In his most recent evangelical assault on the nation's diet, Jamie Oliver derided a modern sausage in comparison with its nutritionally sound Victorian ancestor. He overlooked the fact that the Victorian recipe was for a rich man's sausage; the food of the poor in the 19th century was more hideous than the food given them today. Someone should press a copy of Bee Wilson's marvellous and horrifying book into Jamie's hand immediately. Unlike Oliver, Wilson is sensible about the hopelessly limited choices of poor customers, and unsentimental about the horrors lurking in cheap food in every age.
Her history of food cheats is packed with tales of "swill" milk, squeezed out of cows fed on beermaking wastes, fruit cartons with false bottoms, and cheeses "polished" with fresh cheese to hide rotting innards. In the war between scientists and swindlers, the casualties are the poorest customers. Even if our laws and money can protect us, the world's poor will not be so lucky; Bangladeshis stagger under a ton of toxic hormones, artificially ripened fruit laden with deadly substances, sweets made with fabric dye.
Yet money doesn't always protect, as Wilson shows. Foodies can be as gullible as anyone else. The most rib-tickling stories here are about the rich and those who swindle them: the caviar sold at Beluga prices that was really Oscietra, the saffron that is actually turmeric, the "Perigord" truffles that come from China, the "basmati" rice that turns out to be ordinary long-grain. However rich we are, our chicken has become richer still, over three times fattier than 35 years ago. A single roasted chicken leg now has more fat than a Big Mac.
To avoid this, the consumer must choose a free-range bird at twice the price – if they can afford it – and hope it has been correctly labelled. Buying organic, Wilson warns, is no guarantee of quality; the celebrities who dined in Julie's Restaurant in Holland Park were amazed to learn that its "organic" meat was no such thing.
Feeling sick? Cheer up: Wilson can seem a trifle uncritical. Some of her horror stories are reminiscent of urban myths of the McDonald's mayo-from-pus kind. She's also not always willing to ask why a horror story is told. When Karl Marx exposed dirt in the bakery, his motive was not good bread for the consumer but improvements in the working conditions of bakers. He succeeded; mechanisation meant life was better for the baker, but worse for his customers. The squeamishness Marx aroused is the true enemy of good food, and the friend of the additive-laden meat in Styrofoam trays.
Wilson suggests that the best way forward is for all to know the way food should taste; this has closed down the fraudsters in the wine business. But it may be harder than it sounds. I had a real egg for breakfast this morning; my own hen had laid it the day before. The yolk was brilliant gold, the white firm and glossy, and it tasted rich, tender, comforting. The previous day, I had an expensive organic egg from a market – "laid just the day before". It had a pale yolk and a flabby white, and as I broke the shell I knew I'd been swindled. Yet we can't all be smallholders. We're all caught in a food web, and Wilson shows us with urgent clarity how slender its strands are, and how little we can really trust them.
Diane Purkiss's 'The English Civil War: a people's history' is published by Harper PerennialReuse content