Book: Taste by Kete Colquhoun

Good, but possibly of limited interest in America

Kate Colquhoun
Taste: The Story of Britain through its Cooking
Bloomsbury, 2007
ISBN: 978 0 7475 8576 3
375 pages (main text)
UKP 20.00

Kate Colquhoun's book Taste: The Story of Britain through its Cooking is a good and interesting book, but it doesn't quite live up to its sub-title. To begin with, regional variations in cooking in Scotland and Wales get only an occasional nod. The book is really about English cooking. Second, the book doesn't really manage to tell the story of British (or even English) history. It's more like the cooking supplement to history you're presumed to know already. I have some knowledge of English history and I would have enjoyed the book more if I had been a more diligent student of it.

That said, there's more than a little interesting information here and Ms Colquhoun is not short on clues. She begins with what little is known about cooking in Bronze Age Britain and then really gets going when the Romans arrive. The Romans were pretty cosmopolitan even in that far-flung outpost of empire. For example, I had no idea that they used fish sauce and that different people preferred to order theirs from different manufacturers.

As with a lot of other things, cooking went downhill pretty quickly after the Romans left. Viking raids aren't really good for a cuisine. Things began to get a bit better once the Normans arrived. And then visitors to the Americas brought back lots of nifty new ingredients. And so on. There's a historical narrative in the book, but it doesn't hold together especially well. That's not much of a criticism. Keeping a single narrative thread going through all of recorded English history would be very difficult and possibly not desirable.

So then what is the book's virtue? It's the tid-bits that we pick up along the way. There's the Roman fish sauce, for example. And I also had no idea that chickens were introduced to Britain from India shortly before the Romans arrived. In medieval Britain, people didn't drink water, but rather ale (small beer for children). That makes perfect sense since water was probably often contaminated. For a brief time in the 1590s, court ladies wore carrot greens in their hair. The English pudding was invented, probably in the early seventeenth century, by someone who found that you can cook things by boiling them in fabric bags. The way we commonly dine, at least at restaurants, with course following course, was a nineteenth-century invention and was originally called service à la russe. And, later In the nineteenth century, canned foods with their manufacturers' brands prominently displayed were a wholesome alternative to the often-adulterated foods commonly available. Of course that's a small taste of the large number of interesting facts and stories in the book.

And Ms Colquhoun's footnotes are a delight. Take, for example:

    So ubiquitous was melted butter on English tables
    that early the following century Napoleon's Foreign
    Minister Talleyrand famously complained that the
    British had plenty of religions but only one sauce,
    while the French were the other way around.
    (footnote, p 205)

If there's a theme that runs through the book, it's Ms Colquhoun's fondness for cooking and eating according to the seasonal availability of local products. That's a sentiment I agree with, but not quite as strongly as Ms Colquhoun does, especially since I live in Minneapolis and enjoy being able to get oranges in the winter.

If the book doesn't hang together quite perfectly, the parts are delightful in themselves.

Ms Colquhoun's choice of which foreign terms to italicize strikes me as being a bit random. But when writing about a subject in which so many terms come from other languages, it's going to be impossible for everyone to agree on which terms have entered the English language and which haven't. My quasi-arbtrary choices would probably look equally random to her.

Posted: Thu - May 1, 2008 at 07:02 PM   Main   Category: