I was watching Antiques Roadshow at the weekend and some chap brought in an C18th* English silver sauce boat. The expert got excited because it was a rare early example; apparently before that point English food rarely had sauces but it was about then that some people started employing French cooks.
So far, reasonable enough and entirely plausible. But his explanation for why it should be so was that English ingredients were so good that they could be served plain and unadorned, whereas the French had developed a cuisine based around rich sauces in order to disguise the poor quality of the food. I’ve also heard almost exactly the same explanation for the heavy use of spices in Indian food and (English!) Tudor food: to disguise the flavour of meat that might have gone bad without refrigeration.
The trouble is, it’s obviously patronising crap. Bending over backwards to be fair: yes, with really good quality ingredients you can afford to just present them simply, and it’s a mistake to mess about with them too much. And yes, Britain has some very good quality basic ingredients; the rain makes it a great place to produce lamb, beef and dairy products, there’s some excellent seafood and good game, and some great fruit and veg like apples and asparagus and so on. For some of these products, the best quality stuff may have been better than the French equivalent.
But in a country where most people were peasants who were having a good year if they didn’t go hungry, I just don’t believe that the tiny elite who could afford to eat rich sauces and elaborate food were eating bad quality ingredients. That applies to C18th France, Tudor England and Mughal India. And with the Tudor refrigeration argument, I have to point out that most meat needs to be hung for a while – for several weeks, in the case of beef – to improve the flavour. It doesn’t exactly turn putrescent overnight, even without a refrigerator. The Indian climate presumably accelerates decay, but I still don’t believe that obtaining fresh meat was a problem for those with money. Conversely, however good the best British beef is, there must have been plenty of people in England eating all the crappy stuff that the aristos rejected.
It’s such a bizarre bit of unthinking snobbery to suggest that, just because British food is traditionally plain, anyone who cooks something more elaborate must have something to hide. It’s like suggesting that the Italians cook pizza to disguise the poor quality of their bread. A few decades ago, when few British people had any experience of all that fancy foreign muck, I can imagine the argument seemed plausible. But now we all eat Indian and Thai and Chinese and French and Italian food by choice, you’d think it would have become obvious that people like the flavour of spices and that people like rich sauces. These things don’t need any special justification.
I know I’m probably spending too much time on a trivial point, but I’m always baffled when I hear people confidently repeat arguments that must surely ring false even somewhere in their own heads.