Other countries may deride Britain's fish-and-chips cuisine, but the nation boasts a rich culinary heritage dating back to the Norman conquests. Colin Spencer reports.
Modern British cooking tends to borrow from a great many international traditions. And as supermarkets and specialist retailers stock an increasing variety of foods from around the world, it is not difficult to prepare a three-course meal at home that draws on at least as many continents. How about beginning with some Mexican nachos, served with a salsa and some guacamole, made from avocados, chilies, onion and tomatoes, followed by a Thai red curry, with prawns, lemon grass and ginger, and finishing with a French classic such as cr me caramel, all washed down with an Australian red? Was there ever an age in which we had such a choice of cuisines?
Well, yes: the 11th century. When the Normans had established their colonies in southern Italy and Sicily and Christian forces had conquered Jerusalem, Mediterranean ingredients and recipes began to find their way, not only into the royal household, but also every baron's kitchen. We know this because the spice trade began to flourish once the conquest was consolidated and over the next 50 years, spicers began to appear in provincial cities.
From 1100, favourite spices were ginger, pepper, cumin and cardamom. The trade declined for 20 years in the middle of the century because of civil war, but blossomed again throughout the stable reign of Henry II.
Did it matter how far away the spices came from? Not at all: spikenard came from the high peaks of Afghanistan's Hindu Kush mountains, and was exported from the mouth of the Ganges; galangal was bought in southern China; pepper came from Java, Sumatra, Madagascar and the Malay peninsula.
In the early medieval period, foods were imported from across the known world and beyond, from regions mysterious and unexplored, full of strange legends such as that of Prester John, the Christian monarch who ruled somewhere east of China. At this time, British cuisine soaked up influences from Persia, concocting dishes such as the "Turk's head", which resembled the enemy Saracen in a pie dish. There were different recipes for this favourite dish, but it was basically well-flavoured rice, built up over a stew of rabbits, chicken, spices and dates. The rice would be fashioned into a turban, while other foods were dyed black to resemble the hair. There were also Saracen broths made from ginger-flavoured almond milk, and another dish called "Cyprus food" made from pine nuts, dates, sugar, rice flour, sweet wine, ginger and cinnamon -perhaps an original recipe for Italy's rich panforte bread-cake.
One of the earliest recipes for ravioli, stuffed with a mixture of shallots, sage, parsley and ricotta, is still made today, despite the recipe being 900 years old. This, in itself, is an astonishing accolade to those nameless cooks employed in baronial kitchens, passing on their skills and techniques to their apprentices, who would have to memorise every ingredient and quantity.
It is not just the recipes that are impressive, but the discriminating taste that laid down rules for which sauces accompanied which meats. A garlic sauce, for example, was always served with goose; ginger sauce with lamb or pheasant; mustard sauce with beef or brawn; and a green sauce with pickled fish. The fish was gutted, filleted and pickled in a spiced brine the moment it was caught. The sauce was a mixture of parsley, mint, sage, garlic and green onion tops ground to a paste and made into a running sauce with the addition of oil. There was also a passion for sweet and sour, either as a sauce or as the dish. It was verjuice (pulped crab apples or unripe grapes) that gave the sourness, another recipe brought back from the Holy Land.
There could be 30 different sauces served at one meal (many of which are sadly lost), for the range of game and fish eaten was impressive, as was the number of salad leaves grown in the herb gardens. Even a cookshop on the Thames near the docks sounds wonderfully enticing in this description by William Fitzstephen in 1180: "There daily according to the season you may find roast dishes, fried and boiled meats, fish great and small, coarse flesh for the poor, the more delicate flesh for the rich, such as venison and birds both big and little. There is also sturgeon, guinea fowl and Ionian frankolin (pheasant from Greece)."
The cookshop also sold ribs of beef and pease-cods - fresh peas boiled in their pods which you ate like artichoke leaves, dragging the peas away from the pod. They also sold ready-made spice mixtures and every possible sort of pie, closed and open, filled with mixtures of meat, herbs and egg yolks, tarts with eggs called crustards and pasties. Their puddings were flavoured with rose petals and orange water. Fish was cooked with ginger, honey and mace, cloves, cinnamon and galangal (how this recipe reminds one of Indonesian or Thai dishes). They loved to gild food, use vibrant colours, silver and gold leaf; saffron for yellow, sandalwood for red, herbs for green, mulberries for blue, cooked blood or liver for black. They loved to use rice, pasta and fine wheat pastry and they adored pancakes and noodles.
Their recipes show a people revelling in highly sophisticated, beautifully flavoured dishes, with great skill and artistry in the kitchen, as one would expect from the creators of cathedrals from Cefalu to Canterbury. So much of what the Normans brought to British cuisine has remained: a love of rice, pasta and pies, sweet and sour sauces, ginger (what other nation has a steamed ginger pudding?), a delight in pickles and spiced dishes that reached its apogee in the nation's love affair with the Indian curry.
Critics may decry the chaos of today's fusion cooking, but it has actually been with us since the Normans. It was they who insisted on bringing back the East into our cold, dark climate, and we have been celebrating those flavours ever since.
What is particularly interesting is that many of these influences bypassed Paris and, at this time, Britain was renowned for her cuisine. Of course, it was only 2 per cent of the population who enjoyed such gastronomy. The very poor had a subsistence diet, the staple being a rough bread washed down with ale. A peasant worked long gruelling hours from dawn to dusk and got through about 2kgs of bread per day, but this was bread made from barley, rye and sometimes bean flour, because refined wheat flour was kept for the rich.
Today, we have an overabundance of food, including fast foods and convenience foods. We graze as we walk along city streets and munch our way through snacks crammed with saturated fat, sugar, salt and chemicals to simulate natural flavours.
All this, and a mountain of other fascinating facts and insight, is to be found in two large volumes that comprise the 2,000-page Cambridge World History of Food , the work of 200 contributors - distinguished academics and specialists in their subject. The range these volumes cover is awesome, from the evolutionary diet, with revelatory detail drawn from coprolite fossils, to contemporary policy issues such as food labelling, additives, child nutrition and dietary guidance. One notable omission in this section is that genetic engineering does not get a separate chapter, but when this project was being hatched ten years ago it was not the hot issue it is today.
Though this is undoubtedly an important reference book for food writers, nutritionists and academics, the general reader with a natural appetite for gastronomy in all its forms will find browsing through it a stimulating experience. There is information on obscure grains such as amaranth and sorghum, and choice cuts of meat such as camel and dog. There is a section on breast milk and on deficiency diseases. There are sections on the culture and history of every continent. There are answers to the most obscure questions: how is kumiss (fermented mare's milk) related to hippophagy (horse eating); when was anorexia first identified? (in 1689); why is Korean cuisine considered by nutritionists to be the world's best? Because it is high in carbohydrate and low in protein and fat.
The Cambridge World History of Food is published by Cambridge University Press this week, price £95 until April 2001, when the price will increase to £110. It will be reviewed in next week's books section. <P style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px"> The Long and Dangerous Road to a Well Balanced Diet