Alexandra Harris

From 'A Break for Refreshments'

The vernacular was on the rise and this prompted an obvious question: if French regional cooking is this good, did anything comparable ever exist in England? Affirmative answers were emerging. The most dedicated English food historian was Florence White, daughter of a long line of Sussex innkeepers, who founded in 1928 the English Folk Cookery Association. White toured hundreds of remote kitchens, talking to cooks and to those who, as children, had eaten things no longer made. She collected receipts from manor houses, farms and cottages, and made public appeals for regional or family specialities. When she published Good Things in England in 1932 it was the culmination of a major social history project. Here were methods for raising a piecrust in Warwickshire; here was the recipe for Gossip Bowl, a potent mixture of crab apples and white wine that might even harbour a Shakespearean fairy (‘And sometimes lurk I in a gossip bowl’, sang Puck, ‘In very likeness of a roasted crab’). White devoted part of the book to a regional survey, county by county: a kind of kitchen tour around England.

 

                     

 

Her work was part of a much larger folk revival movement, but White was always careful to distinguish herself from the more insular folk enthusiasts. She had lived in Paris for many years and was well-practised in the arts of French cookery; she was not suggesting that English cooking should lose contact with Europe, but she did want the English to feel sure they had something worth sharing. White’s insistence on the excellence of all things English can sound rather defensive (‘Stew’ is just as good a word as ‘ragout’ she says, and casserole-cooking ‘is only a fashionable word for our own hot-pots’). But her patriotism was motivated by a basic belief that international exchange would thrive better if local knowledge were strongly developed. ‘There is no reason why the famous French cuisine and our fine traditional English cookery should be bitter rivals’, she wrote, and many agreed. White could feel a growing interest in the possibility of recovering native cookery. Local recipe books for individual counties were being issued by Women’s Institutes (Cornwall 1933; Worcestershire 1936). And another good sign was the increasing availability in the big stores of traditional raw ingredients. The husked wheat necessary for frumenty, for example (and White’s book gave a frumenty variant from almost every county in England) could now be purchased from Army & Navy.

The turn to old England did not have to mean stodginess. Hilda Leyel, a specialist in traditional plant lore and proprietor of the Culpeper stores (named after the seventeenth-century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper), made John Evelyn the hero of her 1925 book Green Salads and Fruit Salads. It was a new idea to write exclusively about vegetables, but Leyel did it with an eye on the past. Salads were generally considered a Continental imposter on the British table, and better suited to warmer climates. Leyel showed this to be quite wrong. Taking her readers back to Evelyn’s burgeoning salad gardens, she listed dozens of herbs that had been staple and delicious ingredients around 1700 but which were now unknown or untrusted. With Florence White, she set the tone for a series of books which would open new possibilities for English cookery by answering on the one hand to the spirit of modern experiment and, on the other, to the rich, marginalised traditions of English food.

 

Florence White's Good Things in England is available from Persephone Books.

Find out about Hilda Leyel and Culpeper the Herbalist.