Clarissa Dickson Wright Celebrates a History of English Food At London’s Savoy Hotel
It’s fitting that Clarissa Dickson Wright should host a dinner dedicated to English food at an establishment where a famous Frenchman, Georges Auguste Escoffier, revolutionised what Londoners put into their mouths. Peach Melba is one of his most famous creations although, as she points out in her book, he was eventually fired for cooking the books.
It was at Books for Cooks, that famous Notting Hill landmark, where I first encountered Clarissa twenty years ago. She seemed to know every book in the shop and would always give you guidance about what you were buying, whether you liked it or not. I was making a TV show called “Food File”, at the time, and we were looking for people to present a strand called “Mouth Piece”. I immediately signed her up when she told me she wanted to expose the seedy world of recipe theft. It wasn’t just immoral, she said, but worse, the process was repeated so we ended up with a foodie version of Chinese whispers. Recipes full of mistakes were repeated ad nauseum, since many publishers didn’t want to spend the money to test them, and it was the budding cook who suffered – when the dish didn’t turn out right many a meal was ruined.
I remember we went around interviewing Claudia Roden, Yan-kit So, even Michael Caine and Dennis Healey, to back up her thesis and they all came out resolutely on her side. That bit was easy, but then came the small matter of what we call “Pieces to Camera” – the bits which even hardened professional hacks find difficult to get right. I needed Clarissa to look directly in the lens and deliver the links for her polemic, and we only had half an hour. I needn’t have worried – she looked at the script for a few seconds and delivered seven or eight diatribes without blinking once. The rest, as they say is history, and after that she was snaffled by a colleague of mine, to make “Two Fat Ladies”.
Executive Chef’s Bernhard Mayer’s dinner at the Savoy recreated some of the historical recipes from her book. 17th century Robert May’s hash of white crab with braised artichoke heart, marinated green asparagus and tomato caper relish kicked things off. It was followed by a comforting braised venison casserole with caramelised onion, candied carrots, roast new potatoes and redcurrant red wine jus, harking back to the 15th century. Desert was apple orange tart with ginger ice cream with blood orange sauce, a dish from Elinor Fettiplace’s 17th century “Receipt Book”. Then it was time for the great lady, herself, to talk about her book and answer questions.
It was the book she always wanted to write, she said, but her autobiography got in the way. She explores the types of food that people have eaten over the ages, looking at the shifting influences on English food as the British Empire waxed and waned and new immigrant communities made their contribution to the life of the country. Equally important are her stories of those who shaped public taste, from chefs to cookery writers to gourmets and gluttons whose lives centred on the dining table.
Above all it’s a personal book. She gives a vivid sense of what it was like to sit down to the meals of previous ages, whether an eighteenth-century labourer's breakfast, a twelve-course Victorian banquet or a frugal lunch during the Second World War. And of course, there’s the appendix of historical recipes – all tested, I’m sure, in her own kitchen.
Forget the dry and dusty tomes about British food, mouldering on library shelves, this is the book to get your taste buds glowing. Clarissa has written a racy and readable account of a thousand years of English cuisine and it makes an ideal Christmas present for maiden aunts, grannies and anyone else in the family. But at 500 pages, it’s not to be taken lightly – make sure they’re sitting down before you hand it over.
A History of English Food www.randomhouse.co.uk
Fairmont’s President Club www.fairmont.com
Savoy Hotel www.fairmont.com/savoy