Fish & Quips: Cooking of the British Isles

Originally, the plan was to kick off Tine Life with American Cooking: The Northwest. Living in Seattle and having grown up in Oregon, it seemed a logical beginning. But, as someone more sensible than I pointed out, January and February is a terrible time of year to feature my home region. The Northwest truly shines in the summer or fall.

So what cuisine do you feature in the winter? Scandinavia and Russia were briefly considered before I settled on Cooking of the British Isles. Over the last ten years I’ve visited friends and traveled in the United Kingdom more than any other country, save Canada. Even in those ten years I’ve seen dramatic changes in the quality and availability of fresh and interesting food in Britain.

I’m not pointing out anything new when I say that, historically, British food has had a terrible reputation. What most people don’t think about, is that like in every other food culture, they were constrained by climate, geography and the limited native flora and fauna. British food culture is a reflection of a harsh climate, subsistence-level farming and industry, making do with what you have, and creative ways of preserving food. On the flip side, it’s also a dramatic product of colonial influences, from tea to potatoes to Indian spices. The fingerprints of the far-flung British Empire are everywhere—and so many iconic British foods would not exist if not for centuries of colonial influence.

From my own experience, in the west we’ve forgotten so much in the last fifty years with regard to the fragility of our food supply, our expectations of seasonality and availability, and focusing on simple foods that rely on thoughtful use and reuse of ingredients. I’ve tried to keep those ideas in mind when selecting the recipes to share from Cooking of the British Isles, contrasting them with the recipes of the modern British chef, and asking my British and expat friends to share their ideas and thoughts on modern British cuisine.

What does the month have in store? Thanks to the birthday of Robert Burns falling in January I was able to feature haggis, shepherd’s pie and rumbledethumps are excellent examples of dishes born of repurposing leftovers, and how can you think of Britain without featuring both tea and their excellent cheeses?

And all seriousness aside, the editors of Time Life Foods of the World had some really crazy ideas about what made good food photography. I’m sure this will not be the last book to feature a variety of unique ideas for staging food attractively—and I can’t wait to show you some of that insanity.