Cookbooks

There’s No Such Thing as True 'British Cuisine'

Culinary anthropologist Anna Colquhoun’s new book, Gather Cook Feast: Recipes from Land and Water, explores how British food has been shaped by season, migration, cooking techniques, and global cuisines.

by Eleanor Langdale; photos by Liz Seabrook
03 July 2017, 9:25am

The shelf above Anna Colquhoun's North London kitchen table is a neat history of the round-the-world food journey she took with her husband in 2008. There's a plastic kettle from West Africa, a Hungarian earthenware pot, tagine dishes from Morocco, and a terracotta vessel she found in Turkey, used for cooking stuffed vine leaves.

"I did actually have a big phase of stuffing vine leaves after bringing that back!" Colquhoun assures me.

But we're here to discuss subjects a little closer to home. Along with Jessica Seaton, co-founder of the lifestyle brand Toast, Colquhoun recently released Gather Cook Feast: Recipes from Land and Water, a cookbook that "evokes the landscapes of the British Isles" by showcasing underused native ingredients like foraged mushrooms, quince, and wild garlic. The recipes are divided into categories—freshwater, saltwater, home gardens, field and pasture, woodland, and uplands—and draw on traditional techniques like hot-smoking and fermenting.

"Something Jess and I agreed really early on is that there's no such thing as 'pure' British cuisine," says Colquhoun, adding that the Romans brought over most of what we think of as "British" vegetables. "The creative challenge of the book was in blending all kinds of different influences and finding nevertheless some rootedness in place."

Anna Colquhoun, co-author of Gather Cook Feast: Recipes from Land and Water, in her London kitchen.

One of the ways Colquhoun and Seaton achieved this was by connecting British landscapes to the seasons, often by instinct.

"Woodland just felt like autumn—with apples, wood smoke, game, and things," explains Colquhoun, nudging her cat from its napping place on her copy of the book to show me recipes for chestnut pancakes and apple soft cake. "And then uplands for winter when it's cold, but you can still think of beef stews and lamb, spicy things, and chocolate."

But for today, an afternoon in early summer, we'll be making a butter lettuce, courgette, and goat cheese salad.

Shaving courgette ribbons.

"It's kind of sad if our food is disconnected from place and time," Colquhoun muses. "So it's both an encouragement and a reminder that food is deeply connected to place and season. And if you eat like that it's more fun and more rewarding."

Gather Cook Feast is just the latest in a series of projects by Colquhoun, who describes herself as a "culinary anthropologist." She has written books and blogs, worked on the Radio 4 food programme The Kitchen Cabinet, and runs cookery classes and supper clubs from her kitchen.
"I can often say to visiting chefs looking for a certain piece of equipment, 'Funny you should say that, I've actually got one of those on my shelf!'" Colquhoun says.

One of those chefs, Mia Kristensen, used Colquhoun's kitchen to teach classes on translating New Nordic cuisine for the home cook.

"That got me interested in the whole idea of 'can you invent a cuisine?'" remembers Colquhoun. She is now halfway through a PhD on the anthropology of food at the School of Oriental and African Studies, exploring this very idea. Her research will soon see her head to Istria in Croatia, where she will run a culinary guesthouse while doing fieldwork into local food production.

"The practical side of cooking can seem far removed from the ivory towers of anthropology, but I've been trying to make them connect wherever possible," Colquhoun explains. "As any anthropologist or social scientist will tell you, everything is both global and local at the same time. Food is just a really good way to see that."

RECIPE: Butter Lettuce, Courgette, and Goat Cheese Salad

She grabs a bag of unfamiliar beans from the shelf to make her point. The black badger pea, among other varieties like the red fox, used to be a staple of British diets. Nowadays most British pulse farmers grow marrowfat peas and fava beans, and export much of their crop to North Africa and the Middle East.

"What excited me about Gather Cook Feast was coming up with recipes that excited me, Seaton, and everyone; and would be a bit new and different," says Colquhoun. "For me, that meant I couldn't help but include international influences."

Toasted sunflower seeds and zested lemon.

This led her to create dishes like spicy breakfast peas, which is based on an Ethiopian ful medames and swaps fava beans for black badger peas.

Back to our summer salad and Colquhoun is toasting sunflower seeds and zesting lemons into slim ribbons. She also sets a whole slab of butter to melt for the dressing.

There's not much I can do to help so I flip through the book, looking at its evocative landscape photos of the areas around Seaton's coastal home. I admit to Colquhoun that they're making me feel a bit wistful.

Arranging the goat cheese over courgette strips and lettuce.

She agrees that much of the book is "very much Jessica, about how she grew up in the countryside and feeling a deep connection to places around the British Isles herself," but reminds me: "People use food in all sorts of little everyday ways, to create place. That might even be your routine for making coffee in the morning, or the route you take into town to get to your favourite pizza place."

We're looking out over her back garden patio as she says this. With its planted herb beds and single reluctant peach tree, it's more inner-city than cockle-sprouting coastline, but Colquhoun still uses it for her cooking as much as possible.

Lettuce, courgette, and goat cheese salad.

Like now, when she steps out to pluck purple sage flowers and mint to top the buttery lettuce.

"Now I'm adding my 'terroir' to the dish, making it my own and connecting it to my place," she says.

As we raise our forks to the colourful plate, mint and sage now decorating the goat cheese and greens, Colquhoun's place is one I'm more than happy to find myself in.

All photos by Liz Seabrook.