my search. It transpires that the origin of the book was a Brussels-inspired project early in the nineties, the point of which was to list all regional culinary specialities within the EU - and one can only assume that this in turn was to provide a basis on which regional trademarks could be awarded in order to protect against slippage and copying from opportunistic manufacturers elsewhere across the continent. Shades of Parmesan from Parma, Champagne from Champagne, and Cheddar from....well....Cheddar. All well and good, and I can imagine that the French and Italian equivalents of the same thing are bursting with references to Cognac and Limoncello and Mortadella and Paris-Brest ...and I'm really getting quite hungry just thinking about it.
The problem with this version of the British list - tarted-up with an introduction by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and the aforementioned media-kitchen-luvvies - is that one can sense the effort the authors have had to go to in order to cobble the whole thing together. For starters, they've included a whole lot of 'regional specialities' which I suspect would be fair game for pretty much any country within Europe: Gulls Eggs, for instance, and Blackberries. I had no idea that blackberries were an exclusively British thing, and those gulls had better be travelling on passports issued by HM's government! Goose - that was another thing which appears to have become strangely and exclusively British - as are nasturtiums.
And, moving beyond the dubious 'Britishness' of some of the things in the list, there's then the issue of the 'interest factor' of much of the stuff that they've dredged up. Truth be told, there are an awful lot of items which hale from some remote village deep in the provinces, where the recipe would have been insufficiently interesting even to make it to the next valley, let alone into the consciousness of the World at large. 'Cumnock Tart', for instance. No, I'd never heard of it, either. But then, why would I have done, since it appears to be merely a double-crust pie which is filled with either apple or rhubarb, and then brushed with a bit of sugar syrup during the process of baking.......probably perfectly palatable, but hardly deserving of four-square protection from serried ranks of lawyers in Brussels.
When all's said and done, I suspect that The Taste of Britain is probably all too accurate a reflection of what 'British' food is all about, and that of its 420-odd pages of entries, about 400 of them are in fact a damning indictment of the reality of British 'cuisine'. Oh, I expect it's all perfectly edible stuff......but there's an entirely practical reason why the drawing rooms of Paris and Milan are not graced with the presence of La Tarte Cumnockois, or Il Torte di Cumnock. It's just not that interesting.
So, I suppose that iceberg was all tip, in fact, and what you see is what you get....
Tiger Prawns, sautéed with shallots and Paprika, in a sauce of Cream and Vermouth.
Beef & Pepper Burgers, with Green Beans.
Chocolate, Hazelnut & Cointreau Mousse, with (British!) Blackberries.