The roast beef of old England

Roast Beef

In the lifetimes of quite a few of our readers English food was regarded by many foreigners as quite awful and not so long ago Jacques Chirac, as French president, sneered publicly at how we fed ourselves (only the Finns, he claimed, ate worse). Of course, he was behind the times. Since the sixties there’s been a big change: Brits have travelled all over Europe and beyond, Johnny Foreigner has crossed the Channel in huge number and, literally, revolutionised our tastes. Putting aside patriotic defensiveness, it has to be admitted that previously, except in some upper class households and restaurants, English food was not very enticing. Why so? Historians of food usually offer two explanations: first, Britain industrialised earlier than other European nations and did so quickly; in France, much of the population remained in touch much longer with traditional kitchen practice (though the quality of la cuisine paysanne should not be exaggerated); second, in a development facilitated by a commitment to free trade, the UK came to rely on massive imports of processed food, especially canned (and later frozen) meat. Inevitably, traditional culinary skills were lost.

Across the last few decades not only have exotic dishes become familiar (until recently, Chicken Tikka Masala was the nation’s favourite main course) but the menus of Old England, real or imaginary, were revived. Even in France there’s a history (not always encouraging) of English-style eateries. I’m delighted to welcome a new arrival: Menton’s English Teahouse (at 34 avenue de Gaulle). I’ve already eaten there a couple of times. They’re especially proud of their roast beef, which from the later 18th century was regarded as a signature British dish, free of all those dodgy sauces favoured by the French.

Photo by: adactio