There is an enduring myth that English food has always been somewhat bland and flavourless, and that the English palate has traditionally favoured foods lacking in spices and seasonings. The contemporary widespread enthusiasm for spicy foods is seen as a recent development, which has come about largely thanks to post-war immigration.
The notion of English food being bland is, however, historically illiterate and largely rests upon associating the austerity foods of the war-torn twentieth century with all of English cooking. As this article in The Economist rightly notes, ‘the bland, overboiled, boarding-school food of the mid-20th century, far from representing the real English palate, as many believe, was the product of hardship and not a lack of imagination’.
At least as far back as the Middle Ages, English food has employed a wide variety of seasonings and spices. It wasn’t the case that English people in general disliked such ‘foreign’ flavours, but rather that they were largely the preserve of the wealthy. Prior to the advent of modern globalisation, acquiring these varied flavours took a lot of effort and cost a lot of money:
Spices were very much a luxury commodity, especially in medieval England and Europe as a whole. Spices were much sought-after and highly prized so it was not surprising to find that they featured heavily in the banquet menus of Europe’s noble and rich families. Indeed, the royal courts of Europe relished the use of spices in their food.
Spices and spicy foods were a mark not only of sophistication but also of social status:
The importation of spices resulted in a highly spiced cuisine for the nobility and spices were seen as a sign of wealth. The higher the rank of a household, the greater its use of spices. Spices were not only extensively used in the preparation of food but they were also passed around on a ‘spice platter’. Guests at banquets took additional spices from the spice platter and added them to their already spiced food.
Spices used in recipes of the time included black pepper, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, mace, allspice, cardamom, cubeb, spikenard, and saffron.
While the ‘common man’ of the time had little access to this variety of flavours, his time would come.
Fast forward to the 18th century and we find that the English enthusiasm for spices continued unabated. Henry Howard’s England’s Newest Way in Cookery (1708), for example, contains a recipe for ‘pickled melons’ that calls for cloves, mace, whole pepper, mustard seeds, three cloves of garlic, three shallots, sliced ginger, salt, white wine vinegar, made mustard, and a bay leaf. His pickled cucumbers recipe uses allspice, then known by the exotic name ‘Jamaica-Pepper’.
Hannah Glasse’s hugely popular The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747) contains recipes such as ‘To make a currey [sic] the Indian way’, ‘To make India pickle’, and ‘To make Paco Lilla [piccalilli], or Indian pickle, the same the Mangoes come over in’. The English love of Indian food was well under way.
By the nineteenth century, people of all social classes were enjoying curries and spicy foods, and the first English curry house opened in London in 1810 – about half a century before the first fish and chip shop.
Alexis Soyer’s A Shilling Cookery for The People (1845) contains numerous references to cayenne pepper, curry powder, and other spices. A recipe for pan fried minced meat includes the instruction: ‘you may add a teaspoonful of chopped herbs, such as onion, chives, or parsley, or a tablespoonful of sharp pickles, or made sauce; a little cayenne, spices, wine, or vinegar, may also be used’. All of his recipes for minced meats, Soyer notes, ‘can be made as curries, and served with rice’. Charles Elme Francatelli’s A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes (1852), meanwhile, teaches the reader ‘how to make a fish curry’ and also includes a recipe for curried rice.
While English working class families were enjoying well seasoned foods and curries, the upper classes developed a passion for hot sauce, and ‘devilled bones’ slathered in hot mustard and cayenne pepper. A critic of such hot food stated that ‘it knows no bounds’ and accused its enthusiasts of seeking to ‘annihilate the sense of taste’ with their spicy concoctions.
The war years were to put an end to the wide availability of spicy foods in England, as imports became harder to come by and rations consisted largely of more basic essentials. However, the post-war period saw the English people once again embrace such foods. The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 saw the creation of ‘Coronation Chicken’, made using a curry cream sauce. It remains a popular sandwich filler today.
Curry houses started to take off in the 1960s and ’70s, and London’s Brick Lane, Birmingham’s ‘Balti Triangle‘, and Manchester’s ‘Curry Mile‘ are all hugely popular destinations. Add to this the current popularity of cuisine derived from South America, the Caribbean, Asia, the American South, and so on, and it’s clear that the English passion for spicy foods is back with a vengeance.
From medieval times to the present day, the English have long had a love for seasoned and spicy foods.