Foriegn Food


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.

A Rationing Hero


Lord Woolton. Photo from the E. Chambré Hardman Archive.

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.

Inspirational Food Historian


Dorothy Hartley. Photo by Ron Thomson.

Dorothy Hartley (1893- 1985) was a very interesting woman and her book Food in England qualifies her as a top-notch food heroine.

She was born in Skipton, Yorkshire where her father Rev. Hartley was the headmaster at the local grammar school.  She went to Nottingham Art School but the First World War interrupted her training and she worked in a munitions factory for a while.  After the War she worked as an art teacher.  In 1933 she settled in Froncysyllte, North East Wales and lived there until her death at the age of 92.

Her interest in social history resulted in several books but the best (in my opinion) is Food in England, which was first published in 1954.  It is a big book, packed full of information about food history and highly readable.  It includes, for example, instructions on how to smoke and salt a ham, descriptions of various breeds of cattle, a text on Medieval table manners and a discussion of the causes of malnutrition during the Industrial Revolution.  All the way through the book she includes recipes, illustrations and puts food into its historical and social context.   Her definition of “English” is rather elastic and there are plenty of references to Irish, Scottish and Welsh food.

I bought my copy of Miss Hartley’s book this summer and it has taught me everything I need to know about blackberries.  On page 427 is a drawing is of a blackberry cluster along with her useful observations about the fruit.  She tells us that the fruit at the tip of the clusters ripen first.  These are soft, juicy and best eaten raw.  The next ones to ripen are better cooked in puddings or made into jams.  As the season progresses the fruit at the rear of the cluster ripens and the proportion of pulp to seed reduces.  These later berries should be cooked with apples, if eaten at all.  I love her carefully researched practical guidance and I love that her last book was published when she was 86.  There is time for me yet!

Artificial Refrigeration


It is very easy to take fridges and freezers for granted but before the 1970s most British homes had neither.  People have used natural ice to cool food for centuries, which was fine when it was available.  An important breakthrough was the development of machines that could make ice artificially.  After a lot of experimentation these machines began to be used in industry in the mid-19th century.  I want to look at two of the many people who contributed to refrigeration technology.

James Harrison who set up the ice-making industry in Australia.

James Harrison (1816-1893) was a Scot who went to Australia to set up a printing press.  Apparently, while he was using ether to clean the blocks of type he noticed that the metal became cold.  He must have had an inventive mind because in the 1850s he filed patents for an ice-making machine and an ether vapor-compression refrigeration system.  Vapor-compression systems work because a refrigerant (in this case ether) is circulated around a series of pipes absorbing heat and then releasing that heat elsewhere.

His invention kick started the ice-making  business but more work was needed before domestic refrigerators became common.  It wasn’t just the unreliable and potentially dangerous nature of the early machines.  The lack of electrical wiring in British homes was a major obstacle. The USA was a bit more advanced in this respect, which is where Mary Engle Pennington(1872–1952) lived.

Dr. Mary Engle Pennington.

Mary worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and conducted research on refrigeration.  Not only did she do the research she also explained it to the public, publishing booklets about the correct storage of perishable foods and, in 1923, founding the Household Refrigeration Bureau, which promoted the safe use of domestic refrigeration. Later in her career she was involved in the design and construction of domestic refrigerators and refrigerated warehouses.

Back in Britain electrical fridges were pretty rare until later in the 20th century. As people gradually replaced larders, cellars and ice-boxes with consistently cold humming white boxes it changed not only how we stored food but also how we shop and what we eat.

Booking onto a WEA course


I started writing this blog because I will be teaching a WEA course this autumn about food history in Britain.  It will be running on Thursday mornings in Brookmans Park, Hertfordshire.  And, while blogging is fine, it is more fun to learn with other people.

The WEA in the Eastern Region is moving towards doing things on-line, for example they have recently launched themselves on Facebook and Twitter but, to book a place you still need to contact the local organiser directly.  You can do this by using committee@brookmansparkwea.org.uk .  A bit more information about the course can be found on page 10 of this PDF which is a booklet listing all the courses in Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire for 2012/13.   The course I will be running is called Food Heroes and costs £60 for 10 sessions starting on 25th September 2012.   I’d love to see you there.

Tin Can Pioneers


Bryan Donkin. The creative brain behind the first tin can factory.

The history of tinned food begins around 200 years ago.  The discovery that food could be preserved in airtight containers is normally credited to the French confectioner, Nicolas-François Appert (1749-1841).  He wrote a book about his experiments L’Art de Conserver Pendant Plusieur Années Toute les Substances Animales et Végétales  (The Art of Preserving Animal and Vegetable Substances for Many Years) and, in January 1810, he won 12,000 Francs for his invention.   A scientific understanding of bacteria didn’t come until the mid-19th century so Monsieur Appert’s method was based on knowledge of traditional preservation techniques and careful observation.  Despite his cleverness, I think that, the real heroes of tinned food were the people who developed his idea.

First there was Peter Durand who suggested metal instead of Appert’s glass jars.  He filed a patent for his tins in August 1810.  Next there was Bryan Donkin (1768-1855) who, with two partners, John Hall and Mr. Gamble, acquired this British patent.   In 1813 the firm Donkin, Hall and Gamble set up the world’s first tin can factory in Blue Anchor Lane, Bermondsey, London.  The tins they made were large, heavy and sealed by hand soldering.   There is a photo of one of their tins here.  During the 19th century the process of making tin cans was mechanised and later automated.  These changes meant that tinned food moved from being something bought only by polar explorers and the armed forces and became an everyday domestic staple.

An early tin can factory, possibly Donkin, Hall & Gamble. Image from http://www.colinslater.co.uk

Rather bizarrely the tin opener did not appear until 1855 when Robert Yates, a cutler and surgical instrument maker based in Middlesex and my final tin can hero, made a lever or claw tin opener.  Before then tins were often opened with a hammer and chisel.