Pie Fidelity

Pete Brown

Particular Books, £16.99

There may have been a good food revolution in Britain over the last couple of decades, but for chatty and affable foodie Pete Brown the downside is that it’s also “a reaction against traditional British food”. It’s a party to which the Cornish pasty and the Yorkshire pudding haven’t been invited. The problem is not that British food has a bad global reputation, so much as that the British themselves have internalised it. Other cultures defend their cuisines proudly. We acquiesce.

Subtitled “in defence of British food”, Pie Fidelity explores why that is, outlining some complex historical factors (such as the Industrial Revolution taking off earlier and on a grander scale than in other European countries, the simultaneous invention of refrigeration and the rail network, misguided commercial decisions) while indulging Brown’s taste for the working-class comfort food that reconnects him with his roots. He may be a middle-class metropolitan food writer now, but Brown was raised in Barnsley, where a superior pork pie and mushy peas really was the prince of foods. If the peasant fare of France symbolises “authenticity, integrity and unpretentiousness”, he asks, why should British working-class food not be accorded the same respect?

Brown whittles his classics down to eight: fish and chips, Sunday roast, English breakfast, pork pie and mushy peas, cream tea, spaghetti bolognese, chicken tikka masala and the cheese sandwich. A bonus ninth dish, rhubarb crumble, is included in deference to his wife, Liz, known around Stoke Newington as “the crumble lady”. In his quest to find definitive examples, he sought the “typical” rather than the “best” – so no overpriced gastronomic reinventions here.

All come with their own histories, in which class tends to play a major part. It’s fascinating to discover that Edward IV made breakfast illegal for anyone under the rank of squire, or that the yeomanry were responsible for making beef a national dish, while nobles feasted on game and peasants subsisted on pork. Or that the upper classes were so keen to keep their tea-drinking rituals distinct from those of the poor that for a brief time “it was fashionable to drink from the saucer rather than the cup”. Over time, he gains an understanding of what characterises British cuisine: an emphasis on skill and practicality over artistry and flourish; doing a simple thing well and bringing out a dish’s character rather than smothering or distracting from it.

Alongside the history, Brown’s emphasis on the social importance of communal eating is interwoven with his strong sense of his own Yorkshire-forged identity. The former Barnsley schoolboy who expressed his ambitions for a better life by cutting his sandwiches diagonally instead of horizontally chose to sample his “definitive” cream tea at a prim tearoom in Ilfracombe so that he could once again be that working-class kid “with every intention of sneering back at them”. Not that a book this stuffed with juicy, mouth-watering food writing was ever going to be dull, but Brown’s combativeness makes it especially lively and spirited.