Food From Hell
Notice anything weird about this burger? (Answer at the end of the column)
Gold-Coated Cockerel, Anyone?
My mother has no taste. I mean that literally; she’s 90 and says she can’t taste anything unless it’s incredibly sweet. It’s a medical fact that we veer to sweet from savoury in old age. I was thinking about that as I was sitting here writing with a plate of marmalade ham sandwiches on one side of the keyboard. I usually add a spoonful of marmalade to spaghetti bolognese when I’m cooking it, and like using fruits in cooking, along with strong, unusual spices.
Now comes a wonderful volume, ‘The Curious Cookbook’, by Peter Ross, with an introduction from Heston Blumenthal, about some of the more extreme historic dishes of old England. These include viper soup, badger ham, roast swan, stewed sparrows, sea-ducks with chocolate, udders on toast, ‘whore’s farts’ (tastier than they sound), barbecued otter, porpoise with wheat porridge, bruised snails and a ketchup that will last for twenty years.
Some of the recipes, like the medieval recipe for lasagne, sound entirely modern. Others, like the wartime idea for stuffing whole potatoes with whole sprats, are desperate and disgusting recipes designed to stretch a ration book for the week. (Apparently I had a ration book, even though the war had ended eight years before I was born).
There are several items from the book I’m planning to try; ‘Instant meat-stock glue to carry in your pocket’ comes from a 1747 cookery book. ‘Fishy Mince Pies’ is nicer than it initially sounds because it uses dried fruits, ginger and spices to perk up fish.
However I won’t be trying ‘Purple Pears’, which uses a pewter plate to cause a chemical reaction between the acidic fruit and the lead in the metal to dye the meal purple. It’s poisonous. ‘Gruel For Invalids’ from Mrs Beeton also sounds extremely off-putting. I might give the sautéed tortoise a miss, too.
The cockerel distilled with gold to treat consumption is typical of these recipes, which make the cook’s work sound incredibly violent;
‘Take a red cock that is not too olde and beate him to death, and when he is dead, fley him and quarter him in small peeces, and bruse the bones everye one of them.’
Cooking By The Senses
Just as there’s not enough discussion about cinema or reading from the POV of their effect on our senses, we don’t look at eating from the sense of taste. Why is a great British fry-up still popular? It’s a power-jump into the day, a hangover cure, a meal designed to burn off over six or eight hours, and cooked correctly it’s a taste sensation. It will also kill someone not used to them.
Britain is a nation of strong flavour lovers. We have a history of pickling, salting and spicing meats, and a powerful connection to India that has placed Indian food as the nation’s favourite cuisine. When I returned from India I had trouble eating anything for a few days because it all tasted so dry.
The old American idea that British food was bad originated in a very real problem; the Second World War. Rationing shuttered restaurants and limited food supply (conversely, it made everyone healthier because they ate less meat). After, the government opened Associated British Cafeterias (ABCs) to provide very cheap meals for those on rations and drastic budgets, because they were concerned about malnourishment. The culinary ground could not be regained for years.
Now British restaurants have rediscovered a rich culinary history, with Blumenthal’s restaurants tackling some incredible dishes from the past. Meat and shellfish were often mixed; I have a great recipe for oxtails stewed with scallops and oranges. Oyster water was added to stews and we still have beef and oyster pies.
The American ambassador recently complained that he had eaten too much lamb in the UK and was looking forward to hamburgers again. We tend to regard American food as too big, too bland and under-spiced, fit only for street eating, but I’ve had good regional dishes from Californian chicken with peaches to Louisiana gumbo. There are no high-end American restaurants in Britain, which make it virtually the only unrepresented country in the food world apart from Canada.
I tend to find French food overrated; trapped in the past, often with subtle herb flavours but a total lack of understanding about how to use spices, it now languishes while many other countries are surprising us. Eastern European food can be thrilling; one of the most sensational meals I had this year was at Cepetim in Riga, Latvia. At the end of it, they gave us little packets of the herbs and spices that were in our dinner – I’m still using them.
Still, I may give ‘Tendons in gravy’ from ‘The Curious Cookbook’ a miss.
Oh, and that hamburger? It’s a plastinated one from Japan, where plastinated food is an art form.