Cynthia D. Bertelsen's Gherkins & Tomatoes

A Baker’s Dozen of British Cookbooks for the Christmas Season – Book #10

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Brian Yarvin, an American author, stands out here as the only Yank on this list. And he’s writing about pub food, a very British institution. He aims his book at Americans and could perhaps be accused of dreaming the dream, or interpreting the pub through a lens of nostalgia. Or not?

Up comes book #10:

2012

10. The Ploughman’s Lunch and the Miser’s Feast, by Brian Yarvin (2012):

It certainly is not easy to find the so-called traditional English pub these days, and – according to statistics as of July 2015 – as many as 29 pubs close per week in the U.K. So, like it or not, Brian Yarvin’s book is another attempt to capture a way of life before it goes the route of the Dodo.

Appropriately, The Ploughman’s Lunch and the Miser’s Feast starts with “A Full Breakfast,” and continues on through “Sandwiches,” “The Soup Pot,” and “The Main CIurse” to “Savoory Pies and Baked Goods, “The Sweet Side,” and ends with “The Ploughman’s Cupboard,” the latter a very short compendium of pantry essentials.

The sandwich chapter begins with Mr. Yarvin’s rendition of “Coronation Chicken,” one that he enjoyed as a sandwich filling. A few pages on, he dishes up “Kipper Pâté,” which highly resembles the “Smoked Mullet Spread” so popular in coastal north Florida. Which goes to show you that there are very obvious ties to the Mother Country that go unacknowledged or unappreciated by many bystanders. The thrill of this book lies in the 100 recipes, many with the deliciously sly names that make you think you’re getting one thing, but actually something else turns up.

Say “Scotch Woodcock” to the uninitiated and visions of a game bird strutting about might show up. But there’s no woodcock in sight, just scrambled eggs heavy on the anchovies. Ostensibly an upper-class dish dating to Victorian days, the dish also includes capers and cooks serve the lot on toast. Mr. Yarvin’s delight in all of this culinary wealth becomes even more apparent in the sidebars – some termed “Pilgrimage” as trying to find a certain dish. There he dissects the details, as he also does in the many insightful recipe headnotes.

Dumplings and mince, another dish, found in rural Britain according to Mr. Yarvin, appeared on my own dinner plate when I was a child, but my mother called it “creamed hamburger,” yes, but definitely the same thing, and most likely passed down by my British ancestors. It, too, bears an uncanny resemblance to a standard recipe found in parts of the U.S.: Sawmill or Sausage Gravy. Another recipe that caught my eye, “Beef Collops with Pickled Walnuts,” brings to mind a number of similar recipes in early American cookbooks, as well as modern, pickled walnuts being a common flavoring item in those days. Let’s face it, The Ploughman’s Lunch and the Miser’s Feast, offers up so many drool-worthy recipes, it’s hard to know where to begin. Or end.

For now, let’s just say that the final recipes provide information on how to make ingredients such as the aforementioned “Gentleman’s Relish,” as well as others: Clotted Cream, Cumberland Sauce, Pickled Onions, and Lemon Curd. Recipes for such Cullen Skink (Smoked Haddock and Potato Soup) and Pan Haggerty (Cooked Potato and Onion Slices with Cheese) reflect the ancient roots of this frankly incredible and much maligned island whose culture still reaches across the globe. One of the best recipe titles turns out to be the Welsh Ffest y Cybydd (Miser’s Feast), originally a heaping plate of potatoes and bacon, these more likely to pork chops and potatoes, due to the cost of British bacon.

So what’s not to like? He doesn’t mention that many British cooks spread an anchovy paste concoction dubbed “Gentleman’s Relish,” developed in 1828 by a certain John Osborn and still produced. But he delves into this mystery ingredient on page 31 and even offers a stab at a probable recipe on page 193. The 200 photos – taken by Mr. Yarvin himself – are, for the most part, quite clear and instructive and evocative of place, if not too tightly cropped at times. Although the subtitle reads “authentic,” sadly, Mr. Yarvin doesn’t go into the provenance of these recipes, so the reader must assume he’s tweaked a number and come up with his own versions, unless otherwise mentioned. But, hey, what’s really an authentic recipe? I think I can answer that in general terms, and we’ll get to that in a future rant (post). I also find the lack of a recipe, not that you need one really, for Bangers and Mash a bit of a negative point, especially the lack of oniony gravy, although you’ll find a recipe for Parsley Liquor (gravy) on page 143.

Lest you think Mr. Yarvin too steeped in the past, the chapter devoted to the  curry shop will set you right. Tikka Masala, of course, followed by Onion Bhaji, and Scottish Rabbit Curry add an essential curry element to the whole idea of pub food in Britain today.

Mr. Yarvin might be painting  a picture with a brush dipped in a tad large bit of nostalgia, but The Ploughman’s Lunch and the Miser’s Feast serves up a small taste of the British pub.  It’s a good start.

Check out all of the books in this series:

1. Florence White’s Good Things in England

2. Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England

3. Adrian Bailey’s The Cooking of the British Isles

4. Elizabeth David’s Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen

5. Jane Grigson’s Good Things

6. Katie Stewart’s The Times Cookery Book

7. Jane Grigson’s English Food

8. Laura Mason’s The National Trust Farmhouse Cookbook

9. Sarah Edington’s The National Trust Complete Traditional Recipe Book

10. Brian Yarvin’s The Ploughman’s Lunch and the Miser’s Feast

11. Mary-Anne Boermans’s Great British Bakes: Forgotten Treasures for Modern Bakers

12. Heston Blumenthal’s Historic Heston

13. Mary Gwynn’s The WI Cookbook

© 2015 C. Bertelsen

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