Ben Rogers, a specialist in the 17th century, was stimulated to explore the symbolism of beef because of the "humiliating blow" the British psyche had suffered from BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy). I wonder whether others noticed this national mortification?
But there is no denying that by the 18th century, John Bull and roast beef consumption became, in patriotic caricature, part of the English character - that bulldog breed of pugnacity, symbolised by the cartoon on the book cover. Rogers attempts to trace our relationship with beef up to the Napoleonic wars but manages to accumulate errors, largely because he has ignored data from early medieval manuscripts and neglected to study later recipe collections, relying instead on lazy assumptions made by earlier culinarians. Neither should one trust the observations of travellers who are notorious for noting what they expect to see. So his picture of our past food history tends to be simplistic, trite and repetitive, hugely underestimating the culinary skills of the English.
Some of his errors are plain silly. No, you cannot baste meat with eggs. La Varenne did not invent bouillon . The English medieval kitchen boiled its meats before roasting, and the stockpot was a constant source of soups and sauces. From the earliest days, our kitchen gardens were renowned for their range of salads, herbs and vegetables, so these were consumed, even if not listed in recipes or household accounts. French and English cooking did not grow apart in the 17th century - they were recognisably different by 1100, the Anglo-Normans having brought back many ingredients, spices and flavours from Persia that Paris ignored. The briefest perusal of cookery books would have shown Rogers that the English, too, made "mellifluous creamy soups", that there are countless recipes for baked, boiled, braised and stewed meat, and few for roasting beef. It is astonishing to read that "the English never developed the art of braising or stewing" but relied on the spit-roast.
But the greatest omission is not to recognise that the Reformation was the dietary key to our relationship with beef. We lost many delicate fish and almond dishes because of their association with papism. Instead, we needed greater dairy herds for a higher consumption of cow's milk - hence, we began to have a surplus of veal and beef. After 1538, it began to be both patriotic and Protestant to emphasise beef eating, to enthuse over plain fare and to distrust French cooking because it bore the taint of Rome. The terror throughout the 17th and 18th centuries was that Britain might return to Rome. What is fascinating is that this trenchant fear made itself felt within the bourgeois kitchen in a far more complicated and absorbing manner than Rogers detects.
Colin Spencer is the author of British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History .
Beef and Liberty: Roast Beef, John Bull and the English Nation
Author - Ben Rogers
ISBN - 0 7011 6980 X
Publisher - Chatto and Windus
Price - £17.99
Pages - 207