Most people have a bucket list of things they want to do before they kick the proverbial but I’m ticking off foods to eat, at least once. And they’ve got to be British.
I have yet to eat spoot, a sort of razor-shell clam, while softie, black butter, Norfolk knob, Devonshire split and medlar jelly are all on my wanted list. I really ought to have a red herring (if they still cure them) and a Caboc cheese – and talking of cheese nothing could be finer if I had some Carolina, moonlight or no.*
All these are uniquely British ingredients or dishes, among over 400 listed, described and tracked down in the most overlooked culinary book of the last 20 years, called Traditional Foods of Britain: A Regional Inventory. And it’s brought to us courtesy of the European Union.
This is no plug for Brussels. When it comes to a vote I will probably be ticking the box to quit but, forget straight bananas, this is one good thing the EU has done for us. Sad to say, few people know about it.
In brief, the EU, which loves lists, set about recording regional foods throughout Europe before they disappeared under the tide of globalisation sweeping across the planet. Italy and France are two nations which have held up well but Britain’s traditional foods such as Fat Rascals and pigs trotters, potted hough and polony have been scorned and forgotten in favour of chicken tikka masala and pizza.
This book has been achieved by the stalwart efforts of authors Laura Mason and Catherine Brown. What’s the point? Because we should take stock and value what makes up British taste “before we are smothered by the aromas, flavours and textures that may be delectable but tend to lack the emotional substance of our own back yard,” they say.
That’s a phrase which leaps off the page for me. Food isn’t just something to keep us alive, it’s part of our culture, of who we are. Fish and chips and steak and kidney pudding make up the emotional substance of our lives as much as work and family.
It’s a great book to dip into because it succinctly describes the history, look, taste and, albeit briefly, the cooking methods of everything from lily of the valley creams to paving stones. There are gaps. There is no mention of Henderson’s Relish or tomato dip but we’ll let that pass.
From what I can see the authors didn’t always get a great deal of help, either from officialdom or the manufacturers. And when they finished it no major publisher wanted to know so it was left to Prospect Books of Totnes, Devon, to perform what can only be described as a national service. It came out in 1999 and I have a copy of the 2004 reprint.
It has set me discovering new foods and others I had forgotten. It’s years since I had a whelk, at the old seafood stall on Castle Market which had a sign “Whelk spotted in North Sea” whenever they were available because the Japanese bought them all up.
And how long is it since I’ve seen a plate of winkles (also, sadly, missing from the book) although I used to eat them with a pin as a boy in our seaside caravan?
A knowledgeable reader of this blog recommended the book to me and I immediately bought it on Amazon. It was money well spent. There are still copies available. Get one. It’ll probably send you off in search of the Bedfordshire Clanger.
*A softie is a sweet Scottish bun, softer than a rowie. Black butter is an apple paste from the Channel Islands. Norfolk knob is a hollow rusk. Devonshire split is a rich bun for cream teas. Medlar jelly is made with a rarely found fruit. Red herring, a former West Indian favourite, is brined before smoked and not split like a kipper. Caboc is a Scots soft double cream cheese rolled in oats. Carolina is a pressed sheep’s milk cheese from Somerset.