I’ve mentioned Jane Grigson (1928-1990) a few times as a premier English food writer of the post-war era. She was raised in County Durham, Oxbridge-trained, and was married to the poet Geoffrey Grigson. They were one of the intellectual power couples of their time, but of a more retiring, cerebral sort than is common today I think.
Grigson (nee McIntire) wrote books on English foods, on vegetables, French pork cookery, fish, Italian food, and other areas. She had a good publisher and was followed by a loyal coterie of thinking cooks. Many were busy householders but with the interest to know that little bit more about food – its historical and cultural aspects in particular – than those who simply want reliable recipes or to try new foods.
Jane Grigson’s like must still exist today – I hope so at any rate – even in the age of celebrity chefs such as Nigella Lawson and Jaime Oliver. Perhaps I just don’t know the names as well as 20 years ago. In North America, Jehane Benoit and Julia Child, as well as James Beard and others, were her contemporaries although not quite the same I think, more popularizers and explicators. Grigson was that but more, she was a writer whose erudition spoke through all her work while retaining a practical, straightforward bent from her north-east background.
Last year in The Observer a fine appreciation of her work appeared, which should be read by anyone interested in the British Isles and culinary matters. As the writer explained, Grigson foresaw modern trends such as the return of farmers markets, the emphasis on traditional products and breeds, reducing processing where possible, and an appreciation of Britain’s often-misunderstood culinary history.
The fashion in recent years for serving beef cheek, say, and board charcuterie and that kind of thing, was something she promoted when these foods were at best little understood or regarded as primitive survivals.
Her 1984 The Observer Guide To Regional British Food was written with Derek Cooper, he did the parts on drinks, mainly beer but also cider and whisky. They searched out the traditional products of the regions especially unusual ones or those rescued from history. This meant the fish cures, seafoods, hams, lamb dishes, breads, poultry, cakes, vegetables, salts and herbs, and local beers or ciders. The book is illustrated with excellent photos and is written with great knowledge and passion. Her trademark scholarly approach is evident but it informs, even entertains, rather than fatigues.
Many surprises are revealed by her knowledge. At one time in the West Country, garlic was valued by the local people. She offers a dish of veal with garlic and saffron, another old West Country favourite, from the famed Devon hotel, the Horn of Plenty, to reflect this old tradition. It puts paid to the notion the British always disdained garlic.
A theme is the relative insouciance of the British to preserving and valuing the best of their culinary heritage. Of York ham, she explains it was originally smoked from the shavings of the carpentry required to build the Minster of York cathedral, and writes:
Certainly York does not bother much about its hams, not in the way a French town would with posters everywhere and a series of placards at the town boundary – “Bienvenue à York – sa cathédrale – ses jambons – ses Yorkshire poundings – ses Yorkshire pies de Noël”. What a dreary impious lot we are, no sense of fun, no pride! In fact you have to hunt down Scott’s, which is quite near the Minster, before you can find anyone who knows what you are talking about.
Sadly, Scott’s closed in 2008, this press report explained why. What was lost was precisely what Grigson was trying to arrest.
Of the black-skinned Bradenham ham, she notes it originated in Bradenham Park, Buckinghamshire, where Benjamin Disraeli once had a home. She muses, “I cannot imagine he had much to do with its development”. Pointing to where Jewish Britons contributed to the quality of national cuisine, she lauds the Jewish way with salt beef in East London.
To wit, she mentions “Gold’s in Baker Street, near the Classic cinema“, which reached a high, and consistent, standard. Who knows if it still exists – certainly the theatre is gone. Then too, newer traditions will always enrich the London scene. If Grigson was writing today she would include them no less.
Grigson notes tartly that someone once observed “traditional” means something at least 15 years old. She would have understood, for example, that the French regional repertoire is largely a recent or at least relative concept. One can see this in British Cookery, as she explains what one ate was partly a result of one’s means and class but also how one’s mother cooked – it differed with each family especially before recipes were written down and widely disseminated.
Her description of the food of “great houses”, where gentry and aristocracy resided, is revealing, yet so is her discussion of Lancashire tripe, which she liked – one variety of it is mentioned for its “chickeny” flavour. In this, her contemporary William Fowler disagreed, thinking tripe tasteless: he fed it to the minks on his farm!
To be sure an area has its ingredients which arose from local soils, gardens, waters, livestock, husbandry, but these were combined often in more ways than appear from recipe books. She therefore reminds us of the individualistic side of cookery, that a regional guide is not a code.
This has assisted my thinking on English beer cookery. If the available sources seem to suggest it had limited application in English food history, well that only goes so far. Some families may have used beer more than others. Perhaps they just liked it or had worked out a way to get particularly good results. In my three part discussion of beer in English cookery recently, I discussed how William Fowler used beer in numerous dishes, and no one was more English than he. Anyhow, if foods are characteristic of a region and you feel you can combine them to good advantage, go ahead: the recipes in her book are illustrations, not a set of bound rules, is her message.
Beer Et Seq’s interest in dishes cooked with beer isn’t, in fact, met by Jane Grigson’s own work, which includes only a few such recipes: Gloucester Cheese and Ale (like Welsh Rabbit), beer in Christmas cake, and the Sussex Stewed Steak dish which she explains is from Elizabeth David. She does offer a porter cake from Ireland, which sounds very good. Her other writings on English food, those of which I am aware, disclose a similar lack of interest in this area. She does like cider in some dishes though, and gives a few recipes. I think she probably didn’t like the taste of beer in food, and fair enough.
Of the fine northern eating that characterized the families of the rich “cloth towns”, she writes:
[It] began, I suppose, with the Cistercians who swarmed all over Europe in the first half of the twelth century with an intensity of agriculture. They settled their communities with an eye for sweetness of site and efficiency of operation that makes the ruins they left behind a pleasure to visit.
She contrasts to the northern tradition – the best of it – the “impoverished state of public food”, the relatively low standard of publicly available food in Britain (restaurants, cafes, markets) compared certainly to France in the same period. Has anything changed in Britain in 30 years regarding her point that the British need to understand better their culinary history, to offer a better average standard of food?
I can’t really say, perhaps readers in Britain would offer their opinion. Some things surely have changed for the better and I’ve seen some evidence of it myself, e.g., Borough Market in London, the gastropub (which London invented), and the proliferation of snout-to-tail and “market” restaurants focusing on seasonal products. However, there is such a continual interest in foreign foods that I wonder if Britain’s own culinary legacy is still too often overlooked.
Beer is an area I know better, and there I’d say the English have “looked back” with great interest and passion. Since the 70s, they have ensured notably the survival of cask ale – along with welcoming foreign innovation, notably U.S.-style craft beer. It may be that the gustatory passion of the British is most expressive for fine drinks, not least their own beer, whisky, cider, and some of the wine being grown there now.
And that’s fine, the contributions of the British to the realm of drink are legion and internationally acknowledged. If English and other British food never rose to the heights of neighbouring France, there is the consolation of the great English writing on food and food history, not least by Jane Grigson.
Note for all images above save the first: the second, a 13th century recipe from a manuscript, was sourced here. The third, from the news story on Scott’s linked above, here. The fourth, a Suffolk black ham, here. The fifth, here and the last, laverbread and toast, here. All are believed available for educational and historical use. All feedback welcomed.