“England conquered the world for spices and has the audacity to not use them” as the joke goes. But to say that is to show a famous and ingrained misunderstanding of the history of spice usage on our little island.
British food conjures up images of bland, beige and flavourless stodge, which, to be fair, can be accurate. Doughy yorkshire puddings, pastry topped pies and treats without the lick of glaze like the French or Austrians, thick batter covering anything and everything in Scotland, I could go on, but you already know the food I mean, because you can picture it too.
This wasn't always British food though, and to focus on mocking it’s shortcomings is not to only show ignorance of the history (which we will get to), but also to overlook what GB does right when it comes to food.
The point of this article is not to wax lyrical romantically about British cuisine, but I will point out that we arent fully averse to flavour. Our soil grows diverse herbs such as rosemary, thyme, coriander, bay, mint, chives and wild garlic. On the coasts we make use of seaweed almost as well as the Japanese. The nation is home to crystals of salt from Maldon, and sharp, acidic vinegars. Homegrown heat from wasabi-esque horseradish and strong amber mustard jazzes main courses up, followed by tart bramley apples and sweet raspberries. We may have Greggs flaccid and flaky sausage rolls, but we also have crispy-fluffy roast potatoes and juicy strawberries. When we get it right, we really get it right (well I say “we”, I’m part Caribbean from Barbados, but I’m British by birth).
It is this contrast between the image of British food and the reality that inspired me to write this article, because so much of our rich gastronomic history has been lost, and that is the history of our spice usage.
We loved spices. The pantries of the aristocracy and gentry of the Middle Ages, around 1300, was full of peppercorns, ginger, saffron, cloves, and mace. Spice was the food of the elite which meant the bland food that was passed down in wider circles was based on barley, wheat, vegetables, beans, grains and oats, most easily grown on our land. Spices meant exclusivity and proof of the money required to fund such exotic meals. Written accounts of the priests of Munden Chantry included an order for 3lbs of spices in 1419. Two major reasons were behind the popularity of spices: firstly, given the lack of refrigeration, strong flavourings could be used to mask the scent of rancid meat, secondly, and most importantly, spices symbolised status. Spices were the caviar of the day, which stopped poor people from having them. One fourteenth-century recipe for haggis seasons it heavily with pepper and saffron, and swan roasted with allspice was popular at feasts. “Pudding in skins” was an Elizabethan dish which was a rice pudding, cooked with cinnamon and mace, mixed with suet and dried fruit, and then pumped into intestines, tied up, and simmered. After the creation of the East India Company in the 1600s, merchants not only imported the ingredients, but they also brought back new dishes which used them. The expansion of the British Empire made this possible (I am not going into the ethics or history of that here, thats an essay for another day) and as such spread the love for spices and flavours. Coffee sugar and chocolate became expensive but fashionable drink inclusions from the 1650s, with coffee houses springing up in London, the haunts of wealthy and stylish men. Samuel Pepys records multiple instances of backstreet deals for nutmeg and cinnamon.
Colonisation of India brought new tastes and flavours like Kedgeree, a version of the Indian dish Khichri has been a traditional dish at the British breakfast table since the 18th and 19th centuries, coronation chicken, and curries. Lots of curries. We invented spiced mince pies (the original being boiled ox tongue paired with suet, salt, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, cloves, orange peel, apple, currants, fortified wine and baked in a crust) and fruit cakes and buns spiked with candied ginger. The aroma of cinnamon, cloves and allspice is still evocative of historical Christmases. Charles Dickens kept a nutmeg grater on his person, and a small fortune of the seed, so that he could dust it over desserts and drinks.
The decline of flavourful British cusine started once the middle classes could afford to spice up their food, and the elite recoiled from the increasing popularity of spices, when they were no longer exclusive. By the mid-1800’s, the price of spices had dropped significantly and could be found in specialty shops such as Payne’s Oriental Warehouse (328 Regent Street) and The Oriental Depot (38 Leicester Square). As with clothing, food has always been aspirational, with poorer people naturally wanting to share the fashions and tastes of the upper classes. Spice was now the queasy realm of gauche new money and filthy immigrants. The British historical obsession with class has been permeating every facet of life for centuries. They moved on to a pretentious theory of taste, and declared that, rather than infusing food with spice, they said things should taste like themselves, they wanted to prove the natural high quality of their ingredients, they wanted purity in their meals. Meat should taste like meat, and anything you add only serves to intensify the existing flavors was the new idea. Again with the fashion analogy, its kind of how in fashion, for a while having more ruffles, fabric and more jewelry was fashionable. Then it was decided that a basic black dress with some pearls is much better and simplicity means elegance and chic so that is now de rigeur for taste.
This was further exacerbated by two world wars, which solidified the reputation for for blandness we now associate with British cuisine. Britain’s climate isn’t ideal growing spices, and the need for self-sufficiency and food shortages resulted in a plainer approach to cooking. Stews, pies, breads and pastries were the order of the day. Plain foods that naturally grow on our soil like potatoes and cabbage without flavouring due to the rationing of butter became mainstays. Custards made without vanilla, and honey instead of sugar made for less intense sweetness and flavour in puddings.
Fast forward to today, and take a look at the British high street. Spiced and flavoured immigrant cusine are national favourites. The anglicised take on Indian food is currently still one of the top dishes of Great Britiain, we have made curry truly our own. We feast on crispy szechuan beef from the Chinese and kebabs with chili sauce. Thai satay sauce and jerk chicken are as much a staple of dinner across the country as roasts are. The Brits always had a taste for spice, and we still do. Our love of flavour hasn't been dead, it just took a break.