A Whizz In The Kitchen
Restaurants are the by-product of travel.
There’s a café near me called the Capannina Café. I’m always tempted to push open the door and ask, ‘Pardon me sir, is this the Capannina Café?’ It’s the equivalent of those place that always feature in American movies with old waitresses, plates of waffles and endless pots of burnt coffee. Except that in the UK version you’re never far from a sausage.
In London they’re still ubiquitous but are largely unnoticed. In smart areas they’ve been transmuted into coffee shops, but if you follow a builder you’ll usually be led to an old-fashioned one. The difference is that the US diner is a great leveller while the UK transport café has class attached to it, which is why you can’t find one in Hampstead. I suppose all their Polish plumbers have to make do with brioche.
In the immediate postwar years eating out was not exactly an urgent issue and remained the province of the upper classes, although the thought of Jacob Rees-Mogg eating anything that nanny didn’t make is anathema. Everyone ate at home, and after five years of war and more than double that of rationing nobody knew what to cook anymore.
Restaurants are the by-product of travel. Coaching inns provided fresh horses but also served fresh food. During and after the war no-one travelled far. A bigger problem was that outside meals were resolutely masculine. Gentlemen ate versions of boarding school dinners in clubs, while aspirant merchants ate in taverns. Women had no place in restaurants except as decoration, and were actively encouraged to remain at home and cook for their families. I remember seeing a poster that said, ‘If you really love her, you’ll buy her a grate.’
Smart restaurants usually meant French food, but gradually other European dishes appeared, pre-arranged on great platters English-style until the small plate revolution took us back to the Georgian way of doing things. In ‘Scoff’, Pen Vogler walks us through a history of food in Britain, drawing out its links with class. It’s a refreshingly clear-eyed, debunking read that reminds us just how good and bad British food can be.
It reminded me of another such book published in 1971, as much about appetite as food. Philippa Pullar’s ‘Consuming Passions’ is a history of food incorporating such apparently unconnected subjects as phallic worship, cannibalism, agriculture, roman mythology, wet nursing, prostitution, witchcraft, magic, aphrodisiacs and factory canning.
Her chapters include ‘Pudding, Pepys and Puritanism’ and ‘Culinary Erections’. Her style was scattergun and frequently hilarious, incorporating recipes, jokes, historical anecdotes and a persuasive explanation about why the English lost the art of cooking – an art still only in the early stages of revival.
She explains how mediaeval cuisine was really Roman, and how spices like ‘galingale, mace, cubebs and cummin’ were added after the Crusaders returned with Eastern influences. As in Vogler’s ‘Scoff’ there are descriptions of dinner etiquette and the experience of table gatherings. One imagines the steaming trays of cranes and swans being served, the chamberpots being passed around, the men nodding off, the women stepping into the larder ‘where the jars made a cold crack on the marble shelves as the potted meats, the confections and the pickles were taken up to admire and set down again’.
‘Consuming Passions’ is a treatise on the art of taste, but there are other authors who had written about gastronomy without merely delivering a list of recipes. I’m keen on having a crack at porpoise with wheat porridge, a rare recipe from culinary horror ‘The Curious Cookbook’, a collection culled from various anonymous authors by Peter Ross. He offers up mashed potato sandwich, roasted peacock, viper soup, parrot pie with beef and lemon peel, and curried kangaroo tails.
I’d happily live on Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese and Mexican cuisine, anything other than the ‘lamb chop, potatoes and peas’ British fare delivered by my mother, who had lost her taste buds at twelve and only excelled (as all mothers did) at cakes.
The pandemic has upended the fine dining revolution, forcing us to concentrate on flavours we like and food we can make rather than dishes we experimentally order in restaurants. If and when this slow-motion apocalypse ends (that’s what it is for us in the UK, at least – oh, to be in the Far East) we may venture out and sample the next fad, fusion-Indonesian, say, or nouvelle Spanish. To grow up in a city is to have a thousand choices. Until then, the perfect omelette will suffice.