English, pure and simple

Toasting our native dishes - from mushrooms to mushy peas
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Tomato soup, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, and apple pie, are not, of course, the traditional three courses that make up the British meal. As everyone knows, it is prawn cocktail, steak and chips and Black Forest gateau. And in our latest collaboration, The Prawn Cocktail Years (to be published by Macmillan in October), Lindsey Bareham and I have set out to celebrate this popular trio - and other best-beloved dishes - and restore long overdue recognition.

It is interesting that the first three most definitely sound native, although one of the better tomato soups - maybe more of a slurry - is the Italian pappa pomodoro and an American apple pie might often be much better made than one made here. The sauce for prawn cocktail, as we have always known it, now probably owes much more to the American dressing than it ever did to sauce Marie Rose. Steak is cooked better in the States than anywhere else and chips are done better in Belgium. And the gateau? Well, good chocolate cake, and cherries, much kirsch and nicely whipped cream is simply to do with good cooking, wherever you might be.

I used to say that there was not really such a thing as British dishes or good recipes. They were all based on fairly rum ideas, I would suggest, that were also represented in other European countries, and possibly done better there. But sometimes you just have to stop making comparisons, because it just doesn't get you anywhere.

One only has to read through Jane Grigson's English Food (Penguin) or the recently re-published Four Season's Cookery Book, by Margaret Costa (Grub Street), to find some intelligently compiled recipes. These, naturally, bear no relation to the more recent compositions of that spurious school of cooking called "Modern British", for which, to my constant bewilderment, there is still no known cure.

Rather than natter on about tradition and authenticity, I would rather muse on some of the genuinely pleasing dishes that I have so far encountered just in England, ones that I have never tired of eating, cooking or smelling. And, as all this is going to ramble a bit, the measurement throughout will be in dear old imperial only, and scantily mentioned, so that the description of the recipe itself will do the trick. All recipes serve four.

Possibly, the essence of English cooking is anything on toast or fried bread. One of the weirdest and most memorable my father used to do, often on a Sunday night. I've talked about it before, but it remains a favourite. I don't have a name for it, so let's just call it Something to eat while enduring "Songs of Praise".

You take four thick slices from an English small white loaf (no sourdough, focaccia or brioche, please) and cut off the crusts. Fry in hot dripping or oil until crisp and golden. On each piece of bread, place three rashers of crisp, streaky bacon. Cut a medium-sized, boiled and hot new potato into 3-4 slices and lay on top of the bacon. Spoon over a generous quantity of rich and smooth cheese sauce (preferably made with Lancashire cheese) and eat at once. No finishing under a hot grill until golden and bubbling; no flurry of chopped parsley; no point. More delicious than you can possibly imagine.

Another toast treat is the more familiar Creamed mushrooms on toast. It is most important here, for the success of the dish, that the mushrooms have flavour. Small and white, the button mushroom is an undeniably pretty fellow, but compared with its larger, darker-gilled cousin, it is a wimp when it comes to taste. Slice eight medium-sized mushrooms thinly and cook gently in an ounce of butter with a scrap of garlic and a seasoning of salt, pepper and nutmeg. Stew gently for several minutes until most of the moisture that has exuded has evaporated. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and a few fresh thyme leaves. Pour in a small pot of double cream and allow to bubble gently and reduce until thick and unctuous. Spoon onto four slices of hot buttered toast. Once again, the bread slices should have been cut from the same sort of loaf as in the previous recipe, but with crusts removed after toasting.

Fishy things on toast, such as shrimps or prawns, creamed crab and oysters wrapped in bacon (aka angels on horseback or oysters Kilpatrick) can also be quite delicious. Perhaps more of those later in the year.

The process of roasting joints of meat is, perhaps, what the cooking of Merry Olde England is still most famous for. Truly, there are few finer lunches than a joint of roast-beef and beautifully made Yorkshires, expertly roasted potatoes and horseradish sauce, made with freshly dug roots, hand- grated and whipped up with cream, and a little sugar and lemon juice. A crusted and crackled shoulder of pork and apple sauce comes a close second, followed by a roast leg of spring lamb, home-made mint jelly and new potatoes. But we don't boil much, do we?

"The last year has seen the kitchen under the talented Gary Rhodes move deliberately back to an English style. A businessman's lunch centres on a roast or a traditional dish, perhaps boiled leg of mutton with caper sauce." So read the entry for the Castle Hotel in Taunton in the Good Food Guide in 1989 (also the first year's entry for Bibendum). But

Poached leg of lamb with caper sauce is even nicer than boiled mutton. The latter has never been thought of as a dainty dish, but the former, carefully looked after, results in the most sophisticated and charming plate of food imaginable.

For four servings, plus seconds, you will need a small leg of lamb, weighing about 4lb, trimmed of excess fat by the butcher. Also, ask him to make a cut around the tendonous meat which lies just below the top knuckle joint. This will allow for the lamb to contract and bunch as it cooks, resulting in more relaxed meat. Put the lamb into a large pot and cover with cold water. Bring up to a simmer, and remove the scum which will have collected on the surface. Whip this off with a large spoon and add eight small peeled carrots, four small peeled onions (one stuck with two cloves), four medium turnips (which have been peeled, quartered and previously blanched for a few minutes in boiling water), a bouquet garni, a couple of teaspoons of salt, a few peppercorns and a splash of red wine vinegar. Allow to simmer very gently indeed for 40 minutes, skimming further when necessary.

Switch off the heat, leaving the meat and vegetables in the water to keep warm, to allow the meat to relax and to finish off cooking. Melt an ounce of butter in a saucepan and add a level tablespoon of flour. Cook together over a low heat until pale coffee-coloured. Now ladle off about a pint of the cooking liquor, and gradually add to the flour and butter, whisking as you go. Set this lightly thickened sauce to reduce by one half, together with a small spoonful of redcurrant jelly and a scant tablespoonful of vinegar from the jar of capers. Once the sauce is good and thick, pour in a small carton of whipping cream, whisk in thoroughly and bring back to a simmer. The consistency of the sauce should be that of thin cream and have a coating quality. If it is too thick, add a little more of the cooking liquor.

Add a spoonful of anchovy essence, allow to simmer for a few more minutes, then strain through a fine sieve. Add a couple of spoonfuls of capers, squeezed dry of any excess vinegar, and stir into the sauce. Check the seasoning and add a little chopped parsley, too. Carve the meat into none- too-thin slices. These should be nice and rosy. Spoon over the sauce, and serve with some of the vegetables and a dish of buttery mashed potatoes.

Boiled bacon with split peas can become even nicer when the peas are made into "pease pudding". The dish is well known in the north east of England, where, according to Jane Grigson in English Food (see earlier), it is often served with boiled salt pork. However, bacon is easier to get hold of at short notice. So take a slab of good quality, preferably dry-cured, streaky bacon, weighing about 2-212lb. Immerse in a pot of cold water and just bring up to the boil. Lift it out, chuck out the water and put back into the pot. Cover once more with fresh cold water and add a mixture of coarsely chopped vegetables: carrots, swede, leeks, onions, celery, etc, plus a bay leaf or two, some thyme, cloves and a few peppercorns. Simmer for about one hour, switch off the heat, and leave to finish cooking and relax in the cooking water whilst you make the pease pudding.

I have slightly changed this recipe of Jane Grigson's, in as much as the liquid for cooking the split peas uses the bacon water, rather than plain water, as she suggests. Take a pound of green split peas and cover well with the water. Cook until very tender, for about 45-60 minutes, and then puree through a vegetable mill (mouli-legumes, see page 21). Drain well, mix in 2oz butter, one large egg, salt and much freshly ground black pepper. Pour into a buttered pudding basin, cover with foil and steam for one hour.

By the time the pudding is cooked, the bacon will have cooled. So re- heat it (or put it into the steamer you have just used) for 20-25 minutes, until good and hot all the way through. Slice the bacon into thick pieces and serve alongside slices of the pudding. Spoon over a little of the cooking liquor, and eat with lashings of hot English mustard.

To end with, Margaret Costa's Lemon surprise pudding is a favourite of everyone I know. It is the easiest thing to make, curious in its construction and end result, but tastes - and smells - so very, very English.

Cream 2oz butter with the grated rind of one lemon. When it is fluffy, beat in the yolks from two large, separated eggs. Then stir in 12oz sifted flour, alternately with 12 pint full cream milk ("breakfast milk" in the supermarket is perfect for this.) Add the juice of the lemon. Stiffly beat the two egg whites lightly but thoroughly, and fold into the mixture. Spoon into a well-buttered, preferably Pyrex (so you can see the result), oven-proof dish. Bake in a moderate oven, gas mark 4, for about 45 minutes, until the pudding is a pale golden-brown. Underneath the sponge topping, there will be a creamy lemon sauce - this is the charming little surprise