I’ve been watching a TV cookery series called The Great British Menu, where professional cooks compete against each other through regional competitions to earn a place cooking at a prestigious banquet. In the heats there are three cooks from each region who have mini-competitions, course by course – starter, fish, entrée and dessert. They are judged by a more experienced chef, and the top two compete against each other, judged by a panel of ‘experts’.
Each year there is a different brief; this year it is all about celebrating the Queen’s ninetieth birthday, and showing how British food has changed over her years on the throne:
At a time when British cuisine is respected and revered around the world, the chefs are challenged to create dishes which could be a fitting legacy to our Modern Elizabethan Age. In the year the country celebrated the Queen’s 90th birthday, the chefs have been inspired by the transformation in British food throughout her historic reign, and by the achievements of Her Majesty’s Great Britons.
I have only watched the first week, an it has been interesting to see how the different chefs try to demonstrate how food has developed and changed – sometimes by choosing an old dish and revamping it in a modern style, sometimes by taking traditional local ingredients and presenting them in a different way, sometimes by thinking of a great local character for example a fisherman, a game keeper, the presenter of a local TV gardening programme. All of it of course is real high-end cooking, with the most advanced techniques which would be impossible to do at home.
However, I got to thinking… if I were planning a more modest version of the same thing, within my capabilities, budget and what i could get locally, what would I do?
I think for my starter I would look back to the fifties… what would have been available? The fifties, when the Queen came to the throne was not that long after the war, things would still have been rationed, but people would have been growing things in their back gardens and on their allotments. They might also have had chickens, as our neighbour did, and living in a country area, things like pigeon were cheap and available… so how about something on the lines of asparagus (my dad grew asparagus) and eggs and pigeon? Fancy chefs might confit things, which I guess I could do, or make a mousse, which I also could do and maybe add some extra flavourings like fennel… would fennel go with it all? A fennel mayonnaise maybe? Sourdough things seem to be popular so I could make some sourdough bread and serve confit’d pigeon breast with asparagus and fennel mayo?
Fish… think back to when the new Elizabethan age began… kippers… or herring (my favourite fish)… Most fancy chefs seem to cook things sous vide… well I couldn’t do that, but how could I make kippers or herring modern? Lots of menus seem to have an ingredient served ‘three ways’ so a Scandi style pickled herring, something elegant with a kipper, and then something amazing with herring roe…
So… on to the main course; meat in the 1950’s – once it had come off the ration then I’m sure there was plenty available; however chicken was then a luxury, lamb was rare but there was plenty of mutton, so maybe something muttony… In the 1948 HMT Empire Windrush arrived bringing the first West Indian people coming over to help fill the labour shortages after the war, and through the successive decades more people came to work, many from the Indian sub-continent. Mutton and spices are a brilliant combination, so I think I would make some sort of ‘refined’ mutton curry – with a Caribbean or Asian ‘twist’ – and going back to the allotment thought, lots of lovely local/regional seasonal vegetables.
So dessert… well, what has endured over the decades is the British love of puds… so it would be just a case of choosing something, maybe after a mutton curry a lemon meringue pie (not deconstructed) or a lemon pudding – the recipe my mum used which has a lovely tart sauce in the bottom of the dish! Served with clotted cream maybe!