Life
in
food


Mark
Words by Aimee-lee Abraham
Illustration by Frederick North
   



An interview with food historian Laura Mason:  palates evolve from when a single sachet of sugar was the greatest of luxuries to an era of dizzying, endless choice and pan-cuisines. Laura has a lot to say, and we have a lot to learn.




  By the time I found Laura Mason’s anthologies on the history and wonder of British cooking, my relationship with the food of my forefathers had long soured. I wanted to locate the taste of home in greasy spoons, but it wasn’t going to happen. Except for marmite-laced gravy and Welsh cakes served annually on Saint David’s day, I couldn’t name a single dish I enjoyed. 

    I had an unusual palette for a primary schooler. Even then, I saw British food through beige-tinted glasses — declining brick-thick chocolate crunch and scorning smiley potato faces and turkey twizzlers. My avoidances had little to do with health anxiety or fussiness and everything to do with flavour. Food dictated my mood with speed and ferocity. A bad cup of tea was a foreboding omen, a soggy cone of chips a sign of impending doom. Tucking into a chalky Brace’s loaf, I dreamt of Italian loaves kneaded by concerned Nonna’s, their aprons dusted with an inflammatory kind of love.

    Almost every other country prides itself on its national dishes and their rich history. If you ask our citizens to pick a national dish, they’ll usually cite a meat and two-veg combo, or chicken tikka masala, famously invented in Scotland by Indian migrants — a glowing testament to our rich multiculturalism.

    I’d still like to feel connected to my landscape, to be able to whip up a dish at whim — one that contributes meaningfully to the feasts I’ve shared with friends from around the world. I’m not missing nationalism. Food is comfort and identity. Home is comfort and identity. I want to unite them.

    Internationally, our hospitality is still the butt of the joke. In 2005, then French President Jacques Chirac said, “One cannot trust people with cuisine so bad.” In 2014, the US ambassador to the UK claimed to have been served lamb and potatoes 180 times in a single year. As Stuart Heritage wrote, “Maybe he should try our colourless tapioca or damp Brussels sprouts instead. Indigestible food is what makes this country great.”



    While the Brits excel at self-deprecation, I’m growing tired of this trope. Laura Mason shows us that great British food is A Thing — and it’s not reserved for the realms of olde cookery, where blackbirds jump nightmarishly from pies and diners are ridden with colonial gout. Nor is it simply one of Jamie Oliver’s fantasies. It isn’t for the elite. It’s for you and me.

    Things are changing. That the 2015 finale of The Great British Bake Off had higher ratings than anything else on television that year (more than 13 million viewers) is proof, as is the increasing popularity of traditional markets and ethical choices. With open-mindedness and persistence, we can find a host of new favourite foods in Laura’s work.

   Laura Mason is perhaps one of the world’s most respected food historians. She had seen our palates evolve from when a single sachet of sugar was the greatest of luxuries to an era of dizzying, endless choice and pan-cuisines. She has a lot to say, and we have a lot to learn.

    Sitting in her living room, I find her majestic and wise and heart-warmingly helpful. She’s put the kettle on and carted a staggering number of dusty books down from the attic for reference and context. “I want to stress that it was far bigger than that one book,” she smiles. “It was a whole movement, a whole life’s work.”


 

Mark
    The “one book” she’s referring to is Traditional Foods of Britain, re-released to a new audience as A Taste of Britain in 2006. Back in 1994, she’d embarked on a mission to describe as many British foods with regional affiliations as she could. The project was part of a Europe-wide programme handed down by Brussels. Similar endeavours had long since been completed in France and Italy, where Laura told me it was regarded as natural that you should be interested in such things. What she found, with elation, is that many rural traditions in the UK have indeed survived against the odds. Sometimes, British foods had powerful influences which made them special and distinct from those of the rest of Europe. There’s the thrill of a well-aged Suffolk cider vinegar, capable of injecting a whole new lease of life into the humble potato chip with a single shake of the bottle. There’s the salty joy of Welsh bara brith,  a marriage of seaweed, cockles, and sometimes, bacon. It shouldn’t work, but it’s inexplicably fantastic. The same can be said of the dizzying directory of regional cakes. To merely list those beginning with ‘S’, we have the sad, the slab, the Saint James’s, the Sedgemoor Easter, the seed, the Sharley, the Shrewsbury Simnel, the Stotty, and the suet. “No other country in Europe has a history of spicing to match the British,” Laura insists. 

    We’re a resourceful bunch, and the nose-to-tail feel of the book reflects this. To experience it fully, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall argues, “You will perhaps need a sense of adventure to rediscover some of the charms of the entries.” Not everything looks appetising, especially to eyes acquainted with the rise of food styling, but everything tastes good. It wouldn’t have survived the centuries otherwise.

    This relentless quest for perfection, which Laura refers to as “food dishonesty”, is something we need to abolish. “Working on shoots was really interesting and eye-opening,” she admits. “Seeing all the idealised things the stylists want the food to do when you know in your heart, it’s not going to happen a lot of the time. Things might not always come out how you expect them to
, and you won’t always have the right set of ingredients in the cupboard.”

    That’s perfectly okay. This book isn’t about the kind of cooking that’s preened and pampered, and you certainly won’t enjoy everything. Laura still hates tripe despite trying stubbornly to like, and she has a blog entitled Here’s One I Made Later: a satirical tribute to a legendary kitchen disaster involving an uncooperative pea mousse. This is cooking rich in folklore, produced by real people in makeshift kitchens, the pride of peasant ancestors. There are innards and heads and trotters among the pretty pastries. Whether you embrace them or not is up to you. Personally, I maintain a childish infatuation with pigs and don’t eat them. Still, I’ve pushed myself in my own way since discovering rare gastronomic gems — sampling the elusive vegetarian haggis with gusto and embracing a host of fermented fizzy things I never knew existed.



    To collect the data in a pre-internet age, Laura had to spend an awful lot of time on the phone frantically searching for the missing pieces of the puzzle. She spoke to manufacturers and makers, to farmers, to bakers and fishmongers, and searched high and low to find local directories. She had the door slammed in her face many times, and was welcomed with open arms many other times. She found, quite remarkably, that many people weren’t aware of just how special many of the things they made were. Similarly, she encountered a lot of red tape in finding things that were officially registered and certified as local delicacies. Many producers work in solitude, and many operate under a kind of commercial chauvinism. While it’s understandable they want to guard their secrets, many would benefit from more cooperation, allowing regions to flourish through collaborative inventions.

    Similarly, only foods that were retailed and marketable were considered for publication, with local foods brewed in home kitchens instantly written off. Laura can’t quite remember why. “Unless you physically went there — to a small village, or to a little agricultural show, you’d never find the items that eventually made their way into the book”, she explains. “I went to a baker in Bristol and found mothering buns, which are essentially buns covered with white icing and hundreds of thousands sprinkled on top. Everything I do indeed has a strong historical bias, but I found them fascinating. They’re a real survival of something much, much older. I couldn’t help wondering why we don’t make more of them to celebrate that.”

    To Laura, the idea many Brits remain wholly disconnected from what they decide to put in their bodies was, and still is, spectacularly odd. Growing up on a dairy farm, her life was dictated by the landscape and the gifts it might bear. She remembers her mother looking out of the window and fretting over frost on the ground, wondering whether she’d be able to get a picking of sprouts for dinner that day. The weather was often so dire you couldn’t dig anything up, so you’d need to rush out whenever there was a mild spell, harvesting things in advance. Nearly everything that passed her lips was seasonal, with the exception of berries picked in summer and removed from the jar as a cold-day treat.

    When the first supermarket arrived in Laura’s small town, there was feverish excitement. Until then, people had shopped locally, and though the supermarket was tiny by today’s standards, it was hugely liberating and convenient. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and no one could foresee what it would do to the local economy and heritage. “They do have advantages, of course. You don’t have to stand at the counter for half an hour while the person in front lists all of their ailments to the cashier.

   You can choose your own apples without a grocer standing over you telling you which ones to pick. You’re not as limited, or at least it feels that way because they put some much effort into providing a wide variety. Our local haunts could be a bit intimidating as far of gossip was concerned, but you can’t buy that interaction, that spirit.”

Mark

Mark
  The same can be said of surprises. If you make a trip of the book, travelling to the regions to sample their goods in person, you’ll enjoy the experience of a lifetime. I could source Glamorgan sausages in London if I really tried, but seeking them out on every fleeting trip to Cardiff is precisely what makes them so wonderful. What if waiting for tomatoes to appear could be treated with the same anticipation as waiting for Christmas Day? If we could see the magic in not having things instead of placing greed and impatience over all else?

    Does she agree that the tide is turning, that more people are reverting to local traditions and seasonal foods? I’m twenty-two, and people my age are often scorned as a microwave generation incapable of caring for ourselves, but I’ve actually found the opposite to be true. Despite coming from a working-class area high on the watch list for food poverty, my friends at home are more likely to host a dinner party than go out and get hammered on a Friday — and most of us are relatively savvy about what we consume. Laura has seen a similar trend.

    “It’s been happening for a while,” she explains. “When the first edition of the book came out in the early nineties, we were seeing the rise of the first-generation of superstar chefs. People who doubled up as well-respected authors and TV personalities, like Nigella Lawson and Nigel Slater. It had happened earlier in the sixties and seventies, but back then it was an awfully middle-class thing reserved for those with enough money to generate significant cultural capital. Now, it’s become more mainstream, which is a wonderful and necessary thing, and the focus on health is presented in a much less overt way. In the eighties we had a moral wic over sugar and fat and it was all very calculated. Now, I like to think that when we talk about health we approach it in a way that celebrates food more than it once bastardised it. There are popular chefs who can do wonderful things with vegetables, making them the star of the meal. That’s far more interesting than obsessing over calories and the ‘correct way’ to approach portions, which we certainly did throughout my home economics degree.”

    Laura maintains that creativity should be treated with care rather than be pushed and exploited purely to shock. We should be creating dishes we love to eat for eating’s sake because when you strip away the theatre, food is essential. It’s something that you interact with every day if you’re lucky. Everything you eat has been produced by somebody, somewhere. When I ask her about dedicating her life to sourcing, tasting and documenting food, she pauses momentarily, and her answer is beautiful.

    “The only thing more fundamental is air and water. It’s an art. It’s a craft. It’s science. It’s a comfort. It’s enjoyment. It’s fuel. It’s survival. It’s visual. You taste it. You smell it. It’s everything that pleases the senses, really.”

    Rather than seeing Laura’s book as a document created to preserve the past, why not use it as a springboard for future innovation? Why don’t we bring the items she lists into our own kitchens? Behind the endless rows of bland, homogenous, pre-packaged foods, there is much magic to discover.

    If we resist the mundane we’re renowned for, we partake in a bright future and can laugh in the face of those who doubt our culinary abilities. The first thing I wanted to do when I left Laura was to tackle Welsh cakes, even though it was nowhere near Saint David’s day. I have no doubt they’ll be wonky, imperfect and delicious — therein lies their wonderfully idiosyncratic and thoroughly British charm.

Mark