British culinary heritage gets a bad rap. While the French can hark back to the golden years of Escoffier and Careme – us Brits tend to think of our past kitchen exploits as bland and over-cooked. In recent years several chefs have made an attempt to revisit this view and popularise some of the many unappreciated traditional dishes. Fergus Henderson at St. Johns has been cooking unusual bits of animals for years and Dinner By Heston Blumenthal gave Ashley Palmer-Watts the chance to showcase how great our food history can be. Situated amid a triumph of British architecture, the Gilbert Scott Hotel in St. Pancras is the perfect place to show off our food.
The Gilbert Scott Book of British Food collects an array of these great british classics, as interpreted by Marcus Wareing and Chantelle Nicholson. The book is split into several categories, covering cocktails, starters, mains, desserts, brunch and afternoon tea. The recipes use standard ingredients which you shouldn’t have much any sourcing, they’re measured in a sensible fashion and the methods are relatively straight-forward to follow. Like many of my favourite books they’ve chosen a really broad range of recipes with plenty of quick dishes while their ‘chef’s table’ section will challenge even the most confident home cook (the less ambitious can just enjoy drooling at the gorgeous photography). So far, so good – what do the recipes actually turn out like?
A deceptively simple dish that has the advantage of being very easy to prepare in advance – perfect for a hectic dinner party. It’s herby sausage mix, wrapped in bacon and served with a simple salad. The end product tastes really nice – I loved the honey/mustard dressing, it’s a great foil to the pork, but it does feel like it’s lacking a little something. A bit of black pudding crumbled over the top and a fried quails egg would transform the dish.
I picked this because if uses one of my favourite meats – mutton. A nice gentle simmer gives it the chance to soften up and release all that wonderful gamey flavour. The recipe is easy to follow, though I found straining out the meat before you reduce the sauce a little fiddly. You need to make sure you buy (or prep well in advance) your pearl barley as it takes over an hour to cook from scratch but only goes in the pot for the last few minutes. Regardless of my pulse dilemmas – this is an excellent stew. I love that it avoids the classic beer or red wine – letting the flavour of the mutton show through.
Caramelised Banana Bread
Another dinner party dish – this is very easy to cook in advance and finish between courses. Made from layers of brioche, cooked banana and custard it’s a wonderfully British dessert. The quality of the banana is absolutely key – if it’s not mostly black it’s not ripe enough. While I really enjoyed the buttery, custardy goodness – my test subjects weren’t all fans but if you really like bananas then you should be fine!
I’ve only scratched the surface of the book but I’ve really enjoyed it – traditional British cooking represents a different kind of challenge to the way we prepare food now. Next time you’re doing a dinner party, instead of scouring the four corners of the globe for an exotic theme, why not pick something a little closer to home?
The Gilbert Scott Book of British Food by Marcus Wareing and Chantelle Nicholson, RRP £25, is published by Bantam Press and available in all good bookshops.