On the whole, I like the traditional food of my native land. Yes, English cuisine went through a bad patch in the 60s and 70s, when convenience seemed to outweigh any consideration of quality, but it’s been steadily improving ever since (just think how pub meals today compare with those of 40 or 50 years ago). But there are a few peculiarities of English taste I just don’t get.
If you’ve read the Great Bass Cookery Book this one will come as no surprise. Why this obsession with the ubiquitous little green buggers when there are so many wonderful vegetables in the world, some of which have a particular affinity with this or that meat (or fish) dish? I recall reading the results of a survey which concluded that the most popular choice when eating out was steak, chips and peas (OK, this must have been before chicken tikka masala became the nation’s favourite dish). But why peas? For what it’s worth, all I need with a decent steak is fresh, crusty bread and butter, watercress, maybe a few sautéed mushrooms and a big Rhone red. I do however like mushy peas with my fish and chips – providing they’re not, God forbid, minted (see below).
To my mind the best place for mint is in a long, cool summer cocktail, preferably a Mojito, but this hardy weed with a tendency to take over gardens enjoys a curiously exalted status in the English psyche. I’ve never been keen on mint sauce with lamb (much preferring rosemary and garlic) but to some it’s indispensable. Apparently it was even served with beef on those ships which used to take schoolchildren on educational cruises. Then there are minted peas and the ghastly “mint choc chip” ice cream. It’s even in most of our toothpaste, along with the environmentally-harmful microbeads and the pineal gland-calcifying sodium fluoride.
I love freshly-ground black pepper and enjoy it on almost any savoury dish; indeed, in our household the innards of the pepper mill can wear out in a matter of months. But the only pepper I knew in my youth was the finely-ground white variety, and the twin cruets of salt and white pepper are still the norm on many a table. Compared with its black cousin, it does little for me except possibly provoke sneezing. There are limited circumstances where it can be acceptable though – a peppermill might seem a little incongruous in a pie-and-mash shop for instance.
“The best thing since sliced bread” has always struck me as a dubious, almost oxymoronic expression. Why would I want my loaf pre-sliced so that it goes uniformly stale throughout its entire length? Yet millions of people either prefer it that way or are incapable of wielding a bread knife. I have sometimes taken issue with supermarket staff who, despite the aisles full of plastic-wrapped, industrial pre-sliced loaves, seem intent on subjecting most of the output of the in-store bakery to the same fate. Why? They can always slice a loaf to order if that’s what the customer wants but once it’s been done they can’t unslice it. It’s not like this in France where you still see people coming home from the local bakery with a baguette under their arm. So why is there so little demand for really fresh bread here?
Maybe it goes back to that unfortunate chapter in our culinary history that I alluded to at the beginning. Perhaps it was a combination of new technology and more pervasive advertising immediately following a period of post-war austerity which allowed us to lose touch with fresh, local, seasonal quality. We’ve come a long way since but there’s still a way to go. [And that doesn’t explain the thing about peas and mint.]