I picked up a copy of Clarissa Dickson Wright’s A History of English Food recently. I’ve always had a lot of time for Clarissa, having come across her first as one of the Fat Ladies and subsequently on other food programmes. She struck me as very knowledgeable about animal husbandry and history, as well as food preparation. She was also refreshingly unpretentious, unlike so many TV cooks, and totally devoid of fluffiness, always a plus point as far as I am concerned.
Clarissa is an easy read. She writes well, imparting much and varied information concisely and in a way that draws you along to see what she has to say next, rather like a rich and tasty fruit cake that leaves you satisfied yet still longing for another slice.
Thus far, I have only read Chapter One, which covers the early Middle Ages, but it is already apparent that she was indeed extremely knowledgable. I found myself exclaiming “that’s interesting” aloud and reading snippets to my DH, and I did already know a fair bit about food history.
You might think it premature to write a book review based on only the first chapter, but oh, what a chapter! I have gleaned the uses and types of various animals in the Medieval household, why horses are not eaten in this country and that badger tastes like young wild boar.
I now know that there was logic behind Church-imposed “fish” days and Lent, that baby rabbits counted as “fish” and that rabbits and hares are not native and were originally kept above ground, then later in artificial warrens; that Salmon was so cheap and common there was legislation to prevent you feeding it to your servants more than three times a week. I have learned of the plants that can be used instead of animal rennet to make cheese, that puffballs generate a smoke soporific to bees (and taste best cooked in bacon fat) and how to extract honey and wax from a comb.
I have read a poem describing how to malt grain for brewing, the origins of the phrase “humble pie”, and the lovely word “anti-scorbutic”. I have learned about the “Assizes” of Bread and of Ale, which controlled the prices of these essentials and that the capacity of ships is still measured in tonnage (or tunnage) as a result of the massive wine import trade. And all this is just from the first forty or so pages. I can’t wait to read the rest!
What this book is not, is a cook book. It is a history book about food, although there are references to the preparation of food (I’m intrigued by reference to herring pie seasoned with ginger, pepper and cinnamon). There are 20 or so formal recipes (weights, measures and method) in an appendix at the back of the book. These include a Real Mince Pie, which you may recall I made this Christmas (though not from this recipe) and last, and Fried Fig Pasties, which look like a variation of Peascods, but made using filo pastry.
If you are interested in history or in food or both, then this book is a must have. It begins in the Medieval period, but devotes a chapter to each major historic era up to the relatively modern day Prawn Cocktail and Pizza chapter.
There is something satisfying about have a hardback copy of a book like this, but if you want a sneak preview of the chapter titles and some of the content, or you’d just prefer a Kindle version, click here