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Apr 23, 2009 01:57 PM

The English Cookbook by Victor Gordon ... interested in thoughts on his take on "new English cooking".

I recently bought this book, written by a long-time food critic in the UK, and published in 1985. It's a cookbook, but prefaced by his thoughts on what true English cooking is, and contains lists in the back of "prohibited ingredients" - such as fresh limes and aubergines/eggplant, permissable "local" ingredients (though they can come from elsewhere - i.e., lamb from NZ), permissable imported ingredients, and ingredients to use v. sparingly (tomatoes and basil).

I'm wondering if any one has read his book and, if so, what you think of his take on what is true "English" cooking.

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  1. I havnt read the book but would suggest that his list pf prohibited ingredients seem nonsensical when you recall that Britain was a maritime trading nation for centuries. And, as for limes? Is it not you Yanks who coined the term Limeys for us?

    I assume he also "prohibits" the use of "continental" fruit and veg as being "foreign".
    Well, when I've driven for six hours from home down to Dover to catch a ferry (as I'll be doing next week), I always remember that "foreign" is then only 22 miles away - and they speak French there (which is why we often use a French word for a foodstuff, where Americans tend to use an Italian - presuming relating to your immigration patterns). We've always imported food and do so still today. We can't grow citrus or bananas or pepper.

    But, yes, as anywhere, traditional food is based predominently on what you grow locally. And seasonality. Modern British food is recapturing that after some years where the fads have been for imported. By way of example, for months the supermarkets have had asparagus from Peru. I don't buy it. Today, I saw the first of the British season - grown in Warwickshire (Shakespeare's county). We ate it as a simple starter - steamed, melted butter and scattering of Anglesey sea salt. It was bloody fabulous!

    I've mentioned this book before but for anyone interested in modern Brit home cooking, I fully recommend another book from the mid-80s. "Fine English Cookery" by the late Michael Smith. Classic recipes like - potted rabbit or beef, mushroom soup, chicken with celery sauce, beef olives (although I've never had better than my late Mum's), pheasant in cream and enough desserts to send the Weightwatchers amongst you into a frenzy.


    36 Replies
    1. re: Harters

      I'll add that book to my lists - I'm getting quite a collection at this point! I'm cooking dinner (amatriciana sauce) and will post some choice quotations tomorrow that reflect his views on this topic.

      I agree with you completely about the "limeys" - that is exactly what the men at Kitchen Arts & Letters were saying to me yesterday.

      1. re: MMRuth

        The "local and seasonal" concept of modern Brit cooking is a BIG THING with many restaurants. You'll see what I mean on these links to a place near to us. It's only a pub - OK a gastropub - but nothing more fancy than that (and note their beef comes from only two miles away!).

        1. re: MMRuth

          Damn you MM Ruth and Harters for forming a cabal and forcing me to buy yet another book on British food...I am poweless under your influence...actually got a copy of the Smith on from a US seller for less than $8.00 including shipping. There are several available.

          1. re: buttertart

            Here are some choice quotes from the introductory chapter:

            “The present book is an attempt to start such a practice for renewal for English Cooking and British culinary practice.”

            “It is important that such renewal should take place. We owe much to Elizabeth David and her disciples, but we are not becoming French or Italian cooks; we are becoming Anglo-continental hybrids, with a touch of the orient.”

            “ At best, this sort of eclecticism creates imaginative new dishes and exciting adaptations, but all too easily it degenerates into just another manifestation of the depressing and homogeneity which is making everywhere and everything more and more the same .”

            “So ‘vivent les differences’: may multinational cookery and culinary jingoism flourish side by side. Let’s continue to have an ethnic cuisine of our own, but revitalize it and stop relying on kitchen Esperanto.”

            “What Makes Cooking English?”

            “It is easier to sense Englishness in cooking than to define exactly what makes a dish English.”

            “Thus the new English cookery will rely on traditional farm and garden produce, wild food from countryside and northern waters, and a select group of exotics which, over the years, have become as it were naturalized British. A number of other foods must therefore be resisted. Tastes and ingredients which are particularly associated with, say, French of Mediterranean, tropical or oriental cooking should almost all be banned – using Pernod or Calvados, for example, the marriage of tomatoes and basil, Indian and Indonesian spicing techniques (as opposed to ‘Anglo-Indian’ cookery). Also to be excluded are those immigrant species which have never acquired naturalized status, however popular they may be – avocado pears, aubergines, kiwi fruit, and so on. These call for a self-denying ordinance.”

            1. re: MMRuth

              Thanks for this, Ruth. Interesting, though I have to admit it doesn't make that much sense to me. I can totally get behind "traditional farm and garden produce, wild food from the countryside and northern waters," which would indeed seem to be the basis of traditional English food. But only the basis. We can't discount the fact that England, like America, is made up of a diversity of ethnic populations whose traditional foods influence English cooking. I think of both cuisines as "living," that is, changing and adapting and expanding over time.

              I should probably just read the book, since I'd love to know what that "select group of exotics" includes, other than black pepper. And how long before aubergines acquire naturalized status--and what are the criteria for that? Also, we should avoid a whole raft of things, including tomato/basil combinations and avocados, but we also don't want depressing homogeneity. It all seems a little arbitrary.

              What does he mean by kitchen Esperanto?

              1. re: Kagey


                Read this link and you'll understand his point as it relates to ethnic cuisines.

            2. re: buttertart

              Oh, and now I've added to my list:

              • Dorothy Hartley, Food in England
              '• Florence White, Good Things of England

              1. re: buttertart

                Have either of you heard of Elisabeth Ayrton's "English Provincial Cooking"? I think I picked it up this past summer in Northern Wisconsin, but haven't done much browsing through it yet.

                1. re: MMRuth

                  'fraid not.

                  Of course, being British and living in Britain, I don't really buy "British" books, More generic ones written by Brit cooks better fit the need to cook dinner. Hence an array of Nigel Slater, Sophie Grigson and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

                  We buy cookbooks as souvenirs when we travel (assuming we can find a local one written in English) - means we've probably got more "American" ones than "British".

                  Thanks for posting the extracts from Gordon's book. I'm perhaps more in sympathy with him now. As I've mentioned, local and seasonal are the foundation stones of modern British cookery. But there's always been an element of "foreign" in there. For example, Hannah Glasse, in her cookbook from the 1700s has a recipe for curry. South asian spicing of food is now almost as British as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.

                  1. re: Harters

                    Indeed, there are many "foreign" elements in both British and American food culture that are so integrated that they've become naturalized, usually legacies of persistant immigration patterns and colonial occupation. South Asian spicing in Britain and "Italian-American" food in the US that's more American than Italian, for example: these foods really can't be considered "foreign" because they've been so adapted and transformed in their "new" environments that they no longer resemble the cuisine of the places where they originated. If this wasn't so, we wouldn't make such a fuss about differentiating cooking (or finding in restaurants) "authentic" Indian, Italian, etc.

            3. re: Harters

              Am reading the Michael Smith book now and love it. The precision of the recipe instructions is absolutely stunning. You feel as if you are making the dish while reading the instructions. For example, on making a pastry case in a flan ring: "Line the ring carefully, pressing away any unwanted thickness at the perimeter of the base." You do this as a matter of course - if experienced in this sort of cooking - but I don't recall anyone making a point of it in recipes. He makes ED and even Jane Grigson look like pikers. Thank you for mentioning this author, I was not aware of his existence (and it's a shame he's no longer alive and cooking).

              1. re: buttertart

                Well, damn both of you then ... I may have to stroll over to Kitchen Arts & Letters and take a look at the Michael Smith book!

                1. re: MMRuth

                  No no, get it from Abebooks or Alibris, only $8.00 or so incl shipping.
                  KA&L is very worthy and to be supported of course, but I find them expensive.

                  1. re: buttertart

                    They are - and I've certainly done my share of supporting them over the past month. I'll check out the online sources.

                    1. re: buttertart

                      I'm going to go add this to my Christmas list. In the meanwhile, I've acquired both the Florence White and Dorothy Hartley books, as well as many more. Greedygirl visited me in NYC and thought I had quite the selection of English cookbooks. And it's grown since then!

                      1. re: MMRuth

                        Maybe Santa could bring you some more Jane Grigson, too? I adore her. (I hope to meet greedygirl when we are in London in January.)

                          1. re: MMRuth

                            You should have her fruit and vegetable books, British Cooking, and The Mushroom Feast if you don't already. You owe it to yourself!

                            1. re: buttertart

                              Is British Cooking different from English cooking? In terms of her book?

                              1. re: MMRuth

                                I have a hardcover one from the mid-80's, I think the title is British Cooking or Cookery but may be wrong, will check tonight (I presume it must be the same content). Looking at ABEbooks exposed me to two I don't have (World Atlas of Food and Cooking With Exotic Ingredients), must get - and reminded me of another you'd no doubt like, Food with the Famous - recipes from famous writers and artists or their works, some but not all English. Her European book is also v good but of course not English.

                                1. re: MMRuth

                                  "Is British Cooking different from English cooking?"

                                  Sort of. It's the regional differences in the country that are the difference - "terroir" as our French neighbours would have it.

                                  I offer the following book recommendation with some trepidation:


                                  The trepidation comes from the fact that I can't abide the "hairy bikers" who, in their various previous TV series, have shown an inability to cook (IMO). And are extremely irritating - and hairy. However. And it is a big however. Their most recent series had them visiting various British counties - they would cook something specific to that county and then there would a challenge to a local chef for them each to prepare a dish that represented the county's food. Have to say there was some damn fine cooking, including from the two amateurs. The book includes all three recipes from each county. So, by way of example from my own county (Cheshire), there's a recipe for a soup with local cheese, the chef's recipe for wild boar and their recipe for spiced hogget, with a swede & cheese "gateau". As you might gather, the county is best known for its cheese. :-)

                                  I think it might be worth adding to a shopping list for anyone wanting to try contemporary regional British food.

                                  1. re: Harters

                                    Actually - I meant in terms of the Grigson books - does she have one that is English Cooking and one that is British Cooking? I guess I could have looked it up! I will look into the book - thank you. I'm trying to bake a cake from Florence White's book but am not sure about pan size, in case you have any ideas ...


                                    1. re: MMRuth

                                      No, I don't believe she has separate books. But she came from a generation that sort of saw England as Britain. And vice versa. The view, and ones around the issue, is one that's not gone away but we stray into politics with that, I'm afraid.

                                      1. re: Harters

                                        Thanks. And the cakes look good and smell good, so we'll see! A ginger variation on a Madeira cake.

                                    2. re: Harters

                                      The video on is very amusing - going to have to get this book! Even if it means I'll be skint!

                                      1. re: Harters

                                        I would add a book that I recently bought in TK Maxx of all places, by someone I'd never heard of called Matt Tebbutt. It's modern British rural cooking - loads of games and stuff from the hedgerows. Really interesting stuff.


                                  2. re: MMRuth

                                    You'll enjoy Grigson's "Good Things". A much wide take on things than simply British or English food - think of it as, perhaps, along the lines of an updated Elizabeth David, drawing on a number of French dishes. Bear in mind that it was first published in 1971 so isnt contemporary British cookery.

                                    We are currently skimming through our various Delia Smith & Nigel Slater books looking for inspiration for the festive season which, this year, we are pretty much regarding as a two week event - starting Christmas Eve and finishing on 7 January (before we leave for Spain)

                                    1. re: Harters

                                      Have you got the new Nigel Slater? It's on my Xmas list.... I really like Nigella's Christmas book, btw.

                                      1. re: greedygirl

                                        I think Father Christmas may bring the new Slater. Or the new River Cottage Everyday. Or a pair of socks.

                                        And, just by the by, on English food, if you're heading to Cheshire with Mr GG, the Smokehouse at Wilmslow has extended. Lots and lots of goodies.

                                        1. re: Harters

                                          I've asked for it from Father Xmas as well.

                                          I won't be visiting Manchester before Xmas, but Mr GG will be oop North next week. I may give him a list!

                                          1. re: greedygirl

                                            If he returns with only two things, make sure it's their smoked haddock and a pack of their smoked cashews & almonds. Both fab.

                                  3. re: buttertart

                                    Any other Grigson books that you would put on top of your list? I have the Fruit one and the English one.

                                    1. re: MMRuth

                                      The vegetable one is super. I also love The Mushroom Feast. Food with the Famous is a lot of fun (recipes from artists and writers of the past, not all Brit).
                                      Tip on buying UK materials faster in the States: has a lot of things not available here yet or at all - incl the Slater book I'm now itching to get. Prices are good and shipping takes only a bit longer than Amazon US. Shipping rates are also reasonable.

                                      1. re: buttertart

                                        We should do Nigel Slater as COTM some time. Buttertart: be sure to let me know when you're in London in January.

                                        (PS That Slater book is available for half price on Amazon UK, if you want to get it sent to my house.)

                                        1. re: greedygirl

                                          Will be in touch, looking forward to it very much. Temptation, temptation!

                                  4. re: MMRuth

                                    Funnily enough I went to a bookshop before we left London to look for some Jane Grigson for you. They only had English Cooking but I almost bought that Michael Smith book to bring out. I wish I had now!