In the late 1960’s Time Life released its ambitious multi volume work entitled ‘Foods of the World’. I stumbled across an almost complete set a few years ago at a school fete and brought the many volumes home in a couple of woefully inadequate carrier bags. The collection of rather dated looking books took its place among my many, varied, even obscure, food related tomes and has gathered dust for the last several years. Occasionally I have dipped into one volume or other to remind me of a simple recipe. I say ‘simple’, because anything else is not really my bag.
Each volume relates the story, history, and culture of the food of a different country. Looking for some meat-related information, I opened the volume entitled ‘The Cooking of the British Isles’. I failed to find what I was looking for but I did find a magic window through which I could look back to a different time. This particular volume provides a snapshot of food production, consumption and traditions fourty years ago.
From the vantage point of this brave young 21st century, and throughout its first decade, there has been a tendency to look back many decades and condemn most of what has gone before, at least in culinary terms. There is a habit of thinking that food in the British Isles has been the domain of Philistines for most of the 20th Century. We condemn those who claim to recall a vision of on farm production and sales as having invented that very image. We hail the advent of Farmers’ Markets, Farm Gate Sales and traceability as recent inventions. Too much to quote here in full, here is a potted version of what I read.
“British cooking…depends on the excellence of the raw materials, the rhythm of the seasonal crops and a simple style of preparation that gives the flavour of the food a chance…British food is uncomplicated, reassuring, a treasure-house of familiar, cherished flavours.” The writer recalls buying Milk, Eggs, Butter and Chicken directly from the Farm Gate. She talks of how the butter would be a different colour depending on the time of year.
While celebrating, she also warns that:
“A generation is growing up that has never tasted the glories of British Country Food, although it is still possible to find it if you take a little time and trouble.” She concludes:
“Any tradition of food, however sturdy it seems, is really very vulnerable and must be cherished if it is to survive. Let tastes change and customs shrivel, and in no time at all a good part of a centuries-old-tradition will have disappeared, never to return.”
Interestingly, the section on cheese tells three stories relating to the origin of Stilton. The first is that it was first made by the housekeeper at Quenby Hall in the 1730s. Next is that it was made by a Mrs Orton in the village of Little Dalby. The third is that it was first made in Melton Mowbray itself. Avid followers of my ramblings will remember that there was a cheese made in this very room where I do most of my writing here at Northfield right up until the early years of the 20th Century. I have yet to dig out a description of that cheese, but the thought that Stilton might have also been made here is tantalising.
Northfield Farm is the principal retail outlet for Quenby Hall’s Organic Longhorn Beef. Quenby is about 12 miles away, Little Dalby is just over the hill from here and of course Northfield Farm itself lies in the Borough of Melton Mowbray.
The British Pig Executive has just announced the winners of its annual awards. Northfield Farm has won Gold for its Game Pie and Silver for its Melton Mowbray Pork Pie and Black Pudding.