The British Table

The British TableA New Look at the Traditional Cooking of England, Scotland and Wales

I’m a real fan of Luke Nguyen on the TV. I like his enthusiasm and generosity of spirit. My favourite series is Luke Nguyen’s United Kingdom – because of his personality as I say & his own cooking, but also because of the fresh take on our cooking here in Britain. It’s fascinating to view it through the eyes of such a kind traveller.

So The British Table by Colman Andrews is pretty much a knock-out for similar reasons. It’s incredibly interesting to read alternate recipes for dishes I have made for years, copied from my mother, which she copied from hers, and likely way beyond. Some of these dishes seem “too simple” for this kind of treatment. Mince & Tatties, for example. The idea that Mince & Tatties would make it into a cookbook like this – from the recipient of eight James Beard Awards no less – might seem partly absurd, but then again, why not?

Mince & Tatties is a beautiful thing.

It might be possible to get antsy when the recipes are different. To rage for example, “My mother never put black pudding in her mince!” But I think that would be missing the point. I made the Mince & Tatties in this book and loved it – but I wouldn’t use black pudding either, or even consider it. Was it better than my mother’s? No, not close. Does it matter? Not at all.

What makes this book super special is the sense of admiration for a world of cooking that gets a pretty hard time in some places. It goes full size glossy on the aforesaid Mince & Tatties, Cheese & Onion Pie, Liver with Bacon & Onions, you name it, but it isn’t patronising in any way. It isn’t saying, these Brits eat dreadful food, but it’s such good fun – the deep-fried Mars Bar thing.

Our food – as constantly championed by the likes of Nigel Slater or Simon Hopkinson, say – can be exquisite. As Colman Andrews suggests himself in the introduction: “The British table today, at its best, is as good as any in the world.”

Initially when it came to cooking from the book, I was drawn by curiosity to the food I know – the food of a North Sea upbringing. So I made the Mince & Tatties, made the Saucermeat – experimented with heretical concepts like double cream in Mashed Tatties. It was endlessly exciting – yes, exciting – to read stuff I didn’t know of the history of food I have made unthinking for years, to experiment with different takes on dishes my own versions of which I can make in my sleep.

Andrews is right in his observations on Saucermeat – a delicacy up in Shetland a wee bit like Lorne Sausage, but much richer, spicier, warmer – it can be hard to find the good stuff. The recipe he has here is an old one, but not quite the legendary Saucermeat that has been a thing of early morning breakfasts of decades – vaccuum packed by the Shetlanders to send to homesick relatives in Australia, New Zealand, Canada. Andrews’ Saucermeat is lovely, but not quite exact.

But making Andrews’ Saucermeat recipe was fascinating – no Suet, which is I understood was a part of it – because the practice of cooking from this book ended up teaching me something quite profound really about the nature of cookery books. I had absolutely no problem with his not being the Mince & Tatties of memory, so why, I thought, next time, why should I fret on whether my Ragu is right, or my Ramen salty enough?

Authenticity is one thing, but enjoyment, taste – sharing good food – they’re pretty key too. And I really don’t mind that these recipes are different from my mother’s – because in their similarity simmers the truth of it. In this I am reminded of one of my favourite books, Nigellissima. It is Italian food, but Nigella-style & no less in love with Italian cuisine for it. At the end of the day, it’s about plates of food in a kitchen.

I was really interested to roam around the book to places South as well. I made Scouse, which even though I’ve been in Liverpool, I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t try so have no authenticity gauge at all. But I loved it. Typical to all the recipes – this book is an academic achievement as well as a cookbook one – there is a little history of the origins of any dish.

Possibly originating as Andrews says from the Latvian for stew lab kausis, which in turn became the Norwegian lapskaus, I got an immediate surprise from the realisation that I had in fact been making a version of Scouse all my life – the deep, rich stew of meat, neeps and carrots only really different from the stews of my childhood in that the tatties are added, rather than mashed and forming a base on the plate. Of course, why not, I realised? The old Nordic influence is strong!

Having already covered Ireland in a previous book – which I will now have to find – Andrews travels across a Britain real and imagined. He uncovers the oldest history of our dishes – there is a really great section on Abroath Smokies and Iain Spink – as he moves across the country from Shetland in the far north and down to Devon.

He has recipes for Fish & Chips, for the Middlesbrough Parmo, Spag Bol (yes, Spag Bol), Homity Pie, Pease Pudding … like Moley on his riverbank picnic with Rat, it is all too much. The book is over 300 pages long, filled with pics of food and old time archive photos of our food culture. It’s large format. It is utterly stapped full of recipes, history and travelogue like herrings in a barrel.

I’ve got to say, having been hugely impressed recently by Monisha Bharadwaj’s giant lovesong for Indian food, The Indian Cookery Course, I’m equally delighted by The British Table. As I made my Lancashire Hotpot and Chicken Tikka Masala from its pages, I was having great fun – and I have to say, feeling a bit proud that Colman Andrews found so much to like around here, and happy he travelled to find it.

There is a recipe for eggs & soldiers in the book. “This is a ‘nursery food’ classic,” writes Andrews, “but a dish still enjoyed for breakfast by many for whom the nursery is a distant memory.”

Amen to that.

I don’t want to convey the impression this superb celebration of British regional cooking is sentimental; the words of brilliant contemporary chefs, travel experiences and newer recipes make sure it’s a vivid snapshot of ‘now’. But in its expert collation of our dishes, the almanac-appeal of its travelogue through the most loved foods in our country & especially in its paean to the simple dishes my Granny ate as a bairn, The British Table is in many ways a bit of a heartbreaker.

The British Table: A New Look at the Traditional Cooking of England, Scotland and Wales by Colman Andrews, published by Abrams (£30)

Images © 2016 Hirsheimer & Hamilton.