Starting this autumn I have really been making an effort to use seasonal produce. We did reasonably well last year, the first time that I had made a concious effort every time I went shopping, but I found our diet a little bland and lacking in variety. I don't wish to besmirch my country's culinary heritage, but I can't say I find it particularly inspiring. 'British' cooking is meat and dairy heavy, and fruit and veg have taken a back burner to the extent that I would argue that we really don't know what we are doing with them, at least when it comes to maximising their flavour and nutritional value. We do meat well, especially in joint form. We produce some amazing cheeses. We do a nice line in comfort puddings too - suet puddings, fruit pies, and cakes feature heavily and what's not to like about that? Obviously there are regional differences too between Scotland, Wales, Ireland and England.
I would say the majority of Britain no longer cooks 'British', bar the odd roast. The popularity of bolognese, lasagna and other pasta dishes, as well as kormas, stir frys, fajitas and chilli con carne against steak and kidney pie and 'native' fish dishes is evident in TV cookery shows, magazines and restaurant menus. This isn't all bad, but there is a problem with trying to eat this diet all year round.
A recent post at Casaubon's book posed the idea that taking inspiration from the seasonal dishes of other nations can help you make the most of the seasonal produce you have. The operative word being seasonal. I remember from A- Level geography that the classification of world climate and biotic zones is more complicated than I would ever care to remember, but I know that to eat Italian style food all year round in a climate such as ours requires us to import out of season produce for most of it. Looking to the cuisines of Northern and Eastern Europe makes sense then when you want to cook a cabbage more imaginitively than steaming it. I have saved my Encyclopedia of Eastern European food from the eBay pile. It's full of delicious recipes that use our familiar winter vegetables. A lot are admittedly meat and dairy heavy, but there are also plenty of fish dishes, 'peasant dishes' with pulses and vegetables and delicious fruit deserts. Last night I made a stew of seasonal root vegetables with sweet and warming smoked parika. A stew made with imported bell peppers and basil or oregano just wouldn't have cut the mustard on a brisk rainy day like today.
I have a feeling I am not quite as well informed as I might be about British food traditions. I admit a prejudice against many of our great traditional recipes because my system just can't handle that much meat and dairy every day (except Stilton cheese, I can eat that on oatcakes until the cows come home. Or I am hospitalised with gout, whichever comes sooner). I recognise that British foods survived deepening wartime rationing for well over ten years, which would ravage any food culture. I think we are missing something by eschewing our traditional grains for breakfast cereals and tons of pasta; and tea and cake for instant coffee and 'blueberry' muffins. But for all my searching, I can't find any evidence that we know how to use carrots or chard, sprouts, beetroot, spinach, turnip, tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, beans, marrows, mushrooms, watercress or pumpkin, or the culinary herbs that grow so well here to bring out the very best in them and make them the focus of a feast. In a world where we are going to be increasingly reliant upon local seasonal produce from lower down the food chain to sustain us, we need to know how to make food for the body and the soul. On that front, I think, we might need a little help from our international friends.