Magazine article The Spectator

Cooking the Rooks

Magazine article The Spectator

Cooking the Rooks

Article excerpt

A History of English Food

by Clarissa Dickson Wright

Random House, £25, pp. 500,

ISBN 9781905211852

It is where cookery is involved that television gives perhaps the greatest succour to the book trade. After Jennifer Paterson's death in 1999, the remaining 'Fat Lady' barrelled into view with Clarissa and the Countryman, Clarissa and the King's Cookbook, as a gamekeeper in an episode of Absolutely Fabulous and as presenter for a documentary on her soul-mate Hannah Glasse. Such exposure, combined with an unapologetic mien and candour that have attracted the somewhat patronising description 'national treasure', could only have helped her autobiography Spilling the Beans scale the heights of the bestseller lists and allowed the next manuscript, a year-long diary and rant called Rifling through My Drawers, to be published.

Histories of our indigenous food could occupy a longish shelf. Consider just Colin Spencer. British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History published in 2002 has been followed this year by his From Microliths to Microwaves: The Evolution of British Agriculture, Food and Cooking (Grub Street, £20). What Clarissa brings to her less stringent, more capricious, generously illustrated account is a magical sense of almost having been there at every twist and turn, such is her passion for livestock, animal husbandry and cultivation of the edible.

Anyone even mildly familiar with the book's subject - the way the poor ate poorly, the mad extravagance of a court banquet, the self-satisfying diet of the clergy, the odd absence of forks at table until the early 17th century, the importance of etiquette, four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie - will not find many revelations, although plenty of engaging detail.

There are too many suppositions and fancies. Finding a sort of sisterhood with Eleanor of Aquitaine, it appears that Clarissa simply wants to credit her, on no real evidence, with introducing spices to England. …

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