Why are historic flavours flooding back into British recipes?
Food history is in vogue. Chocolatiers have been serving up a slice of nostalgia with flavours like millionaire’s shortbread, teacake and jaffa cakes, and popping candy has been popping up on menus all around the country. Some chefs are looking even further back to Britain’s food heritage.
At The Gilbert Scott, Marcus Wareing’s list of dishes pays tribute to early eighteenth century writers John Nott, Mrs Beeton, Florence White and Agnes B Marshall. Then there’s Heston Blumenthal’s collaboration with the Tudor food historians at Hampton Court Palace, which had a profound affect on his much-lauded London venue, Dinner – the most obvious being meat fruit (circa 1500). As we’re now seeing the trend widening outside of London, just why are historical recipes making a return?
Food historian Marc Meltonville recreates life in Henry VIII's kitchens at Hampton Court
The Minnis in Birchington, Kent, is using archaic cooking methods. Chef Jason Freedman’s menu is based around produce that has been cured, dried, smoked, pickled, preserved and brined in-house. Here you’ll find corned beef with dripping, homemade piccalilli and pickled onions. Take a closer look and you’ll even witness ancient food preservation methods brought to Britain two thousand years ago by Roman invaders. For Jason, chefs “need to look at the past to get a glimpse of the future. Studying the old techniques allows you to open your mind to the products available nowadays, and with the use of modern technology, you can create so many new variants of old historic dishes.”
Indeed cooks throughout the centuries have been using techniques and presentation skills that wouldn’t look out of place in today’s ‘molecular gastronomy’ kitchens. For instance, Agnes B Marshall was making parmesan ice cream and using liquid nitrogen for making frozen desserts as far back as the nineteenth century.
Home cooks are becoming curious too. Penguin’s recent Great Food series, which showcases food and cookery writing from the last 400 years, makes legends like M.F.K. Fisher, Alexis Soyer and Eliza Acton accessible to a younger generation.
This current interest in food and drink history is largely due to the renaissance of British cuisine in recent years. We’ve had a love affair with numerous foreign cuisines over the decades – even declaring chicken tikka masala as our national dish at one stage – and for too long we have considered French cuisine to be the root of serious gastronomy. Looking to history is a way of rediscovering, and becoming proud of, our own culinary identity.
Add to that the celebratory spirit of the recent royal wedding, as well as next year’s London Olympics and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and it’s no wonder that we’re flying the flag for kedgeree, Bakewell tart and Eccles cakes.
Would you like to see recipes like Sussex pond pudding resurrected on restaurant menus? Which nostalgic flavours, dishes or cooking techniques would you like to bring back?
Sejal Sukhadwala is a food journalist and restaurant reviewer.