Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 27, 2022

In Defence of English Cooking, by George Orwell

Over at Brona’s there’s been great interest in an essay by Orwell that was mentioned in a kind of bio called Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit.  It comes up, apparently, in Part 7: The River Orwell – Chapter 1: An Inventory of Pleasures…

I was hoping that the essay would be in our copy of Seeing Things as They Are, Selected Journalism and Other Writings, but alas, though there is much else of great interest, In Defence of English Cooking was not among them.  Brona, however, very kindly posted a link to the Orwell Foundation site, so I’ve had the opportunity to read it, and it was just the kind of light-hearted essay that’s a tonic for the times.

I should preface my commentary by saying that I am a child of rationing.  Because Britain was feeding Germany, there was still rationing in Britain when I was born, and more crucially, my mother learned to cook during the period of rationing, and as a postwar bride during the housing shortage her opportunities for supplementing the ration with produce from a garden were slim.  Her recipes came from the Ministry of Food, offering only recipes that could be cooked with what was on the ration.  She was constrained not only by a limited range of ingredients but also by limited availability.  If what she cooked didn’t turn out right, bad luck, because that’s all there was.  My mother never learned to enjoy cooking, nor did she ever become a good cook, and my experience of English cooking is based on that.  Our family meals were rich in conversation, but not with culinary delights.

Once in Australia, however, with lavish amounts of butter and high quality flour at hand, my mother made superb pastry, and her pies were scrumptious.  And so when I came across Historic Heston, by Heston Blumenthal I was on board with the idea that English cooking could be sublime.

Orwell’s essay struck a chord as well.

It is commonly said, even by the English themselves, that English cooking is the worst in the world. It is supposed to be not merely incompetent, but also imitative, and I even read quite recently, in a book by a French writer, the remark: ‘The best English cooking is, of course, simply French cooking.’

Now that is simply not true, as anyone who has lived long abroad will know, there is a whole host of delicacies which it is quite impossible to obtain outside the English-speaking countries.

He writes first of all, of dishes: kippers, Yorkshire pudding, Devonshire cream, muffins and crumpets; Christmas pudding, treacle tart and apple dumplingsdark plum cake (such as you used to get at Buzzard’s before the war), short-bread, saffron buns, and innumerable kinds of biscuit, which are better and crisper in England.

Knowing what I do of rationing I detect the nostalgia in that reference to Buzzard’s.  I can’t find it with a Google search, but I suspect it was like Bea’s of Bloomsbury where I once had afternoon tea with Kim from Reading Matters.  There is nothing — nothing anywhere — like the concept of an English High Tea, which can be enjoyed as far afield as Singapore — at Raffles and at the Fullerton, and here in Melbourne, at the Windsor.  Local to us in the suburbs, there was also Regnier High Teas, but they’ve prudently moved online because of the pandemic…

Orwell then celebrates cooking techniques peculiar to English cuisine.  He is particularly keen on English ways of cooking potatoes: roasted under the joint, or delicious potato cakes from the north of England, and new potatoes cooked the English way i.e. boiled with mint and then served with a little melted butter or margarine. (I’m not so sure about the margarine.  My father’s memories of wartime margarine were such that he wouldn’t have it in the house.  I don’t like it either. )

Orwell’s fond of English sauces too: bread sauce, horse-radish sauce, mint sauce and apple sauce.  He likes redcurrant jelly, excellent with mutton as well as with hare, and sweet pickles.  He doesn’t mention Worcester sauce, which is IMO splendid with oysters Kilpatrick.  Maybe (like Oysters Kilpatrick) its origin isn’t English…

Not everything Orwell suggests appeals: I’m never going to eat a haggis, and you can look up its list of ingredients if you want to know why. And I can’t say that I’ve ever fancied marrow jam or bramble jelly, and the English sausage, like most sausages is a bit fatty IMO.  But he is spot on about Oxford marmalade (made with Seville oranges), or any other kind of English marmalade for that matter.  I make my own Oxford marmalade, (with a good splash of Scotch whisky) but my favourite is lime marmalade.  When I was a child, I saved up my pocket money to buy Rose’s Lime Marmalade for my father’s birthday, but as an adult I made whole batches of it using limes from our tree and posted it up to Queensland for him.  (Australia Post, to their credit, always delivered them intact).

A ploughman’s lunch from Elsecar in Yorkshire  (Wikipedia)

Orwell puts in a word for English cheeses too. He says that Stilton is the best cheese of its type in the world, with Wensleydale not far behind.  Although I cannot resist French cheeses, I would say that English Cheddar belongs in the pantheon too, but I would say that, since an ancestor of The Spouse is ‘the father of Cheddar Cheese.’ Still, (apart from those plastic-wrapped abominations in the supermarket) Cheddar is a very fine cheese, and an English ploughman’s lunch is an example of inexpensive fare of which England can be proud.

From my experience of travelling in England in the 21st century, I think England’s culinary reputation is undeserved and not much in need of defence.  Orwell was writing in 1945 about the difficulty for foreigners looking for good English cooking.  That’s a long time ago:

It will be seen that we have no cause to be ashamed of our cookery, so far as originality goes or so far as the ingredients go. And yet it must be admitted that there is a serious snag from the foreign visitor’s point of view. This is, that you practically don’t find good English cooking outside a private house. If you want, say, a good, rich slice of Yorkshire pudding you are more likely to get it in the poorest English home than in a restaurant, which is where the visitor necessarily eats most of his meals.

It is a fact that restaurants which are distinctively English and which also sell good food are very hard to find. Pubs, as a rule, sell no food at all, other than potato crisps and tasteless sandwiches.

But things have changed (especially in pubs).  There can be bad food anywhere — #DuckingForCover even in France — and yes, #DuckingAgain too often in Australia once you’re out of the cities.  But most people who work in hospo are proud to serve good food.  So, assuming that Brexit hasn’t sabotaged the possibilities, there should be little cause for complaint in England!

Image credits:

Author: George Orwell
Title: In Defence of English Cooking
Publisher: Evening Standard, 15th December 1945
Source: The Orwell Foundation, Essays and Other Works.


Responses

  1. English restaurants have become very fancy indeed and people seem obsessed with cookery books and shows (or baking). But what I did notice when my children first started school snd we started having English classmates over or they started visiting them is that they don’t cook much from scratch at home (or only for festive occasions). It was all fish fingers and chicken nuggets or spag bol if you were lucky. The other children were not keen on my stews or roast chicken and veg or stir-fries…

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    • I suspect that this is the case in many countries because of the rise of processed food. There are those of us who love to cook and prefer to cook from scratch, and then there are those who prefer the convenience of buying something they can just reheat. No wonder there is an obesity problem!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I would like to enter one more item on the list of delicious English foods: Parkin, either Yorkshire or Lancashire. I grew up with it as my mother was from Yorkshire. If you like ginger, treacle, golden syrup and brown sugar, this is a super cake!

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    • Oh yum! I had to Google it, and found this recipe which is for the Yorkshire version: https://www.thespruceeats.com/traditional-yorkshire-parkin-recipe-435792
      It’s supposed to be eaten on Bonfire Night, is that when you had it?

      Liked by 1 person

      • No, I don’t think so – we used to have it at any time. Yes, that recipe looks good. The hardest thing about making it is that you should wait for about a week before starting to eat it, so you have to forget that it’s in the pantry!

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        • That would never work in this house!

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  3. My mother, also a post-war bride, never had much of a culinary repertoire. I remember canned milk, condensed. Disgusting.

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    • Oh yuk, yes, that stuff was disgusting…

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  4. I love Haggis, but then I have Scottish blood coursing through my veins. Great review. I have been an Orwell reader all my life, but never read this one.

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  5. Things have definitely changed since Orwell’s time, though Brexit certainly has had its effects on supply chains to our shops, so maybe we’ll all have to dig out our family cookbooks with rationing recipes… ;D

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    • You know, my mother always used to say if she was asked if she’d like to go back to England, that she would never want to live in a country that can’t feed itself again. Britain’s reliance on imports is a scary thing.

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  6. When I read the title of your post, I wondered “What is there to defend?” :-)
    Joking, of course.

    Seen from my window, the best things in the UK are sweets. (cakes, pies…) and Indian cuisine. For the rest (mint sauce, the dreadful jelly…) you need to have your palate raised in English cooking to enjoy them.

    So Orwell’s essay is a hard sell. :-)

    Have you ever seen a restaurant of English cooking outside of UK? (same with Dutch cooking, btw.)

    PS : And what’s this idea to have cheese after dessert? :-)

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    • Haha, Emma, I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist this!

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      • *chuckles* You know me too well.
        I don’t think that French cuisine is the best in the world, though. There are wonderful dishes in Asian, Morrocan, Lebanese and Italian cuisine.

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        • Absolutely! We are so lucky to be able to enjoy them all!

          Liked by 1 person

  7. My mother and grandmother didn’t have rationing as an excuse, they grew up self-sufficient on farms. Meat and veg, roast or boiled, do not a great cuisine make. Their saving grace of course was puddings – jam roly poly, washday (golden syrup) pudding, christmas pudding, but not stewed fruit and custard. Or junket.
    I would be willing to admit to black bread and cheese, but I ate nothing but processed white bread and Kraft Coon “cheese” through all my childhood.
    If I had to live on one cuisine it would be Greek.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s an interesting thought…I think we’d choose Italian.

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  8. Great piece, Lisa, I recently bought a small book or Orwell’s essays and immediately pulled it down from the shelf to see if this essay was in it, but sadly not.
    The last two years I was in the UK I worked for a collection of countryside inns with four-star rated kitchens attached and the food was exemplary with a focus on locally grown ingredients including game. I think game is an especially British thing… we are talking rabbit, partridge, pheasant, grouse and deer. All our pubs had relationships with nearby shooting estates so that everything was super fresh and sourced sustainably.
    But of course the British are known for their desserts (or what they call “pudding”) and cakes, high teas, scones and cream etc etc. I was very happy to discover the last two seasons of the Great British Bake Off on the Binge streaming service… a show I have missed since repatriating. I find Australian cooking shows terribly pretentious, shrill and commercially driven (ie promoting products and personalities Im not interested in) The Brits do them much better, pared down and minus the constant pushing of brands.

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    • There’s a wonderful restaurant in London called Rules, near Covent Garden, and it specialises in game. It is an acquired taste, because it can be rather rich, but well-cooked it’s delicious.

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      • Oh, I know Rules, seeing as many of the magazines I worked on were about shooting or hunting. The only game I have ever eaten was partridge. Got to remember to watch out for the lead shot!

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        • ha ha, I can’t say I’ve ever encountered it, but I shall certainly take care to watch out for it in future:)

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  9. This essay should be followed by Orwell’s A Nice Cup of Tea.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Oh what a wonderful response to this essay Lisa, and the comment thread has been delightful too.

    On my most recent trip to England (2007), I was impressed with changes to pub food in particular. Not the stodgy fare I remember with horror from my first trip in 1991.

    I’m with Bill re stewed fruit, but I think I might be the only person left who doesn’t mind junket. Or maybe it was that the junket disguised the stewed fruit??

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    • Thanks, Brona, I think people have enjoyed some light-hearted distractions this week…
      Hmm, yes, my mother once made junket. Rebellions were rare at mealtimes, but she never made it again!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Wow! Just received my copy of Historic Heston. Was so excited! The box gave me palpitations. I do love great packaging. But the book. Oh, the book! I have some line, beautiful, awesome books, but THIS is the Queen!
    I turned page after page, gasping and exclaiming . . . And then things began falling apart. Half the pages are stuck together at the bottom because of the inked design. My beauty is ruined. Damaged. Marred.

    Pardon me. I must leave in order to weep in private.

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    • No, no, tell me it isn’t so. Can you send it back for a replacement?
      I mean, it’s not the design. I had my copy out just the other day, (I was showing off) and it’s fine. Your copy must have got wet perhaps?

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      • I contacted the printer and they offered a replacement. I think it might already be on its way. Oh happy day! There are still companies that offer great customer service.

        I cannot imagine how it could have gotten wet. I’d send you photos if I could. They might explain what happened. The book is still absolutely beautiful though. Thanks for introducing me to such a delight.

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        • It is, it’s a work of art. And good to read too. I mean, most recipe books have a ‘story’ to tell, but Heston’s one is completely different to the usual.

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  12. LOL! You were showing off, huh? Me too. It’s so heavy I almost dropped it. My husband cautioned me about vanity. :D He just wanted to escape my “Oooh! Look at this!”

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