Book Review / Whelk fritters and salt cod (but hold the boiled umbilical cord)

Food in England by Dorothy Hartley Little, Brown, pounds 22.50

Whether you'll do much cooking from it is debatable, but this classic work from 1954 will certainly become one of the best-thumbed on your kitchen bookshelf. Written from the heart by one of our leading social historians, it is a tremendous hodge-podge of a book rather along the lines of an old-fashioned almanac. Rambling, chatty, sensible, impressively learned and occasionally passionate, it makes only the most reluctant and rudimentary concessions to structure. A dozen consecutive pages includes a list of 16th century garden herbs, a potted history of the East India Company, an account of how tables were laid over the centuries, and a contemporary critique of 19th-century coaching inns ("Crown, Rotherham: Very disagreeable and dirty. Hashed venison, potted mackerel, cold ham, cheese and melon. 1/-.")

Hartley reveals that, prior to this century, English cuisine equalled, or even surpassed, that of France. Scattered among her pages, Hartley includes - to take just a few examples - authoritative surveys of pig breeds, fungi, pastry shapes, seaweed, snails and types of bread. (She notes that the west country Sally Lunn bun, gold on top and white below, derives from the local pronunciation of "soleil-lune".) For all our insularity, we have always had a taste for the exotic. Soy sauce was le dernier cri in the 18th century, when sailors used to bring the condiment home as a souvenir of the fashionable Orient.

Hartley's concern for the welfare of the creatures we eat is wholly appropriate for a book about food in England. Though noting that hedgehog tastes like "very tender chicken", she italicises her demand, particularly applicable to motorists, that "No one should harm a hedgehog." It is, however, doubtful if many modern readers will follow her dictum that "intelligent women will refuse to buy rabbit, hare or any game that has been cut up so that the method of killing is disguised".

Similarly, it seems doubtful that there will be a host of enthusiasts for muggety pie (boiled calf's umbilical cord), roast swan ("moderately hot oven, two-three hours") or lamb's tail pie ("instruct the shepherd to keep the docked tails warm"). But I was tempted by whelk fritters and would be willing to sample steamed baby bracken. Salt cod with parsnips could happily appear on the menu in London's most fashionable eateries and the same goes for lamb chop cooked in paper. A "delightfully uncommon" ice-cream made with fresh brown breadcrumbs and covered in crystallised violets sounds wonderful.

The greatest appeal of Food in England, however, lies in its fabulous accumulation of recondite information. For all I know, it may be common knowledge that "tenterhooks" were devices for stretching washing when it was put out to dry, so obviating the need for ironing, but did you know that it was a Hogmanay custom in Glasgow to slip a red herring ("a super-salted bloater") into a friend's palm when shaking hands?

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