Eggs and cheese have been a mainstay of British eating for centuries, making up many a large family meal, bar snack or savoury. They are enjoyed by rich and poor alike and the recipes of this second chapter of English Food are cast by Jane with a very wide net: light soufflés, omelettes (which are as English as they are French, by the way), patés that use up cheesy odds and ends and rich savouries enjoyed by ladies.
Cheesemaking and dairy farming used to be a vital part of British food culture; but when Jane was writing English Food, the masses were having to buy most of their cheese plastic wrapped in perfect squares in supermarkets. Of course we still do now, but the cheese aisles are now teeming with real cheeses too, made traditionally and coming from all over Europe. Parmesan cheese is no longer found ground and dried and smelling of socks and tasting of nought; the real McCoy can be found almost anywhere.
In the 1980s cheesemaking was having a comeback – traditional methods were being used, including the use of unpasteurised milk. Those who liked proper food propelled what was quite a niche market of micro-made cheeses right back into the forefront, eventually landing on our supermarket shelves in large amounts several decades later.
Gloucester Ale & Cheese
We all shop in supermarkets, I certainly don’t pretend otherwise, but nothing can be better than buying your cheese from a proper cheese shop or stall. Manchester folk: my two favourites are The Cheese Hamlet in Didsbury and Winter Tarn. Winter Tarn is a Cumbrian company that seeks out the best British cheeses and travels around the north of England selling those cheeses in little markets, and they pop up at Levenshulme Market every week.
Whether it’s farmhouse Cheddar, double Gloucester, Cornish Yarg or Stinking Bishop you’re after, British cheeses have never been better, but for the best, then as now, you must look beyond the refrigeration section of your local Tesco.
In the 1970s and 80s, our eggs were in a right old state – there was intense over-crowding and the chickens were fed a meal made from the carcasses of dead birds. Quality of life, and egg, was very low, and because of the sheer number of chickens in one place, it didn’t take long for disease to spread. In this case it was the bacterium (SE) that killed many chickens and quite a few humans too. Coupling this with the fact that eggs from different ‘farms’ and of different ages were being mixed up together, the source of an outbreak couldn’t be found readily.
All this was addressed by the British government in the 1990s – chickens are now vaccinated against SE and with the introduction of the Lion Quality code, which allows each individual egg to be easily traced back to its origin, outbreaks could be tackled swiftly. Only one percent of eggs get contaminated nowadays, and even then the number of bacterial cells averages out at around 10 per egg – so you’d have to be pretty unlucky to become ill.
personally, only go for free range; I feel far too guilty about the conditions they have to endure and I can’t bring myself to buy anything less. The best eggs are those you can get from farmers’ markets, and are usually pretty cheap too.
This chapter contains recipes that have become a mainstay of my cooking. Of greatest note, is that special combination of cheese and egg, the soufflé, and Jane’s recipe is a very good and versatile one. You just can’t beat it, and they are not anywhere as tricky to make as you might think. There are Glamorgan sausages too (who needs a nasty vegetarian sausage when you can have these!?) and an 18th Century bacon and egg pie that transported me right back to my Primary School dinner hall.
A Fricassee of Eggs
There have been lows too, one recipe in this chapter has achieved my only zero score so far. The English Rarebit was disgusting: toast soggy with hot red wine, topped with congealed cheese. What were they thinking!?
As usual, here are all the recipes listed as they appear in the book with links to each post on the blog with their score. It turned out to be a pretty average chapter with a mean score of 6.7 (and median and mode of 7.0).
#2 Glamorgan Sausages 6/10
#155 Welsh Rabbit 6.5/10
#75 Lockets Savoury 6.5/10
#351 Potted Cheese 7/10
#138 Cheese Soufflé 8.5/10
#413 Fish Soufflé 9/10
#214 Meat Soufflé 8.5/10
#229 Vegetable Soufflé 8.5/10
#57 Asparagus Omelette 6.5/10
#407 Seftons 8/10