Lamb’s Tails

Christopher Driver

  • All Manners of Food: Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present by Stephen Mennell
    Blackwell, 380 pp, £14.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 631 13244 9
  • Curye on Inglysch: English Culinary Manuscripts of the 14th Century including ‘The Forme of Cury’ edited by Constance Hieatt and Sharon Butler
    Oxford, for the Early English Text Society, 224 pp, £6.50, April 1985, ISBN 0 19 722409 1
  • The English Cookbook by Victor Gordon
    Cape, 304 pp, £12.50, November 1985, ISBN 0 224 02300 4

For a generation now, it has been a commonplace that in Britain food and drink are much discussed. Fewer people seem to notice that this has almost always been so, wherever the capacity to discuss anything is found. Pockets of unawareness are the exception rather than the rule: early redbrick university departments striving to differentiate themselves from Oxford and Cambridge; or the English gentry, who, as Lord Stockton has reminded us, taught their genteel imitators that it was bad form to notice the manna that came to dinner. In other times and places, both hunger and plenty have proved stimulating sauces for food discourse. Miranda Chaytor tells me that the dreams of a 16th-century Northumbrian witch elicited at interrogation centred upon food rather than sex. English diarists – Evelyn as well as Pepys, Thomas Turner as well as Parson Woodforde – confide their meals to paper as readily as their other concerns. One reason why Keats makes better reading than Shelley is that he had a superior gust for eating and drinking, and found a language for it in verse and prose: not just the lucent syrops tinct with cinnamon but the nectarine: ‘good god how fine. It went down soft pulpy, slushy, oozy – all its delicious embonpoint melted down my throat like a large beatified Strawberry. I shall certainly breed.’

Jane Austen’s more obtuse admirers or detractors often deem her either too witty or too etiolated for fleshly preoccupations at bed and board. But she achieves an imaginative universe where food and cooking do not need to be framed in externally observed, Dickensian set-pieces: their crucial role in her characters’ lives can be disclosed by passing reference. Emma is full of food, though scarcely a dish is described – apart from the egg whose soft boiling so perfectly delineates the character of Mr Woodhouse. We know exactly how Mrs Elton would have behaved at the grocer’s and how Mr Knightley would have carved a joint. Projecting these households into our own time, we can see Mrs Elton leafing through A la Carte as a substitute for actual cooking, and Emma consulting Elizabeth David for instruction in the matter of marrow-bones.

Wherever the daily human comedy of manners is deployed as a cloak for our brute, indispensable appetites and satisfactions, food and drink must be present or, if absent, must expect to have their absence remarked. Food is one of our supreme fictions. The history and sociology of the subject suffer from arrested development, but intelligent men and women in Britain were applying their minds and senses to the transformation of edible matter into culture long before more guarded minds in university departments, the British Council and the BBC caught on. Few bureaucrats, however fond of a free lunch, care to risk being accused of greed and frivolity by funding international, interdisciplinary inquiries of a kind taken for granted elsewhere.

They order these things somewhat better in the Council of Europe, where Stephen Mennell, a disciple of Norbert Elias, began work on All Manners of Food. The slow-baked book that has finally emerged reads like a series of essays on pertinent food topics in cultural history rather than a comprehensive account of what has been eaten, and why, in Britain and France since the Middle Ages. However, at this stage the questions are at least as important as the answers. Moreover, by dividing his library-burrowing between London and Paris, Dr Mennell has done something to bridge the ditch of separation between France and Britain in the matter of food. If most British students of French culinary traditions are handicapped by excess reverence, almost all French scholars – Lévi-Strauss for one – are handicapped by blank ignorance, often of what British diet is, and almost always of what it means to its consumers.

Not that British scholarship has made things easy for the French, or anyone else. The classic history by Drummond and Wilbraham (1939) is out-of-date and out-of-print. Symptomatically, one of 1985’s more bizarre publishing events was the emergence by stealth from Oxford University Press, under the forbidding if modestly priced imprint of the Early English Text Society, of the earliest-known manuscript recipe collections in our language. Most of them date from the 14th century and have never before been published.

If a French equivalent of Curye on Inglysch had appeared in Paris, perhaps under the auspices of the Académie, the President of the Republic himself would have been expected to take wine with the editors. Here, the work was done by Canadians, using funds provided by their own Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Three years separate the date on the editors’ preface from the date of issue, and the Oxford Press showed every sign of surprise at the demand from cooks and food historians for a book they must have expected to tempt only the delicate appetites of language specialists. However, for what has been set before us may the Lord make us truly thankful, for Hieatt and Butler’s work on these texts is beyond praise. The Forme of Cury, for instance, is popularly known from its 18th-century editions. But only the other day an expensive advertisement in a food magazine was put together under the misapprehension that Cury (cookery) had something to do with the British affection for curry. Perhaps even this was excusable, given the standard of the previous editing: Warner (1791), for instance, translated ew ardaunt as ‘hot water’, which, as Hieatt and Butler remark, ‘would have been a very peculiar substance to pour over a pastry castle’. Their own understanding of both modern and ancient culinary processes matches their familiarity with Medieval English. The glossary entry for blanc alone occupies a whole page, and entry after entry supplies either new knowledge or informed speculation: ‘Balloc broth, balough broth, a fish soup ... Since there is no recorded meaning for ballok other than testicle, which does not seem appropriate for a fish stew, it is more likely that balowe, balgh (“bulging”) is the word originally meant. The meaning would then seem to be something like a thick, satisfying soup, which this indeed should be.’ But compare the Latin for a whale, balaena?

Dr Mennell would have every reason to be cross at the delay in publication, for Hieatt and Butler’s findings affect the larger issues of Anglo-French food relations that figure on his own canvas. The culinary style of the manuscript recipes, taken together with other sources, indicates little change in four hundred years, from the 12th to the 16th century. Like most pre-Beeton cookery books, they are both retrospective and prospective in terms of actual practice. A book compiled as a teaching manual by a respected craftsman towards the end of a working life becomes a source and influence for at least another lifetime.

Much earlier than has hitherto been supposed, Anglo-Norman cuisine diverged from its French counterpart. Moreover – and this underlies a self-imposed limitation in the scope of All Manners of Food – neither French nor English cookery (let alone Italian or Spanish) can be properly understood without taking into account the extra-European influences upon which all relied in different degrees. As Hieatt and Butler put it, ‘there can be little doubt that some of the basic characteristics of aristocratic cookery in western Europe and England of the time [14th century] came from the east, either via Spain and/or Italy or as direct importations by returning Crusaders. For example, the characteristic use of almond milk as a sauce base is not native to northern climes and is not a heritage from the Romans: while Apicius calls for toasted almonds fairly frequently, he has not a single recipe based on almond milk.’

By the mid-point of the 17th century, recognisably modern times were arriving in the English kitchen, as in the French. The potato and citrus fruit (though not yet the tomato) had reached the market, as the career of Nell Gwynn and Pepys’s wariness of orange juice both remind us. Tea, coffee and the wine-bottle cork were all introduced between 1650 and 1700, and, even before the Restoration, English translations of French authors such as de la Varenne arrived on the London market within a year or two of the originals. Already, too, there is no question of comparable English authors – Robert May, William Rabisha – being translated in the reverse direction. Yet at this period the connections between cookery and other arts and crafts could still be noticed without undue self-consciousness. Pepys and Evelyn may well have discussed with each other the proper composition of a Spanish or Portuguese oleo – a mixed meat dish of a type always more popular in southern Europe, which nevertheless occupied a niche on English menus for over a century – because both men describe examples they ate. Massialot’s aesthetic insistence that two dishes of a similar kind should be kept apart by another of a different sort is surely reminiscent of similar rules in heraldry. And as late as the 1740s, a letter from the Princess Palatine could refer to her son the Regent’s culinary skill as an aspect of general bon ton: ‘My son knows how to cook, it is something he learned in Spain. He is a good musician, as all musicians recognise; he has composed two operas which he had produced in his chambers and which had some merit, but he didn’t want them to be shown in public.’

Dr Mennell’s glance has to be everywhere: at the old wives’ tales still prevalent in his subject, as well as at the minute scholarship of particular culinary periods that is now emerging from Oxford, Boston, Adelaide and wherever symposiasts confer. For instance, it is still common to read or hear the old canard that the Middle Ages used spices to disguise the taste of tainted meat. There are so many counts against this supposition that it is a puzzle why it should have been so long believed. Spices, after all, were relatively more expensive for châtelaines than the meats they accompanied. (Dame Alice de Bryene paid 4s 6d a pound in the 15th century for cinnamon, allowing about two and a half ounces per person per year.) They were used liberally – but, in Dame Alice’s household, not excessively – however fresh the meat or fish in question. In Curye on Inglysch, ‘the later the recipe, the sweeter and spicier it tends to be,’ but although the basic problems of food preservation remained until the rise of the railways accelerated the transport of perishables, the use of cinnamon and cloves began to diminish. Conspicuous expenditure was diverted from sugar and spice into silks and satins, perhaps, and subtler tastes – in Revel’s phrase, ‘the cookery of impregnation’ rather than ‘the cookery of mixtures’ – came to be preferred.

Still more pertinent is Mennell’s assessment of the forces that took English and French foodways further and further away from each other during the 18th and 19th centuries. One of these presumed forces is English Puritanism, and here his judicious scepticism is particularly welcome, for it has to contend with so many crass assumptions made wherever writers – Bernard Levin, Philippa Pullar – put their hand to food, or food pundits – Michael Smith, Egon Ronay – venture upon writing.

The caricaturists of Puritanism did their work early, for the Restoration Court exercised a Reagan-like hold on the media. At this period, one of the 17th century’s better cookery books – apparently the work of Oliver Cromwell’s widow – was published only to be lampooned, and another Civil War widow, Lucy Hutchinson, was constrained to complain of the ‘court caterpillars’ who could present her husband as a life-denier in spite of his affection for music and dancing and his ‘rule of temperance in meat, drink, apparel and all those things that may be lawfully enjoyed’. Moreover, the cross-Channel influences that, from the Commonwealth decade onwards, began to improve English techniques of bread and pastry-making were as likely to be Protestant as Catholic: long before the Edict of Nantes was revoked, there were chefs on the roll of the London Huguenot church attended by Elizabeth St Michel, later Mrs Pepys.

Much later – later, that is, than Isaac Watts and the Wesleys, later even than Jane Austen, though its beginnings are discernible in Mansfield Park – it is easier to illustrate as general in polite, rather than merely eccentric society ‘the attitude that food, like sex, is something necessary, but definitely not to be enjoyed by the virtuous’. But by that time the habits and interests of the French and the English gentry – neither of them apt to borrow their moeurs from Protestant chapelgoers – had long since diverged. The memoirs of the Duke of Wellington’s field chef have lately been published and make sad reading: unlike Napoleon’s, the poor man would never have been allowed to invent poulet Marengo. Repression, albeit of a more studied kind, has now returned to our food culture with the index ciborum prohibitorum which Victor Gordon prints in his ‘unashamedly racist’ English Cookbook. Chillies, ginger and sardines figure on the list if consumed fresh, cod if eaten salted; apricots are ‘borderline’. The French gentry have many faults, but at least they do not employ opinionated bumblers to instruct their cooks or criticise their restaurants.

Mennell’s argument – supported by good trencherwork in the dinner menus of Kensington Palace – is that during the 18th century members of the English élite were much less subject than French courtiers to social forces compelling them towards conspicuous consumption and the display of increasingly ‘refined’ tastes. Moreover, on the Jesuitical principle that habits acquired in childhood last longest, there is much to be said for the opinion attributed to Louis Eustache Ude, chef to Louis XVI and later for 20 years to the Earl of Sefton. He blamed English indifference to good cooking on the fact that young people were ‘not introduced to their parents’ table till their palates had been completely benumbed by the strict diet observed in the nursery and boarding schools’ – a diet at all epochs, including our own, scarcely superior to the workhouse. Indeed, the culinary revival of our own time could almost be correlated with the rediscovery of state day schools by the upper middle-class, after a century’s embrace of a pattern of education which Puritans always detested and, in the Dissenting Academies, consistently improved upon.

In Dr Meynell, the historian and the social anthropologist are no more to be separated than steak from kidney, and while researchers in these fields will profit by the detailed work he has done in trade magazines, culinary textbooks and gastronomic guides published over the past century and a half, reviewers will find themselves drawn to more speculative accounts – based on suggestive if possibly unreliable data – of food dislikes and cross-cultural faddishness. Nothing is more eloquent of the Anglo-French divide which All Manners of Food explores than the account by a teacher in Exeter (where Meynell directs the Western European Studies Centre) of taking 50 13 to 15-year-olds, half English, half French, for a traditional Devonshire ‘cream tea’ in Bovey Tracey: ‘The French children ate theirs with enjoyment; the English proved a nightmare with their various dislikes (about the scones, clotted cream, or jam, and demanding Coca Cola instead of tea to drink).’

How far fads and repugnances of this kind are to be attributed to different patterns of child-rearing, and how far they are to be related to the present outbreak of vegetarian squeamishness, and in particular offal aversion, among adult Anglo-Saxons is a question of profound concern to the British meat trade. Meynell, who probably shares with the present writer and most of the civilised – that is, undeveloped – world a taste for menudo and kokkoretsi, nevertheless finds implausible the idea that there are inbuilt preferences for ‘natural’, ‘original’ Ur-tastes in food. ‘The overwhelming evidence is that people come positively to like foods which developing social standards define as desirable.’ The corollary, of dislike, also applies, and in neither case is there room for the operation of logic: we are dealing with taboo, albeit a taboo of the developed or developing kind explored by Keith Thomas in Man and the Natural World, rather than anything that can be called primitive. (For good practical reasons, primitive man was rather fond of offal.) Perhaps there is hope, though – for gastronomic taboos, like sexual ones, are curiously unstable between generations, and sometimes even within the same generation. Sir Walter Scott’s aged aunt was ashamed to read, even in private, the novels of Aphra Behn which she had heard read out in polite circles sixty years earlier. Our own green and healthy daughters may yet come to Ambrose Heath’s advice (1939): ‘Lamb’s tails make an extremely delicious if a little muttony pie, and really delicious stew can be made of other parts of this small creature, the exact nature of which is better kept hid.’