John Evelyn would find our agonies about food all too familiar. He was impressed with the modern ‘miracles of art’ whereby plants were forced in hot beds and meats and fish were preserved for months or years; but nothing tasted better or was more wholesome than fresh ingredients. He was preoccupied by healthy diets, noting that ‘husbandmen and laborious people [were] more robust and longer lived than others of an uncertain, extravagant diet’. Others, from the 16th century through to the 18th, who were lucky or rich enough to be able to eat wild produce, rated their taste far above cultivated or reared foods. They hated that the seasons were being blurred by technological advances in preserving foodstuffs; that commercialisation of the food market led to bland standardisation; that man was losing touch with nature. With these boons came forgetfulness; in 1827 one writer noted that many former staples — borage, burnet, fennel, caraway, mangetout, peas, saffron and sorrel — were disappearing from the tables of the lower classes as tastes became homogenised.
If the subtitle of Joan Thirsk’s book — ‘Phases, Fads, Fashions’ — sounds eerily modern, it is apt for the period that it covers, 1500-1760. For there was nothing static in English cuisine. Indeed, Thirsk emphasises the wide diversity of tastes and the restless search for culinary novelty among people of all classes. For the poor, variety came from the seasons, from the obligations to eat fish on certain days and from the wonderful inventiveness of people who scoured for herbs, plants and wild meats. Those who measure diet by agricultural supply alone forget how much wild produce there is, and just how skilled people once were in getting it and preparing it.
And to look simply at supply is to undervalue demand — or the relish for diversity. The expansion of trade brought a world of new ingredients and tastes. That there was an influx of foreign foods during the early modern period is no doubt a commonplace; Thirsk’s great achievement is to show how eagerly English men and women seized upon new ingredients and adapted them to the national palate. Fashions and fads came and went quickly. Jerusalem artichokes were the height of style in the 1580s because they were new, but within a few years ‘even the vulgar despised them’.
Every page of this book evinces Thirsk’s love of the subject. She aims to bring us closer to the daily experience of cooks and diners in this period, and she marshals not only the knowledge of a long and distinguished career as an agricultural historian but also a lifetime’s experience as a cook to do this. Her picture of 17th-century English cookery is supported by her personal observations of modern Spanish, Slovenian and Greek peasant techniques. The pains that poor people in some modern societies go to extract flavour from inferior ingredients cooked with rudimentary equipment has more than an echo in the scant records of the extinct English peasantry.
This is a story of wealthy foodies blazing a trail — inspired by scientific/medical curiosity, dietary concerns and the demands of their stomachs — on one side, and the rural poor on the other, making the best of what they could find. Thirsk is wary of making generalisations about food culture, quite rightly given the multiplicity of individual tastes and regional specialities. Her book is divided into a chronological survey of the literature and a detailed analysis of not only the habits of different classes and regions but also of the foods themselves, and how recipes changed over time. I consider myself an adventurous cook, but this book left me both hungry and with the feeling that my repertoire was embarrassingly conservative. It is a revealing fact that in the past 225 different foods made up the human diet; 90 per cent of our calorie intake comes from just 18.
Everyone serious about food should read this wonderful book, for inspiration no less than enjoyment. It is thanks to books like this that we can expand our own range. Surely this is happening — at least in chic restaurants, among keen groups of amateurs and on television programmes (which entertain more than they edify). Yet it is not less certain that uniformity, unadventurousness and waste characterise our age, for all passing fads. One 17th-century writer praised his wife: ‘She would have divers dishes of meat with little cost, yet so dressed and ordered as made them grateful and pleasing to all.’ And in that throwaway line is encapsulated the virtues of gastronomy — improvisation and thrift. Of all that is worth recovering from the past, that surely is the most valuable.
Ben Wilson’s latest book is Decency and Disorder (Faber, £25).
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 14, 2007