What recipes or dishes are entrenched deep in the history of your hometown or family or country? Like it or hate it, food that would transport you to a particular place or time before you could say Beam me up, Scotty?
After our adventures in Highgate Cemetery and at Shakespeare’s Globe, last week Kay and I spent a few days visiting Derbyshire. I wanted our trip to be a uniquely English experience, and I think I succeeded. I knew the pretty stone-built towns, gorgeous countryside and historic houses would be a safe bet, but I hadn’t thought about how much of what we eat is particular to our land and culture.
I wrote a few weeks ago about how the judicious use of dialect, slang and cant can add richness and depth to a story world. Now I’m thinking I should pay more attention to my characters’ meals. I’ve given them food that’s appropriate to their time period, but I need to double check whether I missed an opportunity to make their meals local, distinctive or significant in some way.
For example, the Yorkshire Pudding, which Kay sampled for the first time last Sunday at a country pub on the edge of the Chatsworth estate, is history on a plate. It’s the classic accompaniment to roast beef, which has been a British signature dish for hundreds of years.
Henry Fielding wrote a patriotic ballad, The Roast Beef of Old England, in the 1730s (click here for a Youtube recording, illustrated by a painting on the same theme courtesy of William Hogarth from 1748). More than two hundred and fifty years later, roast beef and Yorkshires is still the classic choice for a Sunday lunch, with roast root vegetables and gravy made from the pan juices.
Yorkshire Puddings have been a thing since the 1700s, when wheat flour became commonly available as a cooking ingredient. The dish is made from eggs, flour and milk, mixed into a pancake type batter and cooked in the very hot oven used to roast the beef. Originally the pudding(s) would have been cooked in a dripping pan, set under the meat to catch the hot fat as it fell.
Nowadays Yorkshire Puddings are expected to rise during cooking and emerge golden brown, tall, light and fluffy, with lots of air in the center. I can report from experience that this is best achieved by keeping the oven door firmly closed during cooking, because any sudden lowering of the temperature results in a sad, soggy, pancake-like offering. I’m guessing this is a modern conceit. I bet the eighteenth-century version would have been more like my flat, spongy disasters.
I also wonder if these puddings were universally enjoyed or were reserved for the lower classes. At the beginning of the twentieth century, they were definitely a boon to the budget conscious. Both my grandfathers worked in the coalmines and my parents grew up during the Second World War. I’m sure money was tight. Mum and dad said that it was common, during their childhoods, to serve Yorkshire Pudding with gravy as a first course to bulk out the meal: diners would be encouraged to fill up on the savory flavors of the roast so that they’d be less hungry by the time a smaller portion of expensive meat was served. Today the puddings are more likely to come as individual creations, served as a side dish to embellish the roast. Perhaps in times past the wealthy might have served it this way as a subtle demonstration of plenty, and maybe poorer people, or servants, might have dined only on pudding?
Yorkshire Pudding was the first of Kay’s culinary adventures. She followed it up with a classic Derbyshire Bakewell Tart (or Pudding, click here to read a fabulous article by Felicity Cloake in The Guardian about its nineteenth-century origins, variants and medieval predecessors); pork pie (apparently originated in the Midlands as Stilton cheesemakers fattened pigs on the whey and then made pie from the pigs); and Scotch Eggs (hard boiled eggs wrapped in sausage meat and breadcrumbs, supposedly invented by the grand London department store Fortnum & Mason in the 1730s as travelling fare for the aristocracy).
As so often happens, I try to think of an author who uses food to establish place and time, and find Georgette Heyer. When the resourceful Venetia learns the truth about her family and rushes back from London to Yorkshire to proposition the rakish but idiotically self-sacrificing Lord Damerel, his butler serves fresh bannocks (a kind of griddled flatbread) and she immediately knows she’s home.
Do any of your favorite authors use food to create a strong sense of location?
Could you use food to anchor a story in your hometown? What would you choose?