Pete Brown is first and foremost a beer writer and so this book all about food is something of a departure. The premise is simple – he takes nine of what he considers Britain’s most iconic dishes from the humble pie to crumble, seeks out a typical example and provides a hodge-podge of musings on each dish, including the history of the ingredients. The ‘defence’ element is largely targeted with friendly rivalry at the French and with less friendly irritation at certain British food experts and writers who Brown regards as valuing authenticity over any notion of what actually tastes good – an obsession that he says slips into snobbishness.
Because of this latter element the book is as much about class as it is about food and Brown is vehement in his defence of working-class eating habits. His own move into the middle-classes is a persistent occupation and he is at pains to confess that he now lives in north London’s gentrified Stoke Newington – a guilt that can become a touch wearing. That said, it is descriptions of Brown’s working-class childhood that provide the book its poignant moments and through them he carefully balances a celebration of traditional British eating habits with an honest appraisal of the less appetising elements of 1970s cuisine. A description of sandwich filling pressed against the cling film wrapper ‘like the distorted features of a bank robber in a stocking mask’ is a particular favourite.
The book falls down when it comes to the celebration of food because Brown doesn’t employ the sumptuous vocabulary that the very best food writers use to get their readers salivating. Here jam is described as ‘fruity’, cream as ‘smooth’. Bread ‘has the flavour and feel of bread...’ Nevertheless, there is a pleasing chattiness to Brown’s tone. He writes as he might speak: ‘Whatever. I want more of this jam-cream-scone action.’
This is hardly a necessary book and most people reading will already be a fan of the British staples Brown describes. Some chapters work much better than others (I was intrigued to see if Brown could carry off an entire chapter on a cheese sandwich and I remain unconvinced). But as a celebration of the ‘slightly tatty independent’ businesses of England, the cream-tea cafés of Devon and the pie shops of Barnsley, it’s an exercise in nostalgia well-done.
Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our weekly newsletter and get a free collection of eBooks!