English Food: A People’s History by Diane Purkiss - review by Lucy Lethbridge

Lucy Lethbridge

The Roast Porpoise of Old England

English Food: A People’s History


William Collins 560pp £30

What a delectable banquet of a book this is. Diane Purkiss examines how food has created and underpinned the history of the English nation by detailing the slow work of transforming raw ingredients into sustenance. Purkiss divides her book into chapters devoted to broad categories (such as apples, pigs, loaves, fishes, foraging and tinned foods), interspersing these with entertaining and discursive essays on breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner. If occasionally the reader feels that the plate is pulled away before she has had a proper mouthful, this is only because even a book of over five hundred pages can’t do complete justice to such a vast subject.

After a short essay on breakfast, Purkiss begins with bread. And where else should a history of food begin? The history of wheat is also the history of folklore, religion, magic, agriculture, boundaries, land control, plague, migration, politics and economics. Bread, which emerged from thousands of years of cultivation and experimentation, is the product of what Purkiss calls ‘microbe management’. The process of fermentation, which changes raw ingredients into preservable foodstuffs, she writes, ‘is almost a form of herding’. Fermentation turns milk into cheese and grapes into wine, and through the gathering of yeast found naturally in the environment, it transforms milled grain into bread. One of the staples of the Roman diet was garum, made from the juices of fish entrails fermented by salting. Garum was very similar to the fish sauces found today in Asian cooking. Bloaters (smoked herrings) were a mainstay of the British diet, eaten across the classes until the First World War brought an end to the British herring industry. Freezing has replaced salting and fermentation as the primary method of food preservation and our tastes have changed accordingly. Purkiss observes that modern frozen fish purveyors know that their customers prefer their products to be not too ‘fishy’: breadcrumbed fish fingers are more popular than kippers nowadays. Modern cooks tend to put the flavour into food, piling on spices and condiments, but Purkiss (in a characteristically entertaining digression on The Great British Bake Off and its participants’ experiments with such flavourings as sun-dried tomatoes) describes how a medieval cook – or perhaps a modern sourdough enthusiast – would know that fermentation, in all its minute variations, is the flavour of bread.

Purkiss darts across the centuries with chronological abandon, but it works. She moves, for instance, from chocolate drinkers in the 18th century and the espresso bars of the 1950s to the soggy plains of Doggerland in 9000 BC. After a disappointing introduction, which throws around several rather vague ideas and reads as though it might have been the original book proposal, English Food gets better and better, animated by Purkiss’s vast literary knowledge and historical research, her eye for catchy details and her delightful style. ‘Caffeine has permanently changed the sleep cycle of the West’ is a characteristically irresistible throw-in. She often interjects with her own experiences of eating (trying whale carpaccio in Norway, for example) or raising chickens (the closest living relative to Tyrannosaurus rex and, left to their own devices, aggressive and territorial). Like the earlier food historian Dorothy Hartley, Purkiss is a hands-on investigator. The book is crammed with cross-references that span the centuries and surprising revelations. We learn that in 1257 King Henry III presided over a banquet that included fifteen thousand eels. If you boil dock leaves with oatmeal and a bit of onion and let it all cool, you get a polenta-like pudding that was once popularly eaten during Lent. People were still occasionally eating meaty porpoise flesh well into the 20th century: Virginia Woolf saw a whole porpoise for sale in a fishmonger in 1925. Of the 157 recorded apple varieties in Gloucestershire, only eight-six are still in existence. Purkiss also raises intriguing questions. Did the 19th-century tendency to stew food come from rotting teeth (a result of increasingly cheap sugar imported from the West Indies), which made chewing difficult?

English Food celebrates a cuisine that was once one of our national glories, but Purkiss is no foodie exquisite: she has no time for snobs who turn their noses up at, say, tins – in their way as vital a part of our culinary history as tea or roast beef. And as for Elizabeth David, Purkiss points out that ‘she saved English food, but she did it by killing the Englishness of it’. David’s French peasant cooking was anything but egalitarian. Her insistence that the only food worth eating could be found under a southern sun revitalised the English middle classes’ interest in cooking but simultaneously encouraged them to despise the food that emerged from their own soil and history. It became received wisdom that English food was unsophisticated, stodgy and inferior, and that anything worth eating came from somewhere else. This magnificently readable and engaging book (which is also very generously illustrated) sets the record straight and should whet appetites for the attentive, seasonal cooking and gamier flavours of the past.

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