It is one of those axioms accepted by everyone, without need of evidence, that English food is dreadful. And certainly until very recently, memories of cooked-to-a-paste brussels sprouts and boiled beef haunted the dark dreams of many frequenters of the now-ubiquitous Indian take-away places. I myself retain painful memories of sitting in front of a nauseous pile of reconstituted powdered mashed potatoes, having been told that I could not leave the table until I had choked down at least three forkfuls. I was only five, but even then I knew the better portion was to sit there the rest of the night if necessary.
It is not widely known but English food used to be wonderful. And plentiful. The peasant culture of England’s Catholic middle ages produced an incredibly wide variety of regional dishes, with the usual peasant’s ability to use whatever was available in ingenious ways.
Now, I know you’re thinking about head cheese and boiled pigs trotters, and I am only too familiar with the face you must be making. (But I must ask, have you ever actually tried pigs trotters? You never know ‘til you’ve tried it.) I myself will not eat tongue or tripe; even I have limits, and I refuse to eat anything that is tasting me as I taste it.
Good Things in England was the final product of a society called the English Folk Cookery Association, founded by a group of ladies who, being aware that the traditional customs and habits of over a thousand years of English culture were being rapidly abandoned and lost, undertook to rescue them. It was first published in 1931 and the edition I have was published with an index in 1962.
They solicited help from around the country from ordinary people who sent them their mothers’ and grandmothers’ recipes, some of them reliably dated to the 1700s. Some are simply ageless, having likely been staple food since the stone age.
From the introduction:
“Men and women still living have come forward and helped to remember eating in days gone by, and of things made in their own homes today from recipes that have been in their families for over a century. These are so many and so varied that the present volume is merely a small installment of our kitchen and stillroom riches. England does not know her wealth.
They have written of good things – amusing things too! – they enjoyed in schooldays and have never met since, throughout sixty or seventy years, in spite of frequent enquiries. Famous housekeepers, now grandmothers and great-grandmothers, have told stories of seeing oatcakes baked on the ‘bak’ ston’’ in the West Riding of Yorkshire by men whose grandsons are making and baking them in much the same way today. Old ladies’ eyes have brightened at the memory of girlhood days when pies and stews were made of lambs’ tails in various ways; these are still used in similar fashion in country places.”
…but probably not any more.
I was horrified to discover when I went to England how far things had gone. I don’t know if I have written about this before, but while I was there, I re-read the Earthsea books by Ursula K. LeGuin. In the last of these (really excellent) books, the main character, a great wizard, seeks a terrible enemy who has cast a dreadful spell over the whole of Earthsea. He has cut a hole in the fabric of the universe and all the knowledge and memory of what they once were has been draining out of the minds of the people. They have forgotten songs that were sung at festivals for thousands of years. They have abandoned all their stories and histories. The fields are left unploughed, the nets unmended and children are taught nothing. They are becoming a shell of a people who do not remember who they are. The evil wizard cast this spell in an effort to live forever.
The English do not remember who they are, or how to live their lives. There are television shows that try to tell parents how to raise their children. There are clubs for women to lose the fat they have accumulated from eating nothing, really nothing, but frozen take-away. There was a story in the newspapers a while ago about a family run by a woman who did not know how to make a pot of tea. She literally could not boil water and had fed her now-obese children (all by different fathers) entirely on food heated up in a microwave.
When I was a child, I read the Narnia books in a way similar to that of a Southern Baptist reading the Bible. I memorised them, and tried to live in them, and longed for a way to leave this world, whose cultural dankness and sterility I knew firsthand, and get into that other world, glowing with more reality and solidity than can be found here. Before I was ten, I knew the world was shrinking and fading, darkening. At the time, I didn’t know how long it had been going on.
When my English cookery book was first published in 1931, there were still old people, and people not so old, who remembered the days when everyone had a natural place, and the world was something understandable. There were social, historical, and religious structures that made sense. People married and had children and knew how to raise them. But even then, there were many who knew something had gone terribly wrong. They looked at the disaster of WWI and saw that something fundamental had shifted away, and that a way of seeing the world was gone forever.
I have just finished reading the book Lark Rise to Candleford, about the life of a woman raised in a hamlet in Hampshire in the 1880s. Flora Thompson gives the smallest details of the kind of life people lived and it is easy to see that what we have now, comfortable and wealthy as we all are, is a poor, ragged and pathetic life, devoid of inherent meaning and purpose. It was also published in the late 1930s, and into the years of the second war.
In the introduction to my precious little Penguin edition, H. J. Massingham in 1944, reveals the terrible secret of the “unraveling” of the world. Even then, it was known that The Real was draining away.
“The supreme value of Flora Thompson’s presentation is that she makes us see the passing of this England, not as a milestone along the road of inevitable progress, but as the attempted murder of something timeless in and quintessential to the spirit of man. A design for living has become unraveled, and there can be no substitute, because, however imperfect the pattern, it was part of the essential constitution of human nature.
The fatal flaw of the modern theory of progress is that it is untrue to historical reality. The frustrations and convolutions of our own time are the effect of aiming this mortal blow at the core of man’s integral nature, which can be perverted but not destroyed.”
But some of it must remain. Good Things in England says, “It was delightful to see how everyone was interested when once the veneer of fashion for foreign cookery and modern fads was chipped. At first some simple country folk would be shy or apologetic: ‘We must go with the times, those things are out of date’. But always there was found a genuine love of the good old English dishes, when it was realised that these had once more come into their own and were now ‘the vogue’.”
One recipe that I have lately been using, slightly modified, has been for frumenty.
Good Things in England says of Frumenty:
“From an ancient manuscript in the British Museum Frumenty appears to have been used formerly as an accompaniment to animal food, as ‘venison with frumenty’, and ‘porpoise with frumenty’ formed part of the second course served at the royal banquet given to Henry IV at Winchester on his marriage to Joan of Navarre; and again at the coronation feast of Henry VII and the heiress of the House of York we meet with ‘venison and frumenty;’ but at the present day it is usually boiled with new milk and sugar, to which some add spices, currants, yolks of eggs, etc, and is occasionally eaten cold as a dinner sweet at various times of the year – as mid-Lent, Easter and Christmas; but in the North it is considered to form part of the Christmas fare alone and is eaten hot without any other addition than new milk, sugar, nutmeg, with a little flour mixed with the milk to thicken it and then prepared. [Yes, that is an absurdly long sentence, not my fault.] If the wheat be sufficiently boiled and prepared as follows it forms a cheap, pleasant and wholesome breakfast food usually much relished by children.”
When I was an SCA geek, I ate lots of this stuff, usually off a wooden trencher, sitting in front of the first fire in the morning with a large mug of tea. It has many happy memories attached to it, of clean air in the morning, the smell of wood smoke and friends all around. The name frumenty dates at least to the middle ages in England but the stuff itself is extremely ancient, and is possibly one of the first foods eaten after the development of agriculture. It is, simply, whole wheat grains cooked in milk with salt. Porridge.
I recall reading some of the pre-Christian Irish myths, the doings of the Tuatha De Danan and the heroes of ancient Irish legend. In it a great feast was prepared in which a pit was dug and lined with hot stones, milk and butter and wheat was poured in with all sorts of meat, particularly sheep and lamb, cooked together. Frumenty.
I do it with pot barley, but its pretty much the same food my ancestors probably ate ten thousand years ago.
A cup of pot barley
Two cups of milk
Nob of butter
Two to three teaspoons of chicken stock powder
A teaspoon or so of sugar
Two egg yolks.
Bring the milk and barley to a boil, add the chicken powder, sugar and butter. Allow the barley to simmer covered on a low heat, adding water as needed and stirring often, but not continuously. It will take about ½ an hour for the barley to get to a pleasant chewiness. When it is nice and thick and the barley softened, and still piping hot, take it off the heat and stir in the two egg yolks.