As a result, I reverted to eating a l’anglaise, ie things ready made. I did make a boeuf bourguignon when I first got there, but it was a much more complicated process than normal, as trying to co-ordinate something so relatively simple seemed to require military precision.
Until recently, when visiting, I would buy fish and chip shop chicken and mushroom pies, a ritual combining nostalgia and catharsis, and affording me the smug satisfaction that I was no longer obliged to suffer the full horror of such Brit staples. I tried again recently and consigned this piece of decadence to the past. If, like me, you like the real thing: a succulent, flavoursome creation oozing thick sauce, with large chunks of free-range fowl and with a face on the pastry, (it’s very important to have a face in the pie), then let me know and I’ll send you several recipes guaranteed to make friends from abroad enthuse about English classics.
Legend has it that French cuisine was dire until the 1530’s when Catherine de Medici came from Italy to marry the future Charles II. She was so appalled by the fare being served at court, that she imported experts from back home to gee things up a bit. It was probably about this time that we acquired the soubriquet ‘les rosbifs,’ not because of our inability to cope with sunshine, but because the French sent cooks to us, as we were the experts in those days with high quality bovine products.
We do have a few great dishes, but let’s be honest, historically, we have never been at the forefront of culinary innovation, as any nineteenth century English novel will attest; they certainly liked to boil just about everything in those days. When they weren’t endeavouring to reduce everything to impossible blandness, (which probably explains why English mustard is so strong), they were thinking up recipes which would make anyone empathise with Catherine de Medici. My 1898 edition of Mrs Beeton features some extremely unappetising looking recipes, such as the tongue picture below, (bottom right).Even the birds look like they have committed suicide or died of boredom. Get to the vegetable section and it’s boiling a gogo. Page after page starts: ‘take half a gallon of water........’ There’s even a recipe for boiled salad.
Stoic British pragmatism doesn’t seem to combine well with haute cuisine, something with which the likes of Carême and Escoffier were not burdened. For a start, they were concerned only with the production of fine food.
But could Mrs. B’s august French counterparts deal with someone apparently drowned? Imagine minding your own business and having a nice nap on the beach. In those days you risked being manhandled by a mustachioed, tweed clad Beeton fan leaping from the undergrowth believing that you had apparently met a watery end.
Escoffier was a showman, a sort of PT Barnum of food. Friends who have experienced it say that his famous duck recipe, where a duck is crushed in a ‘duck press’ at your table to make the sauce for another duck, is as much a piece of theatre as a gourmet experience. It’s fun, as it was intended to be.
Mrs Beeton comes over more as a control freak. A good quarter of her book deals with such diverse topics as a potion to get rid of freckles and ways of dealing with typhoid. She didn’t seem to have had a very optimistic vision of the world, viewing dinner parties as a threat to life and limb, a bit like an SAS live ammunition training exercise. She even has a section on making a will. It seems little wonder that she only made it to the age of 29.