Typical English Food. Effects of History and Tradition

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2001

22 Pages, Grade: 1,3 (A)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The history of English food
2.1. The Roman Era
2.2. The Norman / French Era
2.3. The 16th to 18th century
2.4. The 19th century
2.5. English eating-habits today

3. ‘Typical’ aspects of English cookery
3.1. The plainness of English food
3.2. The English predilection for meat
3.3. The English predilection for white bread

4. The uniqueness of English cookery

5. Summary

6. References

1. Introduction

English food has always been and still is a topic for discussions. It has often been regarded as inferior to that of many European countries, due to the English “deficiency of creative imagination and lack of discernment” (Burnett, p. 318). Professor John Fuller, Chairman of the National Catering Inquiry, has commented that “the British are not very discriminating. They’ll eat almost anything … they are often numb to taste through politeness. In many cases ‘as good as mother’s cooking’ really means ‘as bad as mother’s cooking’” (Burnett, p. 318). Paxman shares Fuller’s opinion about the English ignorance towards their food: “There was a reason English food was so awful: the English were not bothered enough about how it tasted to demand it any better” (p.256). In fact the bad taste and the lack of extravagance in English cookery have mostly been criticised. Additionally, it was said that the English treated their food with some kind of ignorance, and that eating for them was nothing else than the satisfaction of a human need.

As a matter of fact, it is rather difficult to find reasons for these clichés, since none of the authors I have cited deals with this problem . Therefore, the aim of my essay will not be to answer this question. Only in the second part I am going to touch upon this subject by examining ‘typical’ aspects of English food, such as its often mentioned plainness. Yet, it needs to be mentioned that these remarks are mainly based on causal assumptions, as the references are to weak.

A much more effective introduction to English cookery will give the first part of this paper which deals with the history of the nation’s diet. I will discuss the main stages of the historical development, namely the Roman and Norman era, the 16th to 18th centuries, the 19th century, and the appearance of the English diet nowadays. Perhaps this part helps to drive away some prejudices concerning the English diet, as it shows that, as Paxman puts it, “English cooking, for the privileged few, at least, could have held its own with any in Europe” (p. 257).

At the end of my essay I will try to answer the question if there really is such a thing like a distinct English cuisine which would be characterised by a clear difference to the Scottish or Welsh cuisine. This last passage refers to the topic of Professor Joachim Schwend’s course “Looking into England. The English question” (carried out at the University of Leipzig), which tried to crystallise typical features of England as part of Britain, and Englishness.

2. The history of English food

To describe the history of English cookery I will, in most cases, refer to Anne Wilson’s book Food and drink in Britain. Although the title refers to the British history of food, she speaks about the development of the English diet most of the time, which makes this publication a suitable source for my essay. Apart from Wilson I will also cite some other authors. However, it must be mentioned that these books refer to Wilson’s reports to a great extent and thus do not show many new aspects of the historical development of the English way of cooking.

In the following historical summary of English food I will discuss the eating-habits of richer people and town dwellers in most cases. These groups experienced the biggest changes within their diet, since they were almost the only ones who could afford and had access to the new foodstuffs which were introduced to England. The poor depended on the same foodstuffs most of the time (e.g. vegetables, fruit, corn, and meat they “produced” on their farms), and their meals were rarely influenced by nutritional innovations. Therefore, their eating-habits are left out for the most part.

2.1. The Roman Era

The Romans had one of the greatest impacts on the English cuisine, as they introduced much of the foodstuffs English people use in their cooking nowadays. Many of these new ingredients – above all plants – can still be found on English grounds, since the Romans did not only import them to the country but started to cultivate them. Among these Roman ‘innovations’ were, for instance:

- game: pheasants, peacocks, guinea fowl, fallow deer
- fruits, nuts: vines, figs, walnuts, medlar, mulberries, sweet chestnuts
- vegetables: cabbage, lettuce, endives, turnips, onions, leek, mallow, orache, corn salad, fat hen (last four: out of cultivation, but can still be found wild)
- herbs, spices: parsley, alexanders, borage, chervil, coriander, dill, fennel, mint, thyme, garlic, rosemary, rue, sage, savory, marjoram

(Renfrew II, p. 5)

As the English climate did not allow to grow all the southern plants the Romans had brought along, dates, almonds, pine cones and kernels, pepper, ginger, cinnamon and olives had to be shipped a long way from the Mediterranean to England (Renfrew II, p. 6). Apart from numerous plants the Romans introduced a few animals they used for their cooking, such as pheasants, peacocks, guinea fowls, fallow deer (Renfrew II, p. 5), rabbits, dormice and snails (Wilson, p. 72).

All the imported ingredients were used to establish a way of cooking the English had not experienced so far. When the first Romans reached England after the Roman Conquest in 43 AD, the English nation gained “access to a new world of sophisticated tastes” (Renfrew II, p. 5). The Roman way of cooking was very much based on the cuisine of the Mediterranean countries which was much more complex than that known to the English.

Apart from the new foodstuffs, the Romans brought new farming methods to England. In contrast to earlier English settlers, the Romans followed much more scientifically based farming practices. All the domestic animals were kept in enclosures, which guaranteed an ordered farming (Wilson, p. 75). Additionally, the Romans improved feeding by introducing new fodder crops to England, such as turnips, chickpeas, vetches and beans (Wilson, p. 69f.). That way they gained bigger and better fleshed animals which helped the Romans to secure a better supply of meat. Yet, these animals were still far from these we know today, as they were smaller, tougher and more sinewy (Wilson, p. 71).

Since beef was the Romans’ favourite meat, increased cattle rearing was carried out (Renfrew II, p. 17). Where there was open grazing ground, sheep and goats were kept for the sake of their milk, wool and meat (Wilson, p. 70). Pigs, which resembled modern wild pigs to a great extent, were less carefully bred because pork was not very common among the Romans. In most cases they were sent to the forests and left to their own devices (Wilson, p. 71). Hunting meant additional supplies of meat, but farmyard animals were still regarded as the main source of meat (Wilson, p. 73).

Apart from the usual domestic animals (i.e. cows, sheep, pigs, poultry), the Romans kept many other creatures to have a continuous supply of meat. Many of the Roman villas had, for instance, their own fishponds (vivaria) (Wilson, p. 22), pigeon houses (columbaria) (Wilson, p. 114; Renfrew II, p. 17) and rabbit stables (Wilson, p. 72).

The new settlers were also very enthusiastic for fish, such as cod, ling, haddock or herring, and shellfish. Their favourites were oysters, which were marketed widely within the country and even sent to Rome (Wilson, p. 21; Renfrew II, p. 14).

One of the greatest problems at that time was the storage of meat and fish in order to guarantee a sufficient supply of food. Due to the lack of satisfying winter fodder, many of the domestic animals had to be slaughtered at the end of autumn. The Romans knew several different ways of preserving their meat for winter, such as smoking, air-drying or pickling (Wilson, p. 63). However, the most common practice was salting the meat, which caused a very strong and unappetising taste. In order to disguise these off-flavours, the Romans added highly seasoned sauces to their dishes, which included numerous herbs and spices, wine, and vinegar. (Wilson, p. 74). Since winter fodder could not be improved the following centuries, this way of preserving meat continued until the end of the Middle Ages (Wilson, p. 63).

The supply of fresh fish was a similar problem. Only people who lived near the sea had a chance to get fresh saltwater fish. As there were no sufficient ways of transport at that time, people who lived in the heart of the country had to rely on heavily salted fish from the sea most of the time. In summer they could fall back upon freshwater fish – however, saltwater fish was their favourite (Renfrew II, p.8).

The predominant corn of that time was barley. On the one hand it was needed for the production of bread and beer, on the other hand it was the most efficient grain one could grow on English soil. Only in the north and west, where the climate and the soil were rougher, oats were grown to a great extent (Wilson, p. 232).

Most of the Romans preferred white bread as it was lighter and easier to digest than brown bread. Yet, only the richest could afford that kind of bread, because only little wheat was grown by that time, which meant a high price. In general the rule was: “The lowlier the place, the darker the bread” (Wilson, p. 233).

Pepper and honey were the spices which were used in Roman kitchens to a great extent. Pepper was so popular that it was added even to sweet dishes. Honey served as a universal sweetener and preservative (Wilson, p. 277f.). Mustard – which had also been introduced by the Romans – was another important spicy condiment for the Roman cuisine, as it was used for preserving food and for table use (for sauces etc.) (Wilson, p. 278f.).

Some of the Roman dishes were quite similar to those the English eat today. For instance, the Roman settlers already prepared a kind of cake which consisted of a mixture of bread crumbs, fat and sometimes honey and milk (Wilson, p. 234). Out of chopped egg yolks, pine kernels, onions, leeks, pepper and blood they prepared a kind of black pudding (botelli) which is still known in today’s England (Wilson, p. 308).


Excerpt out of 22 pages


Typical English Food. Effects of History and Tradition
University of Leipzig  (Culture Studies GB)
Looking Into England. The English Question
1,3 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
476 KB
English, Food, Looking, Into, England, English, Question, Cuisine, Essen, Landesküche
Quote paper
Alena Friedrich (Author), 2001, Typical English Food. Effects of History and Tradition, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/14479


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