Ask most food lovers to name the most important cookbook ever written in the UK and the answer will usually be the same. Elizabeth David’s Mediterranean Food was published in a country ground down by rationing and encouraged a grey and depressed population to “raise their eyes” to the sunny south where she had experienced her own culinary revelations. It is by any standards a stunning piece of work and was a first in so many ways. It addressed itself to the new middle-class recreational cook, conjuring dinner parties and “simple suppers” without, for the first time, the assistance of a cook. It brought an unashamed sensuality to food writing (M.F.K. Fisher was raunchier – but she was an American after all) and it reinforced the connection between well-to-do Brits and Tuscany, Provence and the fancier bits of Spain that survives to this day.
Post-David, every British food writer’s heart was on the shores of the Med, whither most of them travelled, at least once a year, for their fix of real food. Well, to be strictly accurate, every British food writer except one: Arabella Boxer, of an equally impeccable social pedigree to David’s, but whose 1991 book English Food (recently republished by Fig Tree) was the first hint of a backlash. Boxer, who had grown up among the aristocracy between the wars, was having none of the culinary “Cultural Cringe” we seemed to feel as a nation. Our food wasn’t the stuff of bad jokes, far from it. Though rationing had torn its heart out, British food had been, in living memory, some of the best in the world.
To prove her point Boxer researched the archived recipes of the Great Houses, the culinary jottings of the chefs of clubland and found an amazingly rich seam. Though the cooks had trained in the classical French manner, diners were still demanding food prepared to long-established favourite recipes and using the game and produce from their own land. Some have characterised this as “nursery food” but looking at the recipes Boxer unearthed we see a solid native tradition going back to the Middle Ages.
It’s interesting how hard the Davidites had worked to run down our indigenous food. To this day, well-meaning columnists still rehash the line that “before Elizabeth David you could only buy olive oil in Boots – people used it to clean their ears”. A terribly amusing example of our national hopelessness – behold the idiotic Englishman pouring the benison of the gods in his filthy lugholes – but untrue. Until rationing, there wasn’t a reasonable-sized town in the UK where you couldn’t buy olive oil in splendid abundance.
Boxer knew that up to and during the interwar period our roast meats were universally accepted by travelling gourmands as the best in the world, and, as our empire expanded, we didn’t simply “import” dishes but allowed international influences to affect our own food.
It’s great news that this seminal work is getting a reprint, if only because the old copies we’ve been handing round since it went out of print were getting so dog-eared we might have had to retype and photocopy them – samizdat-style. A whole generation of us loved Boxer for what she said in English Food. We loved her pride, her persistent historical digging and stubborn unwillingness to go with the prevailing wisdom. Lots of us now run restaurants, cook or write about food, and what she started is now seen everywhere as pride in our own food has grown.
If someone asked me today what I thought was the most important cookbook written in the UK, I wouldn’t have to think about it for long. Mediterranean Food is still a masterpiece and arguably gave us modern food writing. Elizabeth David went on to write about British food in later life but by then the bandwagon was rolling and British food lovers had a virulent inferiority complex. In terms of British appetites, Mediterranean Food was a game changer but in terms of food culture it was, to say the least, counterproductive. On the other hand, Boxer’s English Food, almost certainly unintentionally, was like the first shot fired at Lexington, the beginning of a battle to regain national pride – a battle that only today, 20 years on, are we beginning to feel we’re winning.
Tim Hayward is editor of Fire & Knives, www.fireandknives.com