Thursday, April 12, 2007

in defence of English food.

I woke up this morning and regretted my rude words about British cooking yesterday, particularly as Laurie Colwin (aside from disparaging the packaged pork pie) also describes raised pies of veal and ham and egg and cottage pies, mysterious words that inspire some kind of longing, a hunger. The truth is, despite everything I have been told, there is a secret spot deep in my heart for English cooking, which is "a much plainer and more forthright variety than that of France...it does not have the sun-drenched style of, say, Italian food, but it has pleasures all its own."

I have never had the kind of life that involved "the institution of English Sunday lunch: roast meat, potatoes, two vegetables, and a sweet," the sort of meal found (with any number of variations - lamb, beef, fowl, etc.) in Nigella Lawson's cookbook, How To Eat. I used to read How To Eat curled up in bed with a bowl of instant noodles or a cup of hot chocolate, much as I used to read children's books like the Mary Poppins series and The Railway Children, with their descriptions of picnics and afternoons with cakes and sandwiches and scones. It became a sort of dream, a fantasy. Italian food conjures up summer holidays, golden afternoons walking across cities of ancient stone. English food is something else, cozy winter days, and that is, as Colwin tells us, its inherent charm. I would say cuisines like Chinese or Japanese or Italian food conjure up memories of my own reality; there is something concrete and real about going down to my local Italian restaurant for a plate of pasta that recalls something I ate in some old town tucked away in the stony hills of the Abruzzi. English food is different, a fantasy, a dream, something I read about and imagine but has no place in my life as it is.

But then there is one memory. Some ten years ago I wound up in London for an all-too-brief winter holiday. It was just after Christmas, and there were still decorations up everywhere, twinkling lights and green wreaths twined with red and gold ribbons. It was freezing cold and gray, snowing lightly at night. R. and I stayed at a little B&B which was really two extra bedrooms in a rambling yet cosy flat on the top floor of an elegant converted townhouse just off Cadogan Square. We wandered through the packed food halls at Harrods, gazing in awe at the heaps of tinned pâtés and jams and jellies and all sorts of foods behind gleaming glass counters. I remember a lunch in the basement restaurant of Nicole Farhi's Bond Street shop, crackling roast squab (for me) and perfectly seared calf's liver (for R.). One day we had a luxurious tea at the Dorchester, seated on tufted chairs in a long, high-ceilinged room with elaborate floral arrangements everywhere; I felt rather grubby in my cord trousers and baggy sweater amidst all this elegance, as we ate delicate pastries and neatly trimmed sandwiches and hot scones with jam and Devonshire cream. I have dreamed of those scones with jam and Devonshire cream for all these years since.

No, I take back all the disparaging remarks I made about British food.

Colwin, Laurie. Home Cooking. HarperPerennial, 1993. pp 121-122.

1 comment:

Juanita J. Sanchez said...

Oh, you just induced tears of nostalgia for London at Christmastime. Scones and clotted cream...that is heaven on earth!!! And that tea: the only place I'll ever add cream and sugar to my tea -- and LIKE it -- is England. Someday I'm going to live in England.