Elegant Edwardian style dinners with many courses such as seen on the television show Downton Abbey, fish and chips wrapped in a newspaper cone, a grab and go chicken tikka on white bread sandwich, Sunday roast with root veg: all these are part of what comes to mind when people speak of British cooking. They are all, indeed, part of what you may find as you explore Great Britain. By no means though are they the definition or the limit of the sort of food you find in the there.
Jamie Oliver is one of Britain’s best known chefs, a man whose informal style and commitment to sustainability, as well as his sense of fun and off the wall sense of humour, have defined his presence in the world of food. In his restaurants and projects he’s explored the cuisines of France, Italy, and his own homegrown garden, and taken on school cafeteria food in the US as well as regional styles of cooking in America from Texas barbecue to New York street food to Native American cooking in the southwest. Oliver grew up in his parents’ pub in England, though, and it’s to the food of his native Great Britain he turns in Jamie Oliver’s Great Britain.
It proves a good read even if you never do a hand’s turn in the kitchen. The photographs, photo essays, and Oliver’s lively introductions to the recipes are as engaging as the recipes themselves.
That’s not to slight those recipes., all one hundred thirty of them. There are are classic dishes for exploring the food of the British Isles, bubble and squeak (that’s potato based dish with a great use for leftover veg, in case you were wondering) Sunday roast, and potato scones from Scotland among them. There are Oliver’s signature ideas — Will and Kate’s Wedding Pie, for example, and ER’s Diamond Jubilee Chicken. Oliver goes afield with a fine two page photo essay on Scotland’s lochs and fishing in them to accompany his chapter on fish and shellfish, and there are photo spreads on the Yemeni community in Wales and a Jamaican chef in Bristol amid recipes which play off these ideas.
There’s plenty of emphasis on natural, sustainable foods and the people who farm and raise them and bring them to market, but Jamie Oliver’s Great Britain isn’t a treatise on any of this. Oliver’s tone as natural, rather as if an eager and ebullient man who really loves food and the sharing of it is sitting at your kitchen table telling you about how he came to create a dish, or why he might make it for his wife for a romantic evening, or how a friend introduced him to this ingredient, or why his kids like it, or how he remembers this dish from growing up and isn’t this an interesting spin on it?
The recipes are for the most part presented on one page each with a facing page of a photograph of the dish. Photographer David Loftus is a master at this sort of photography, setting food in away that tells its own story. If you’re photographer at all, you’ll want to study how he makes this happen — it’s as important to the narrative, and to what you learn of Great Britain through food as is Oliver’s prose. Loftus is in charge of the photo essays too, which are usually two page spreads, some direct narratives of farmers, chefs, or experiences and others showing Oliver at work and with his family. Those latter, in less skilled hands, could come off as self indulgent or throw away, but in this case they add to the story.
It is a story, the sort told over good cooking in the kitchen. Listen to Oliver talking of his recipes for vegetables:: “Because England has four very distinct seasons and spring is often slow in coming, our vegetables have plenty of time to develop their flavors. And when they do come into season, they’re an absolute joy to eat. So with this bundle of recipes I’m giving you the things I enjoy cooking and feeding my family over the course of a year. This is all about bigging up great vegetables, making them even more beautiful to eat, and giving you really quick recipes for things like asparagus, green runner beans, exciting mashes and comforting au gratin sweet leeks or creamed spinach You can serve these dishes with food from other chapters, but in actual fact some of these recipes are so good you could easily eat them on their own.” In fact, though the food of Great Britain is traditionally heavy on meats and there’s plenty of that in the recipes, there are many dishes through the book that work well for vegetarian kitchens too.
There are fourteen chapters, among them sections on breakfast, pub grub, salads, one called new British classics, a section of wild food dishes, a soup chapter, one of salads, and one called Sunday lunch. All in all, Jamie Oliver’s Great Britain is a well told tale that’ll add to your understanding not only of the food of Great Britain, but about how and why it’s shared. Whether you are a cook or no, it’s a journey worth the taking,
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