Where not to eat in the UK
The English provinces are a depressing place to eat.
While London's cuisine has moved forward by leaps and bounds (in fact I believe we finally have as many three star restaurants as Brussels), food outside of the capital (aka "the provinces") remains sadly lacking. Apart from a bunch of country-house hotels and a handful of avant-garde establishments (Sat Bains, L'Enclume and Le Champignon Sauvage), it is hard to recommend anywhere good to eat beyond the Bray Gap.
At least that's the theory.
Whether its true or not I'm not be qualified to say (after all I never really get out of London much, apart from to go to Bray). But one thing I'm sure of - it didn't used to be like this.
And the reason I know that is because of Mary Hanson Moore.
A very Yorkshire Cookbook
Mary Hanson Moore is the author of a slim but extraordinary volume called A Yorkshire Cookbook, published by David & Charles in 1980. Like many of the books I like to highlight on this blog, it doesn't look like much. It looks like the sort of tatty old volume which haunts the cookery section in your local library (in fact it is - mine is a second hand copy flogged courtesy of City of Westminster Public Libraries surplus).
It's not a long book, barely over 120 pages. But its overturns any preconceptions you may have about provincial English food.
It's a sort of memoir with recipes, beautifully written with an unmistakably Yorkshire voice. The eight chapters are broadly based around type of dish, but headings like "Puddings, Possets and Flummery", "Brown Trout and Yorkshire Rabbits" or "Feast Days And Squirrel Days" tell you this is more than just a manual. Hanson Moore focuses on the food of her childhood, especially her mothers cooking, skillfully tales and reminisces around the edges of recipes. The overall effect is like sitting with her round a crackling fire as she pours out her wisdom, Gandalf-like, onto the page.
But its more than that. What this book does is single-handedly make the case for a proud, regional English food that can take on the best of France.
A proud food
We get Heinz baked beans.
The French get cassoulet
with confit duck and
Toulouse sausage. >-(
A great example of the genre is Pierre Koffmann's recently reissued Memories of Gascony. Although Koffmann was a three star chef, the focus is on the hearty peasant food of his childhood. In particular his formidable grandmother Camille, and the magic she worked on the stove.
Well I'm sorry, but Mary Hanson Moore's mum could have Nanna Koffmann any day.
You see Yorkshire, Britain's largest county, has always been a fiercely proud land. Its denizens often refer to is as "God's own county". This bravado was most recently displayed at the Olympics where - for a time - it sat ahead of Australia and Japan on the Olympic medals table. If there was any part of Britain which is immune from cultural cringe, then this is it.
|Yorkshire: Hill and Dale|
It is vividly etched when she writes about Thursday Baking Day. The cast iron range was thoroughly scrubbed, then stoked at the crack of dawn. For the rest of the day her mother would be on her feet all day keeping it roaring hot (even through the hottest of summer) and baking all manner of cakes, breads and tarts. So when Hanson Moore came home at four:
Each Thursday,on the big table, would be spread large, golden-crisp loaves of bread, enough for a week’s eating, for no Yorkshire housewife then would dream of buying her bread, unless in a dire emergency. There would be one large fruit-cake, redolent of cinnamon and mixed spice; trays of small buns, spotted with currants (there for my brother and his rugby-playing friends); shortcrust almond tarts, crisp and golden, with a delicious splodge of jam hidden beneath the almond mixture; saucer-sized Yorkshire curd tarts, spicy and faintly cheesy; and the large slab of parkin, brown and sticky on top, adding its ginger scent to the rest. (p9)This is both food, and food writing, of the highest calibre.
A local food
Well this book also has an overwhelming sense of place. This is particularly clear in her use of ingredients. Dock pudding is made from snakeweed from the Calder Valley. Grouse is brought down from the moors, rook pie from the dales. Rabbit comes from Wakefield and rhubarb from Morley and Leeds.
The language too is distinctly, and differently northern - a reminder of Yorkshire's Viking heritage. Fackle (p21) is a bake of cabbage and mutton. Clouted cream (p57) is a positively medieval dish of scalded milk and cream, spiked with mace and rose water. Moggy (p66) we are told comes from the Norse mugi for corn (its a baked cake with golden syrup, butter and lard), Mell Cakes (from Icelandish mjol for meal) are flatcakes studded with sugar and grated nutmeg.
Her recipes also weave together history and lore. Wilfra Week Pie and Wilfra Cheesecakes mark the feast of St Wilfred (patron of Ripon cathedral). Stamford Bridge Spear Pie commemorates the second most famous battle fought in 1066. Mince pies are traditionally made in an oval shape, to commemorate the manger of the baby Jesus. If she was ever asked why, I think she would say “because it was always so”.
History and place – that is the essence of terroir.
A delicious food
But terroir is not enough.
You can have the history in the world. But if food is not delicious it is only fuel.
But don't let that fool you. After all plain ingredients don't necessarily need plain food - just look at Lyon.
After all Lyon, renowned as the gastronomic stomach of France, is a similarly industrial, down-at-heel place (go for a walk around the Gare de la Part-Dieu if you don't believe me). And like Yorkshire, its food is symbolised not by truffles or foie gras, but by something simple - the humble onion. Like Yorkshire the food you find in the neighbourhood bouchons isn't grand cuisine, but humbly tripe (tablieur de sapeur) and cream cheese (cervelle de canut).
Its interesting flicking open my translation of Cuisine du Terroir (helpfully organised by region and a good counterweight to Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking, which lists dishes by type) to the section on the Lyonnais, and comparing it to a page in A Yorkshire Cookbook. I think you'll agree, the similarities are striking:
Her chapter on pies opens with a glorious Christmas Pie (p60) which begins Take a goose, chicken, partrige, turkey and pigeon, and open each down the back... Curd Tarts and Custard Tarts receive full billing, before she proceeds through Rhubarb Pie, Bilberry Pie and Apple Tartlets. And of course there are the famous Fat Rascals, scraps of shortcrust rolled with sugar, currants and spread hot with butter.
The cakes I find workmanlike rather than inspiring. As she herself says - these are "Climb-a-Mountain-Cakes", not the delicate clouds you find in a modern tea room. Interestingly lard is the principal lubricant, rather than butter (something I also notice in Chinese sweetmeats - that's why Chinese egg tarts are so much flakier than Portugese Pastel de nata).
The chapter on fish and eggs is less inspiring (handling delicate fish is one area where the Yorkshire magic does not reach), and the egg dishes are workday. I do like the endearing name for "Pretty Dish" though, a recipe for shirred eggs (p107). It's also worth mentioning Yorkshire Wife's Sod, a baked pottage of oatcakes and eggs which sounds more like "Yorkshire Wife's Revenge" to me!
Surprisingly the book contains only one recipe for potatoes (and no, that isn't chipped).
A rare book. A rare pride.
Of course it could be that Yorkshire is the exception, and all the other regions are just a culinary wasteland (I'm sure many proud Yorkshiremen believe that). I'm not claiming for one moment that the British terroir has anything like the depth or breadth you find in France, with its two hundred and forty six types of cheese. In provincial France it seems you can't go ten miles without finding some sparkling patisserie. In Britain you can't go ten yards without finding a Tescos.
But what I am claiming that in at least one place, at one time it did. And A Yorkshire Cookbook is the proof of the pudding.
And the reason why is a rare pride, as Ms More summons up at the close:
For expatriate Yorkshire folk there can never be a place quite like it. We curse its cold sweeping winds whistling down the long valleys; the long winters before the first crocus; the rattling windows; and the struggle to keep the sheep alive on the fells. But when the sun shines over those fells, lightening the limestone crags, making subtle patterns on the darker gritstone, and we watch the clear becks and rivers splashing over brown pebbles, we know that we would not be elsewhere. The first purple saxifrage glows on the crags of Penyghent, the boots come out, and we are off to the hills of home. (p123)