Travel literature review: Eating for Britain

Eating for Britain by Simon Majumdar

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Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Review by Janine Eberle

There is a gaping chasm between what British people eat (ready-meals from Tesco, kebabs, chips for breakfast) and the food-related media they produce (Jamie, Nigella, Heston, Delia and so on). In Eating for Britain, author Simon Majumdar rues the waywardness of a nation so bereft of any clue that the item 'Chicken Tikka Lasagna' can be found on a hotel menu. He postulates that Brits have drifted away from their historical food riches, nudged away by post-war rationing, a plethora of takeaways, and a ready-meal culture. His aim is noble: to reacquaint the British with the great dishes of their heritage, and save them from their terrible eating habits.

He asks the question 'what does it mean to be British?', and sets out to find the answer by hunting down Britain’s quintessential dishes – the good (fish and chips, roast beef, trifle), the bad (jellied eels, haggis, black pudding) and the I-don’t-know-what-the-hell-it-is-but-it-scares-me (the King’s liver, cawl, Welsh faggots). Along the way he covers the country from end to end and meets a roll call of honest-to-goodness food producers – from Yorkshire pub cooks to matronly bakers and hard-as-nails crabbers on the Norfolk coast.

Majumdar’s persona is that of a slightly ineffectual bumbler who is defined by his greedy, slavering obsession with food – a kind of gluttonous Bill Bryson. This character is amusing, and strong, a side-effect of which is that the people he meets often fail to take distinct shape. It’s a personal history – his Welsh grandmother’s baking, food-related shenanigans with his similarly obsessed brother, the first time he tried jellied eels as a university student – as well as a national one.

There are intriguing things to be learned. That Cornish pasties were created to give miners a warm, hearty meal they could eat easily, the thick crust providing a 'handle' that kept the contents safe from their grimy hands. That the liver of fallow deer was so prized that in medieval times every one of them was considered the property of the king – commoners consumed the precious offal of a successful hunt on pain of death. We learn both what immigrants brought to Britain (Jewish immigrants introduced the fried fish of fish and chips) and what they didn’t (balti and chicken tikka masala – both British riffs on Subcontinental cuisine).

It’s not all oddities and queasy-inducing descriptions of things you’d rather not know that people actually eat. There are some real lick-your-lips moments – the potted shrimp from the author’s favourite restaurant; London’s traditional Rules; step-by-step instructions for the perfect bacon butty (five rashers, both tomato and HP sauce); and most of the chapter on puddings, which is an aspect of cuisine in which the Brits undeniably shine. And the final chapter pays fitting tribute to the nation’s laudable contributions to the world of booze: beer, gin and whisky.

If you don’t know anything about British cuisine you may be stumped by some of the lesser known items – I’m still not clear exactly what an Eccles cake is – and the book would have profited from a nice little line illustration for each dish, a la Elizabeth David’s classic cookbooks (certainly more than it does from the uninspiring black-and-white photo insert). Serious food historians might be left hungry, but overall it’s an entertaining, educational and interesting journey into the heart of Britain’s troubled relationship with food.

Janine Eberle works in guidebook product development at Lonely Planet, and travels primarily to eat.

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