Thursday, 2 July 2009

A taste of history

Taste: the story of Britain through its cooking by Kate Colquhoun

If ever you thought that celebrity chefs were a modern phenomenon or that spicy food was a recent introduction to British food, then Kate Colquhoun’s Taste: the story of Britain through its cooking, will set you right.

Starting as far back as she can, it’s a fascinating exploration of British food. But not just of food itself – there is social context here too.

So for instance, she explores how we have deskilled as a nation over the centuries, with so many people now lacking basic cookery skills – something that exercises commentators today.

One major contributor to that process was enclosure and the industrial revolution, which drove families into chronically inadequate accommodation, where they often didn’t even have the room to keep even a single cooking pot.

And inevitably, the diet of the poor suffered as they were driven off land where they could at least grow and/or gather some food. In addition, appallingly low wages also meant that the diet of the new urban poor retracted from what it had been before mass industrialisation.

Deskilling also occurred with the growing middle class, as families became able to afford a cook and the woman of the family needed to cook themselves less and less.

Other things stand out in Colquhoun’s book, including the use of sugar in British cooking from its first introduction to these islands. It was used in every sort of dish. Little wonder that Britons have an international reputation for poor teeth.

The spiciness of early British food is made clear too – it later died away as fashions changed, only to re-emerge gradually in more recent years.

For those who imagine that curry is a modern arrival on British dining tables, the first ready-made curry pastes were on sale in 1780. And then there’s the constant love-hate relationship between the British and their attitudes toward French cooking.

And the sheer scale of the meals eaten by the well-to-do is staggering, in terms both of the amount that people seem to have actually eaten and also the amount that must have been wasted.

There is plenty here too on the development and impact of food technologies such as canning and freezing, but of which have had positive and negative impacts on British food: on the one hand, as an aspect of the liberation of women from the kitchen, but on the other, contributing to the decline in the national diet and the loss of a great deal of the national culinary heritage.

In terms of the latter, what one misses, is an exploration of why that has happened in the UK and why not on the Continent (at least to nowhere near the same extent). But that, to be fair, would probably be the remit for another book and not this one.

It’s a fascinating read – and a very easy one too, crammed full of intriguing glimpses into Britain’s history. And it’s always heartening to find good notes and list of sources – this even divides them into primary and secondary ones.

Great stuff – and really provocative in terms of the questions that it raises.


  1. We have Emeril here. I'd marry Emeril in an instant.