We can claim world-beating designers, the loudest voices in pop and Europe's coolest PM, but can we really champion British food? Michael Bateman meets the woman who says yes. For the next two weeks we explore the ingredients that define Great British cuisine
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The Independent Culture
SOME PEOPLE give British cooking only another 30 years; others think it will all be over by the Millennium. This gloomy judgement is due, they say, to the speed of change in culinary ideas, the cross-fertilisation with styles of cooking from around the world, and the ever-increasing imports of such exotic spices as lemon-grass and kaffir lime-leaves, such unusual fish as hoki, orange toughy and parrot-fish, and the artificial ease with which we can now obtain out-of-season ingredients.

Sybil Kapoor, a champion of British food, doesn't find these arguments convincing, and predicts a long future for our native cuisine. She points out that the British have always had the most barn-like of open doors to foreign influences, be they French, Italian, Greek, Caribbean, Chinese or Indian (Mrs Kapoor is not, by the way, Indian, except by marriage).

Yes, say the knockers, but you don't go out to eat at a British restaurant, do you? You go to restaurants which are French, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Lebanese.

The debate misses the point, according to Mrs Kapoor, who has just written a new book about our native cuisine. There's a unique quality of Britishness running, she says, through all our cooking at every level, from home to pub, canteen to school, from high street eating place to restaurant guide selections.

After her first book, Modern British Food, was published, Sybil Kapoor was teased by friends for including such quintessentially foreign dishes as curries and pizzas. But that's the point, she protested - we've long embraced foods from abroad and different cooking styles. "Our skill has always been in reinterpreting foreign elements."

But more than that, she says, there is a distinctly national style of cooking. "As in motor cars - the Jaguar is essentially British. Or Jean Muir in fashion. It's there in our cooking too; British cooking is very sophisticated. It comes out in a love of purity and freshness. But there's also a lot of excitement there, created with spices and piquant flavours, be they pickles or kippers."

Her latest book, titled Simply British (Michael Joseph, pounds 15.99), sets the record straight, she hopes, for it is a paean of praise to some essential items from the British larder which shape our thinking and our cooking, those foods which are uniquely British, essentially us.

The new book's cover very much sets the tone: it is emblazoned not with the Union Jack but with a rhubarb leaf. Is there any more potent symbol of the British table? (Though strictly speaking the image should be a stick of rhubarb, for the leaf is a veritable poison, containing enough oxalic acid to kill the cows and horses that gorge on it.)

"If you ask yourself what constitutes Italian food," says Sybil, "you think of the ingredients: olives, olive oil, tomatoes, anchovies, Parma ham and Parmesan cheese, pesto and basil."

And the French, frogs and snails? Among other things, yes. The Russians, caviare and cabbage. The Norwegians, prawns and cod. The Chinese, ginger, soy sauce, spring onion, and so on.

"I decided to try defining Britishness by singling out ingredients which are unique or very special to us," says Sybil. Friends and colleagues eagerly joined in and they watched with fascination as a long roll-call started to unfold. Soon there were far too many entries to treat comprehensively and she and her publisher knocked the all-embracing list back to some 30-odd items. What would they be, I wonder?

Here is Sybil's final choice of en-tries. Would you agree with her? Beef, lamb, venison, pheasant, bacon ("Is there any dish as truly British as crisp bacon and eggs?" she asks. "Don't you ache for it when you are away, and out of the country?"). Smoked haddock, kippers, trout, shrimps (potted Morecambe Bay shrimps preserved in butter and seasoned with mace is one of the treasures of our land).

Barley and oats, to make the porridge on which the Scottish nation is founded (Sybil's mother is Scottish). Glorious fruit, starting with the 500 varieties of crisp, flavoursome apples which thrive in our uncertain climate; greengages, strawberries, raspber- ries and blackberries (memories of the wild brambles we all picked over as children reach deeply into the national psyche, resurfacing in our fondness for blackberry crumbles and blackberry jam).

How very British are beetroot, peas and watercress and the hothouse cucumber, at the gentle heart of every vicarage afternoon-tea sandwich.

And consider those essentially British flavourings honey and treacle (think of gingerbread, spiced ham or Norfolk treacle tart). Not to mention lemon, mint and, of course, mace, which in medieval times was our most popular spice, more delicate and far less fierce than the nutmeg from which it comes (mace is the dried outer skin).

All of these are celebrated in Sybil's book, and more: walnuts, lavender and (strangely, you might think), greens. Are we not a cabbage-eating country, she asks defensively, even if the tradition has been to to cook them to death? She cheerfully suggests that we have revived our relationship with them by introducing the speedy stir- frying of greens such as pak choi.

The extremely British Sybil Kapoor was born into a family of Kent Polhills, which can trace its ancestry back to the 14th century through village church records, numbering squires, vicars, politicians and farmers.

Sybil grew up a very fussy child who refused to eat most foods except for cheese, raw vegetables, crispy bacon, sausages and kippers. At school she ate almost nothing. In London, in digs, working with the National Youth Theatre, she started to provide for herself. Deciding she wasn't confident enough to act, she took a secretarial course and landed a job at Sotheby's, but didn't like that either.

Then, inventing qualifications, she set herself up as a cook doing directors' lunches. She diligently cooked from Robert Carrier and Katie Stewart, but admits she was no professional. "I was fired after doing beef in Guinness for an advertising agency. The steaks were like rubber. I was told never to come back."

But by now she'd got a taste for the life. She took a job at the Institute of Contemporary Arts cafe in central London, which Justin de Blank had opened; and, inspired, took herself off to Leith's to do a three-month advanced course in cooking. Thus qualified (she is still very careful to call herself a cook rather than a chef) she became head cook at the Ebury Wine Bar in Belgravia, proudly re-establishing it in The Good Food Guide. "Nouvelle cuisine was raging."

Then, discovering the Chez Panisse cookbook from Alice Waters' mould- breaking restaurant in Berkeley, California, she headed for New York, where Jonathan Waxman had just brought this style of West Coast cooking to his restaurant, Jams.

Americans work very hard in their restaurants, she discovered, and her experience there was an ordeal by fire - and indeed an ordeal by chargrilling, the new West Coast style.

But it was enough to recommend her to Sally Clarke in London, who had just opened Clarke's along the same lines. At the end of a year at Clarke's, Sybil was ready to open her own place. She was busy raising pounds .5m for an ambitious restaurant project to be designed by Sir Norman Foster when Black Monday came along and buried her hopes.

"I'll never know whether that was a good thing or bad," she says. But a chance meeting with Drew Smith, former editor of The Good Food Guide and now running the food magazine Taste for Roy Ackerman, led to a series of articles on food. "I found that food writing combined my passion for cooking with my love for literature and history, without the stress of restaurant life."

Taste magazine went belly up, but other doors were opened on to magazines and then on to books; now Sybil has a monthly spot in the new magazine Food Illustrated, dealing with seasonal foods as they arrive in our kitchens and on our tables.

Seasonality is yet another unique quality of British food, she considers. "We're an urban people by and large, but there's always the anticipation of foods coming into season. The best of British food is geared to the seasons, Mediterranean style in the summer, stews and puddings in the winter."

Here we give a sampler from Simply British in the recipes which follow: luxurious watercress soup, potted shrimps, chargrilled salmon with mint mayonnaise and lemon meringue pie. And next week we look at the seasonal and uniquely British duo of gooseberries and elderflowers.


Like all potted dishes, this benefits from being allowed to sit in the fridge for a day or two so that its flavours can develop and merge into one another in the most delicious way. It can be served for breakfast, lunch or tea, and is best enjoyed with lots of hot, buttered toast and a squeeze of lemon. Formal culinary teaching recommends that the toast is served unbuttered so that guests can add their butter to taste, but I always find that the toast cools too quickly to make this method enjoyable.

Serves 6

455g/1lb butter

455g/1lb shelled cooked brown shrimp or about 905g/2lb unshelled shrimp

large pinch of ground mace

large pinch of cayenne pepper

a few drops anchovy essence (optional)

To serve:

hot buttered toast

lemon wedges

Set aside a quiet moment to shell your shrimps. If they are already shelled, lightly pat them dry with some kitchen paper and check for any small pieces of debris.

Melt the butter over a low heat and simmer gently for 15 minutes, allowing it slowly to throw up a pale froth. Skim this froth off before pouring the clear golden butter through a clean, damp muslin- or J-cloth-lined sieve. Discard the milky dregs left at the bottom of the pan.

Set aside six tablespoons of the clarified butter before returning the remainder to a small saucepan. Add the shelled prawns and spices. Cook over a very low heat for five minutes, stirring occasionally, then mix in a tiny amount of anchovy essence and carefully spoon the prawns into six small souffle dishes. Cover each with a thin layer of the reserved melted butter and chill immediately.

Serve with hot buttered toast and a wedge of lemon.


Watercress has been added to soups and broths since at least the 17th century, although how much this was for pleasurable as opposed to medicinal purposes is hard to ascertain, since early recipes are few and far between. However, there is no doubt that watercress has become an extremely popular 20th-century British soup. The most puritanical of recipes are made with only potatoes, watercress and water, but I prefer a more sybaritic version made with leeks, potatoes and lashings of cream. It can be served hot or chilled.

Serves 4

4 tablespoons olive oil

2 cloves garlic, crushed

2 large potatoes, peeled and diced

595g/1lb 5oz leeks


freshly ground black pepper

170g/6oz ready prepared watercress

285ml/12 pint single cream

To garnish:

6 watercress sprigs

Heat the oil in a large saucepan and gently fry the garlic for a few seconds before stirring in the diced potatoes. Make sure they are well coated with oil before cooking over a low heat for five minutes, stirring regularly until they begin to soften.

Meanwhile trim the leeks and remove their tough outer leaves. Discard the dark green tops and finely slice the white and pale green stems. Wash thoroughly in several changes of water and drain well. Add to the potatoes and continue to fry for a further five minutes or until soft.

Add 710ml (114 pints) of hot water and season to taste. Bring to the boil, then simmer over a moderate heat for 25 minutes or until the vegetables are very soft. While the soup is cooking, wash the watercress and pick off all the leaves. Discard the stems (they are always impossible to liquidise), then add the leaves to the soft veg- etables. Allow the soup to cook for a further two minutes, then immedi- ately liquidise and pour into a clean container. This will keep the soup a pretty fresh green.

If you are serving the soup cold you can add the cream at this stage; otherwise reheat when needed before adding the cream. Do not let the cream come to the boil or it will split. Adjust the seasoning and serve. Garnish the individual bowls of soup with the watercress sprigs.


The fashion for grilling has swept Britain in the last 10 years. Barbecues are de rigueur during the summer months, even if you only have the tiniest roof terrace on which to balance an equally tiny disposable barbecue. During the rest of the year, smart kitchens now have ribbed cast-iron oven-top grills which simulate chargrilling. They look a little like a ribbed frying pan. Both fulfil our desires to cook quickly, but they also create the problem of trying to think up new accompaniments. Mint mayonnaise tastes surprisingly good and works beautifully not only with salmon, but also with chicken in rice salads spiked with chives and lemon.

Serves 6

For the mayonnaise:

2 large egg yolks

2 tablespoons lemon juice or white wine vinegar

1-2 tablespoons roughly chopped mint

285ml/12 pint olive oil

3-4 tablespoons double cream

salt and freshly ground white (or black) pepper

For the chargrilled salmon:

6 small salmon fillets

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 lemon, cut into wedges

Place the egg yolks and lemon juice or vinegar in a food processor. Whiz until they turn pale and frothy. Add the mint, then, keeping the engine running, slowly add the olive oil in a thin stream until it forms a thick mayonnaise. Add the cream, season to taste and transfer to a clean bowl. Alternatively, you can either make it by hand or use an electric whisk. In either case, finely chop the mint before adding.

Rub the salmon fillets with oil and season. Place them, flesh side down, on a hot barbecue or oven-top grill. Cook for about three minutes so that they are marked by golden grill lines, then turn to a different angle for a further two to three minutes, so that they are covered by an attractive lattice. Flip them over and cook skin-side down for a further three to five minutes, depending on their thickness.

Serve hot, warm or cold with the mint mayonnaise and lemon wedges. This is particularly good eaten with new potatoes and a green salad, or tiny, lightly cooked broad beans.


For the last 300 years the British have been very partial to pretty tarts filled with an unctuous lemon curd or cheese as it is sometimes known. Once known as lemon cheesecakes, such tarts later evolved into a wide variety of puddings from Manchester to Chester pudding. The latter is in fact what we now know as lemon meringue pie.

Serves 4

For the shortcrust pastry:

225g/8oz plain flour

12 teaspoon salt

115g/4oz cold unsalted butter

cold water

For the lemon filling:

3 medium lemons, finely grated and juiced

115g/4oz caster sugar

40g/112oz cornflour

285ml/12 pint cold water

30g/1oz butter

2 medium egg yolks, strained

For the meringue:

2 medium egg whites

115g/4oz caster sugar

To make the shortcrust pastry quickly place the flour and salt in a food processor and give a quick whiz to mix and lighten. Cut the butter into small cubes and add to the flour. Start the processor, stopping frequently to check the consistency. Stop as soon as the butter and flour have turned to fine crumbs. If you over- process they will become a paste, which will make your pastry very short.

Transfer the mixture to a mixing bowl and cautiously add a little cold water. Mix with a fork, adding a little more water, if necessary, until the crumbs begin to form themselves into larger balls of dough. At this stage place the dough on a scantily floured surface and lightly knead it by hand. Wrap the kneaded dough in clingfilm, greaseproof paper or foil and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Alternatively, to make the pastry by the manual method, sift the flour and salt into a large mixing bowl. Cut the butter into very small dice and add. Using your fingertips, lightly rub the butter into the flour until it forms fine breadcrumbs. Then add the cold water and continue as for quick method.

Roll out the pastry and line a 23cm (9in) tart dish. Prick the bottom with a fork, line with weighted paper and chill for 30 minutes.

Place the tart in the centre of an oven preheated to 400F/200C/Gas 6 and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the covering and continue to bake for another five to 10 minutes until the pastry has become dry but not coloured and has lost that raw, sweaty look. Remove and reduce the oven temperature to 300F/150C/Gas 2.

While the pastry is cooking make the lemon filling. Place the lemon zest, sugar and cornflour in a small non-corrosive saucepan. Using a wooden spoon gradually stir in the cold water so that it forms a smooth paste. Place the pan over a moderate heat and bring to the boil, stirring all the time. Keep stirring for a couple of minutes until the mixture has thickened and become translucent, then remove from the heat and beat in the butter, followed by the lemon juice and finally the egg yolk.

Set aside until the pastry is ready, then spoon it into the cooked pastry case. Immediately whisk the egg whites in a clean bowl until they are stiff. Add half the caster sugar and continue to whisk, gradually adding the remaining sugar, until it forms soft glossy peaks. Scoop it onto the lemon filling and gently spread it out over the tart so that it touches the pastry rim and seals in the gooey filling.

Return the pie to the oven and bake for 35 minutes or until the meringue has set with a crisp, very lightly browned crust. If serving immediately, allow the pie to sit for 10 minutes first, or serve cold.