British food? To many living outside this tiny island, the phrase has been an oxymoron. Our food was long regarded as tasteless brown sludge. To rescue British food from this ideological legacy is a Herculean task, nothing less than a rediscovery and assertion of culinary values and roots.
It is one that Colin Spencer tackles with gusto; and his analysis is ultimately convincing. This is not a book about farming but about consuming and how consumption is framed by culture.
The author is a bit of a Renaissance man - a trained painter and a dramatist, a novelist who was banned from 1960s Greece for his hilarious parody How the Greeks Captured Mrs Nixon , as well as a one-time food writer for The Guardian and the New Statesman , a cook, and a chronicler of homosexuality and vegetarianism. This mixture of skills turns out to be perfect for producing a full-colour picture of British nosh over the past millennium, instead of the old monochrome caricature.
The cover showing a bucolic Victorian domestic scene - ample fare, close-knit family, even a contented horse - made me nervous that the book might be a cosy celebration of pleasure, ignoring pain. But Spencer paints a complex picture, arguing that sometimes British food has been the epitome of the fine life, rich in tradition and variety, while at other times it has been flawed by inequalities - as he discusses delicacies versus pottage, plenty versus want, land versus sea wealth: issues previously, and brilliantly, taken up by social historian John Burnett.
If in the past royal food was more influenced by Persian delicacies than by peasant food, the poor, at least in towns, had access to seafood that today is more the preserve of the rich. The Domesday Book of nine centuries ago shows how the parishes varied in their food wealth. Although markets were advanced, food was mostly local until the growth of towns. Therefore, argues Spencer, the Irish, Welsh and Scots had food cultures different from the English, relying more on dairy and oats, barley and rye, than on the wheat that could thrive only on better lands; and food was richer near the sea.
The structure of the book is chronological. It begins with the Normans, and then moves through the Tudors, the rise of capitalism, the industrial revolution, the Victorian age, and up to our own time. It draws heavily on cookery books, beginning with the 14th-century Forme of Cury (as in "curing"). The tale is one of tastes pitched one way and then another as populations and farming drove supply chains. The modern revolution in taste that made the pizza the favourite food of children is par for the course.
Culinary conflicts have been both material, concerning land, power and trade, and symbolic, over desire, pleasure and ideas.
Food offers potent opportunities for rebellion. Even the Benedictines disobeyed the rule not to eat twice daily from September to Easter. The churches' legacy is particularly fascinating. I remember, when I got bored with writing my doctorate some 30 years ago, I used to visit the nearby ruins of Bolton Abbey and Fountains Abbey further afield. The kitchens in both ruins were substantial. Later on, I farmed in Lancashire on lands owned by the church or an Oxford college. These were hard hills but they provided milk. If the historical records are accurate, pre-Reformation monks should have enjoyed a relatively rich cuisine, though certainly the peasantry did not.
Spencer is particularly strong on taste and class. The 14th-century poet John Gower was horrified at peasants demanding food above their station, and he was not alone. Then, as later and even today, there was a fine line between adequacy and hunger. Cobbett, writing in the early 19th century, ranted at the fact that rural labour produced such abundance in which it could not afford to partake. Yet the transition to mass consumption of white bread in the 19th century, now regretted for its loss of fibre (which was fed to pigs), was much aided by the centuries-old resentment of the poor that only the nobility could afford refined flour. White bread, which once stood for high status, has come to signify the reverse.
As painted by Spencer, the culture of food was constantly reinvented by class structures (from medieval times), by deracination from the land (enclosures), by invasion (the Normans), by religious changes, by industrialisation and by empire. There were also many attempts to ameliorate poverty of food. In 1563, William Cecil (later Lord Burghley) enacted a bill to make Wednesdays, as well as Fridays, a day for eating fish, but clearly the habit did not catch on. In the late 17th century, official encouragement for market gardening tried to spread the production of fruit and new vegetables to feed the growing mouths of London. But potatoes remained the archetypal fix for the malnourished, not just in Ireland but in Wales and Scotland too.
Which brings me to the title of the book - something of a misnomer. The food covered is less "British" than English; the chapter on Scotland, Ireland and Wales is tantalising but brief. The title could have been plural, too, given the diversity of produce. Around churches and in market towns, there were lively traditions of street food - pies and whelks - for visitors, pilgrims and travellers.
Implicit in the book is a challenge to historians and policy-makers. The changing pattern of tastes and cuisines Spencer describes offers politicians the perfect grounds for sitting back and pronouncing: "Let the people decide!" But there are different lessons, too, involving riots, scandals and class war. This makes the book valuable, as well as a great story well told. In the final chapter, Spencer argues that British food is revisiting some earlier traditions, as it celebrates sauces, spices and herbs now associated with immigrant foods but which were once home-grown.
Forward to a new culinary medievalism?
Tim Lang is professor of food policy, City University.
British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History
Author - Colin Spencer
ISBN - 1 904010 16 4
Publisher - Grub Street
Price - £25.00
Pages - 400