Paperbacks: Taste, by Kate Colquhoun

Christopher Hirst
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:52

Though our continental neighbours may expect a work sub-titled "The Story of Britain through its Cooking" to be no more than a pamphlet – Colquhoun reminds us of Chirac's view that that only Finland has worse food than England – this is a wonderfully nutritious feast. On the first page, we learn that well before the Roman invasion "bread formed the cornerstone of 'companionship' (literally 'with bread')".

Roman-era meals began with hors d'oeuvres of cucumbers, lettuce and asparagus, delightfully known as "promulsis" (promises) before moving on to roast cow's vulva and cheesecakes. Norman cuisine was based on humours: beef was regarded as "dry" and therefore "seethed" (boiled), while cream was so dangerously "cold" that it "put men in jeopardy". Pies were a mainstay of medieval cuisine, but only in Tudor times was pastry made edible by the addition of fat. Our weird indifference to fish dates from Henry VIII's curtailment of fast days. Our enduring fondness for cookery advice began as early as 1615 with Gervase Markham's best-selling English Huswif (1615), which noted that roast pig was done when its eyes fell out. Though Colquhoun's treatment of foodstuffs can sometimes be terse - she could, for example, have told us that the Tudor fondness for candied eryngo (sea holly) stemmed from the belief that it was an aphrodisiac - this book is obligatory for any food-lover.

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