I am teaching a food history day school for the WEA on Saturday 20th July in Leighton Buzzard. There are a few spaces left. £25 per person starting at 10am. If you are interested here are the booking details .
Born in Ayrshire he trained as a doctor at Glasgow University where he won a gold medal for his thesis. In 1913 he was appointed to oversee the development of a new research institute at Aberdeen University. This project was interrupted by the First World War during which he served in the Army as a doctor and was at the battles of the Somme and Passchendaele. Returning to Aberdeen in 1919 he used his considerable financial and persuasive skills to develop the Rowett Institute which was carrying out research into animal nutrition.
He was asked by the British government to investigate the idea of a national food policy and the resulting report, Food, Health and Income, was published in 1937. It made uneasy reading for those in government. It mustered considerable research to demonstrate that many people in Britain were simply too poor to eat a nourishing diet. The report stated,
“… a diet completed adequate for health according to modern standards is reached only at an income level above that of 50% of the population.” John Boyd Orr, Food, Health and Income, MacMillian, p.44
During World War Two he advised Lord Woolton and helped shape the wartime diet for the better. In 1945 he retired as the Director of the Rowett Institute and began a new international career becoming as the first Director General of the Food and Agricultural Organisation. He proposed a World Food Board to distribute food to where it was needed. It was an ambitious plan and when it failed Orr resigned in disappointment. It may have been a Utopian plan but you have to love him for trying.
When I was a girl I lived in Singapore and one of my fondest food memories is of eating gula melaka, a pudding made of sago, palm sugar and coconut milk.
Until recently I was unaware of how much work went into producing the sago pearls that are the basic ingredient in this pudding. The transformation from palm tree into edible starch is such an unlikely process that I am nominating the unknown (at least to me) food technologists who discovered it. In some parts of the world people have been eating sago for hundreds of years so they certainly wouldn’t have called themselves food technologists but that is what they were.
Sago appears to have made its way to Britain during the 18th century, presumably via British ships trading in South East Asia. Cookery books from this time include recipes for sweet sago puddings made with milk, cream, eggs, lemons and spices. The 19th century cookery icon Mrs Beeton gives a recipe for a savoury sago soup and she gives a great description of the sago making process,
“In order to procure it, the tree is felled and sawn into pieces. The pith is then taken out, and put in receptacles of cold water, where it is stirred until the flour separates from the filaments, and sinks to the bottom, where it is suffered to remain until the water is poured off, when it is taken out and spread on wicker frames to dry. To give it the round granular form in which we find it comes to this country, it is passed through a colander, then rubbed into little balls, and dried.”
Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861 p.79
During the 19th century Singapore was a centre for sago processing and the National Archives of Singapore has more information including oral histories with people who worked in the sago processing industry.
N.B. Sago and tapioca are very similar and can be used interchangeably but they come from different plants. Sago is made from palms (and palm like plants) while tapioca comes from the root of the cassava.
“If I had my way – and I shan’t – my Christmas Day eating and drinking would consist of an omelette and cold ham and a nice bottle of wine at lunchtime, and a smoked salmon sandwich with a glass of champagne on a tray in bed in the evening.” From Elizabeth David’s Christmas (2003) edited by Jill Norman, p.11.
Hooray for Elizabeth David (1913-1992). I love her for wanting to go against the grain and, in the current frenzy of Christmas preparations, the quote above is a refreshing reminder that the simple pleasures are often the best.
Elizabeth David’s Book of Mediterranean Food (1950) is often cited as the book that began to transform British cookery after the Second World War. My Mum had a copy and I am sure we ate better because of it. If that was the only book she wrote, it would be enough for her to qualify as a food heroine but she produced many other beautifully research books that are written in a way that makes you want to taste the food she describes. My favourites are Summer Cooking (1955), English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977) and The Harvest of the Cold Months: the social history of ice and ices (1994).
She knew her own mind and, although I know that she often spent Christmas with her sister’s family, I suspect that sometimes she did get her wish and retired to bed with a glass of champagne. To find out more about her character and her rather adventurous life read Lisa Chaney’s biography Elizabeth David or the one by Artemis Cooper, Writing at the Kitchen Table.
In this week’s class we looked at foreign influences on British food. My aim was to show that today’s British food is a result of our wider history.
If you deconstruct “traditional British” foods the foreign influence becomes evident. Today a mug of builders’ tea seems a very British thing but neither the tea nor the sugar is originally from Britain. Similarly ginger cake can hardly be considered foreign although McVitie’s recognise its origins by labelling their version “Jamaican Ginger Cake”. These examples illustrate how we have incorporated foreign ingredients and adapted food traditions from abroad.
In the class we touched, briefly, on the history of the East India Company and the spice trade. The East India Company was incredibly influential in establishing the British Empire. It also had an impact on British Food. To find out more about the history of the East India Company listen to this episode of In Our Time.
If you want to go further back in history and understand about what happened before Britain was British then I would recommend the book A Taste of History. This will tell you how the Romans introduced plums, cabbages, onions and much more, that citrus fruits were first imported during the late 13th century and tomatoes during the 16th century.
It is Remembrance Day and I want to honour all the men and women that kept the British population well fed during the Second World War.
First among many was Lord Woolton (1883-1964) who was the Minister of Food between April 1940 and November 1943. He helped to make rationing a success and must be one of the few politicians to have given his name to a pie, the Woolton Pie.
He is a food hero because he helped to apply the new scientific knowledge of nutrition to rationing, organised a system that worked and helped people to make the most of the ingredients that were available. The radio broadcasts, cookery demonstrations and leaflets produced during the War were particularly important. You can listen to a 1942 broadcast, the Buggins Family on the Kitchen Front on the BBC’s website.
Born in Salford, Frederick Marquis (he didn’t become Lord Woolton until 1939) was educated at the Manchester Grammar School and later the University of Manchester. He began his working life as a teacher then, in 1909, he took a job in Liverpool as the warden at the Liverpool University Settlement, a social welfare project. He stayed in Liverpool and went to work for Lewis’s, a big department store, becoming director in 1928 and chairman in 1936. By the time the Second World War broke out he had already been involved in a number of government committees.
Important lessons had been learnt from the First World War, when rationing was introduced but it had been too little and too late. By the time the Second World War broke out the government was much better prepared.
There were shortages during the War, the diet may have been dull and queuing common but people were fed. That in itself was an achievement. The fact that rationing helped improve the diet of so many people is downright impressive.
During the War Lord Woolton stayed out of party politics. His strong Unitarian Christian beliefs drew him towards social reform and a welfare sate but as businessman he was anxious about too much government intervention in the economy. After the War he joined the Conservatives and was the party chairman for many years.
Born in London he was educated at the Borough Jewish school in the East End. He had worked in various roles before being approached by some distance relatives to run a tea pavilion at the Newcastle Jubilee Exhibition in 1887. The Gluckstein brothers and their business partner Barnett Salmon had noticed that the refreshments on offer at this type of big exhibition were poor. They thought that they could do better and invited Joseph Lyons to front the business.
Catering at exhibitions proved so successful that a public company was founded, J. Lyons & Co, and, in 1894, the first Lyon’s teashop opened at 213 Piccadilly, London. By 1914 there were 180 Lyons teashops in city centres across England, more than any other company.
The teashops popularity was due to the fact that they served simple food in clean surroundings at affordable prices. Joseph Lyon’s sense of showmanship also contributed to their success. The teashops were beautifully decorated (red wallpaper, gas chandeliers and a fair amount of gold paint) and the waitresses (who became known as “nippies”) wore smart uniforms.
In 1909 the first of the larger Lyon’s Corner Houses appeared. These were fancier establishments designed in an Art Deco style and included mini-food halls as well as several types of restaurant.
The last Lyons teashop closed in 1981.