Friday, September 25, 2015

Do Englishmen Get The Food They Deserve?

I do love a good travel-food story, as many of you know. Most of the stories that I use as starting-points for posts on this topic come from British travellers of the past who were usually as unstinting in their condemnation as they were reluctant in their praise of the food they were subjected to while ‘abroad.’ 

Today I am going to turn the tables and give several visitors to Britain an opportunity to give an opinion on the food they experienced in that country.  The stories come second-hand, via Michael Demiashkevich, the author of the impressively-titled The National Mind: English, French, German, (American Book Company, 1938). The front matter of the book tells us that the writer is a ‘Graduate of the Imperial Historic-Philosophical Institute (Petrograd), Officier d’Académie, Professor at George Peabody College,’ so he is a well-travelled man himself.

It has been remarked that the English have fifty religions and only one sauce, but a Spanish visitor credits them with not even one sauce:

"England is a country that eats without sauce and gelatin …  The Englishmen eat much, but as they eat simple food they do not puzzle the taste and never eat more than what their stomach needs. On the other hand, the English do not have any taste. The English meal that is so practical, has a number of absurd things. I cannot yet understand why they do put their jelly to the omelette and syrup to the kidneys. The first time that they served me an omelette in this way I protested respectfully.

“Is it that you do not like jelly?” the waitress asked me.
“'Yes, I like it very much.”
“Then, do you not like omelette?”
“Yes, I do also.”
“Then undoubtedly you must like jelly omelette?”
“That is the English logic. I was convinced, but my stomach remained skeptic.”

While in France eating is an art and drinking a noble rite, only Englishmen of continental culture may be expected to appreciate good food and drink. These sporadic sybarites merely go to prove the corrupting influence of less manly nations. The downright Britisher, in the words of Mr. H. A. Vachell, "detests fancy cooking and all kickshaws." In the words of the same commenter, "he disdains dietetic experiments; he eyes distrustfully all dishes unfamiliar to him."

The average Englishman is, in matters of food, well represented by the English skippers who were called to Paris in 1904 to give evidence before an international commission upon the action of the Russian fleet, which had inadvertently fired upon English fishing boats at Dogger Bank. The skippers complained to an English journalist who visited them at their headquarters in Paris:

“Them Frenchies started giving us a lot of little bits of things to eat. They started giving us a thin sort of broth with little white worms in it. So we took and flung all the lot straight out of the windows. "Give us beef and mutton," we says to that there interpreter, and he passes on the word. ‘So, in Paris,' concludes the chronicler, 'that center of culinary art, beef and mutton they got, and what Paris thought of such a reproach I did not hear.”

In a case so grave let us call in another witness, whose study of English inns marks him as an expert:

"It was, I think, the innkeeper who discovered that a tin can be opened in a few seconds, who started the trouble. From shirking his kitchen-business by tin-opening, he sank to shirking other departments. He neglected to welcome his guests, or even to see that they were welcomed by one of his hirelings. From that he has sunk to practical jokes to putting in his bedrooms bells that do not ring, or bells that do ring and are never answered. He has discovered that one kind of soup will do for his customers, and it does. He gives it different names, but it is always the same soup. He has fish in his bill of fare, but from my collection of bills of fare I gather that the waters of this island afford no other fish than sole and plaice. The same with cheese. Last week, at the end of one of these mortifying lunches, hoping that I might yet get something to eat, I asked the maid what cheese they had. She said 'Cheese.’ I said, 'Yes, but what cheese - Stilton, Camembert, Roquefort, Cheshire, or - ' ' No, sir. Only Cheese.’

"A French innkeeper is delighted to meet a guest who discusses the carte intelligently, and orders a special and sensibly-planned meal; it is a demonstration of mutual interest in one of the graces of life. An English innkeeper positively dislikes such a guest, and sees nothing in him but a man who is disturbing the routine of tin-opening."

Mr. Vachell sadly and not without an undertone of irritation concludes that "Englishmen get the food they deserve." "It is shockingly bad," he testifies, "in most inns and hotels out of the big cities; and is it pathos or bathos to record that for the most part [native] tourists believe it to be good? When I wrote on this subject some years ago a gentleman from the Antipodes took exception to what I said. He replied that he had travelled from John o' Groats to Land's End, staying in many hotels, and that he had found the food provided better than what he had at home." In this connection, Mr. Vachell quotes the following epigram:

"The French have taste in all they do,
Which we are quite without,
For Nature, that to them gave gout,
To us gave only gout."

M. Poincare remarked of Edward VIII, then Prince of Wales, on the occasion of his visit to the Marquis de Breteuil in 1913: "A young man of remarkable self-restraint, he showed disdainful indifference to the excellent cuisine.”

It is a fact almost without precedent in history that the English ruling classes, the aristocracy, whether hereditary or monetary, have never become victims of sybaritism. The ruling classes of Greece and of Rome fell to this temptation; so have the ruling classes of the European Continent. But even when their incomes were highest and their positions appeared indefinitely secure, the ruling classes of Britain practiced a non-hedonistic or only moderately hedonistic conception of comfort.

Well, there you have it. Please don’t hold back your comments.

The recipe for the day is an obvious choice, once the American ‘jelly’ (the source book is American) is translate to the English ‘jam’! From Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861):

Ingredients.—6 eggs, 4 oz. of butter, 3 tablespoonfuls of apricot, strawberry, or any jam that may be preferred.
Mode.—Make the omelet by recipe No. 1459*, only instead of doubling it over, leave it flat in the pan. When quite firm, and nicely brown on one side, turn it carefully on to a hot dish, spread over the middle of it the jam, and fold the omelet over on each side; sprinkle sifted sugar over, and serve very quickly. A pretty dish of small omelets may be made by dividing the batter into 3 or 4 portions, and frying them separately; they should then be spread each one with a different kind of preserve, and the omelets rolled over. Always sprinkle sweet omelets with sifted sugar before being sent to table.
Time.—4 to 6 minutes. Average cost, Is. 2d.
Sufficient for 4 persons. Seasonable at any time.

*The recipe referred to is:

Ingredients. —6 eggs, 4 oz. of butter, 2 oz. of sifted sugar.
Mode.—Break the eggs into a basin, omitting the whites of 3; whisk them well, adding the sugar and 2 oz. of the butter, which should be broken into small pieces, and stir all these ingredients well together. Make the remainder of the butter quite hot in a small frying pan, and when it commences to bubble, pour in the eggs, &o. Keep stirring them until they begin to set; then turn the edges of the omelet over, to make it an oval shape, and finish cooling it. To brown the top, hold the pan before the fire, or use a salamander, and turn it carefully on to a very hot dish: sprinkle sifted sugar over, and serve.
Time.—From 4 to 6 minutes. Average cost, 10d.

Sufficient for 4 persons. Seasonable at any time.


korenni said...

Interesting how things changed so quickly. In the early 1800s, food at classy hotels and good posting inns was known to be special, and certainly when I went to England in the 1990s my friend and I had excellent food wherever we went. My brother, a francophile, sneers at the idea that British food can be good, but I have cooked a number of British recipes for him -- all of which he has liked.

The Old Foodie said...

Hi korenni, thanks for your input, and my apologies for not responding sooner. I have been beset with problems on my new computer and am only just emerging from a full re-set.
I travel to England regularly, and can say I manage to find good food every time.