The Land That Thyme Forgot, by William Black

A helping of information that leaves room for irritation
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The Independent Culture

From Cornish pilchards to Orcadian clapshot, William Black has rummaged round Britain seeking out treats of traditional gastronomy. His book is full of unexpected gen about these overlooked treasures. Did you know that the first words to run through Blackpool rock were the gnomic "Whoa Emma!"? Or that Kendal Mint Cake was discovered when a Mr Wiper nibbled a spillage on his floor in 1868? I enjoyed Black's section on the lamented northern café chainUnited Cow Products, with its mission statement: "Tripe is the most digestible possible food... splendid for the sedentary brain worker."

Occasionally, I had doubts about some of Black's views. I find it unlikely that the cubes of fat found in Lancashire black puddings were "probably due to the need for cheap calories". In fact, the fat adds to the interest of the dish, in texture as much as flavour.

In general, Black is impressively knowledgeable. Yet I read his book with increasing irritation, mainly due to his incessant desire to entertain, exemplified by his toe-curling title. Black deprecates "the marked tendency [of our culture] to play with its food, to joke", yet this is what he does. Possibly driven by a need to bulk out the page count, he includes frequent detours.

Black laments: "Why do we seem so utterly uninterested in the intricacies of taste?" But in his chapter on London's pie-and-mash shops, you'll find scant description of what the pies served in Goddard's in Greenwich are like. "Dirt cheap, copious and sublime," he enthuses, before dreamily describing the traditional filling as "fallout from the delectable sizzling joints of the finest British beef". Well, the pies must have changed considerably since my last visit to Goddard's, when they were mostly soggy crust.

For me, the most annoying aspect was Black's insistence on transcribing the speech of the administrators of the Egton Bridge gooseberry show in North Yorkshire in a patronising ee-bah-goom orthography. "Oh, 'allo there. Luvly to see you." I happened to catch Black plugging his book on Radio 4. His accent turned out to be gravelly estuarial: "It's gonna 'ave a big impact." If it was fine for Egton Bridge, why didn't he write the whole book like that.

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