The English Roots of Potlikker Greens

The dish known as ‘potlikker greens’ is often presented as a uniquely Southern phenomenon, and as a clever innovation of the slaves. To make the dish, strong leafy greens (often collard greens) are cooked slowly with meat such as bacon or a ham hock. The pot liquor left over after the greens have been eaten is then ‘sopped up’ using cornbread. The dish remains popular within both Southern cooking and African American ‘soul food’, and certainly stands out as having a particularly strong regional identity. However, when we dig deeper into the history of potlikker greens, and how it came to be a Southern staple, it is, in fact, found to have its origins in England.

Bacon and greens was long a well-established dish throughout England, enjoyed across social classes. A witness in a 1739 report on court cases in the City of London reports that a criminal ‘and several others’ were eating bacon and greens.[1] Edward Moore, in his book The World (1761), writes of ‘the wonders of Yorkshire’, noting that ‘the best people in the country… say that they never eat so heartily as of the parson’s bacon and greens’.[2] The greens grown in Yorkshire, noted Isabella Beeton (1861), included ‘the Wild Cabbage, or Colewort’ (known in the United States as ‘collard greens’).[3] In 1863, Nathaniel Hawthorne – an American touring England – published an account of his travels titled Our Old Home and English Note Books, in which he recalled a visit to ‘one of the rustic hostleries’ in Uttoxeter, Staffordshire. Hawthorne ate bacon and greens, mutton chops, and a gooseberry pudding, and considered the meal ‘good enough for a prince’.[4]

Bacon and greens was a standard meal for English farmers. The 19th century English nature writer Richard Jefferies wrote a number of accounts of rural life in his native Wiltshire, with his 1892 book The Toilers of the Field providing, as the preface to the 1898 edition notes, a valuable ‘picture of the life of all classes of the cultivators of the soil in the early [eighteen] seventies’.[5] In the book, Jefferies writes that ‘[t]he traditional bacon and greens dinner is passing away, though still the usual fare in the small farmhouses’, and defines the ‘middle-class farmer’ as ‘the man who is neither an independent gentleman, nor obliged to live on bacon and greens’. As for the farm labourers, Jefferies reports the following:

On ordinary days he dines at the fashionable hour of six or seven in the evening—that is, about that time his cottage scents the road with a powerful odour of boiled cabbage, of which he eats an immense quantity. Vegetables are his luxuries, and a large garden, therefore, is the greatest blessing he can have…

To dine in an English labourer’s cottage would be impossible. His bread is generally good, certainly; but his bacon is the cheapest he can buy at small second-class shops—oily, soft, wretched stuff; his vegetables are cooked in detestable style, and eaten saturated with the pot liquor. Pot liquor is a favourite soup. I have known cottagers actually apply at farmers’ kitchens not only for the pot liquor in which meat has been soddened, but for the water in which potatoes have been boiled—potato liquor—and sup it up with avidity. And this not in times of dearth or scarcity, but rather as a relish…

They never buy anything but bacon; never butchers’ meat. Philanthropic ladies, to my knowledge, have demonstrated over and over again even to their limited capacities that certain parts of butchers’ meat can be bought just as cheap, and will make more savoury nutritive food; and even now, with the present high price of meat, a certain proportion would be advantageous. In vain; the labourers obstinately adhere to the pig, and the pig only.

Exactly what this ‘detestable style’ of cooking cabbage might have been is suggested in other writings of the period. In 1863, Dr Edward Smith conducted a detailed survey of labourers’ diets, and found that ‘where fat was available, cabbage was usually cooked in it’.[6] Another 19th century observer noted that ‘bacon fat… served to relish farm labourers’ “potatoes and cabbages, which was all they got for dinner”’.[7] Indeed, Jefferies writes that the farm labourer ‘believes in the fats expressed from meats, and prefers lard or dripping’. As for the farm labourer’s children, Jefferies notes that while they might get a little cheese or bacon, they subsisted mainly on ‘a good deal of strong cabbage, soddened with pot-liquor’.

Such food had a long history in England. In the 17th century:

The poor ate rye or barley bread, those better off manchets of white wheat flour. Bacon, souse, brawn, powdered (salted) beef or mutton, and barrelled (pickled) herrings, or other fish, were the mainstay of the table in winter. Brewis was eaten largely [‘bread soaked in pot-liquor’]…. Common people ate with wooden or latteen spoons from wooden trenchers.[8]

In 1795, the Revd. David Davies published The Case of Labourers in Husbandry. In his book, Davies included a study of ‘The parish of Barkham, in the county of Berks, Easter 1787’, and reports the ‘weekly expenses of a family, consisting of a man and his wife, and five children, the eldest eight years of age, the youngest an infant’. In 18th century Berkshire, writes Davies, a farm labourer would feed his family with a pound of bacon, ‘boiled at two or three times [a week] with greens: the pot-liquor, with bread and potatoes, makes a mess for the children’.[9]

This English diet was brought to the United States during the colonial period [10] and persists to this day, particularly in the Southern states, where a ‘mess’ of collard greens cooked with bacon or other pork products is a much-loved dish, the pot liquor (‘pot likker’) being ‘sopped up’ with cornbread. The ‘sop’, of course, dates back to medieval England [11] and was defined in the 1761 Royal English Dictionary as ‘bread steeped in liquor or dripping’.[12]

Gloria Lund Main writes that in colonial Maryland:

Marylanders ate an American diet cooked in old English style… White and black, servant and master – all liked their meat and vegetables cooked together in the large pot over the fire, and the corn bread baked on the hearth.[13]

‘G.W.W.’, a Kentucky gentleman, writes in 1859:

In very early Kentucky times, the universal dinner, winter and spring at every farm house in the state, was a piece of middling bacon, boiled with cabbage, turnips, greens, collards, or sprouts, cabbage sprouts, according to the season. The pot, if the family was a large one, contained about ten gallons, and was nearly filled with clean pure water, the middlings and the greens were put in at the proper time, to give them a sufficient cooking.[14]

The Virginia writer George William Bagby notes in his The Old Virginia Gentleman: And Other Sketches (1877) that ‘the cabbage’ is ‘sacred to the Virginia dinner-table’ and that bacon and greens were cooked together. Bagby identifies the greens in question as ‘the ugly pot-herb of the sea-cliffs of England’.[15] As such, he is clearly referring to ‘collards’, the coleworts first brought to Virginia by English colonists. In her famous book Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861), the English cookery writer Isabella Beeton writes the following:

On the cliffs of Dover, and in many places on the coasts of Dorsetshire, Cornwall, and Yorkshire, there grows a wild plant, with variously-indented, much-waved, and loose spreading leaves, of a sea-green colour, and large yellow flowers. In spring, the leaves of this plant are collected by the inhabitants, who, after boiling them in two waters, to remove the saltness, use them as a vegetable along with their meat. This is the Brassica oleracea of science, the Wild Cabbage, or Colewort, from which have originated all the varieties of Cabbage, Cauliflower, Greens, and Brocoli.[16]

Returning to the South, we find that ‘bacon and greens’ was seen as a hearty meal prepared by good wives. A character in the nineteenth century Virginia writer Beverley Tucker’s novel George Balcombe (1836) states that ‘highly educated wives’ are generally ‘left to men of cultivated but effeminate minds’, while ‘those whose names live in the mouths of men, prefer the plain housewifely girl, who reads her Bible, works her sampler, darns her stockings, and boils her bacon and greens together’.[17]

This was a universal meal, consumed in the South by master and slave alike. Daniel Hundley’s Social Relations In Our Southern States (1860) reports that ‘the usual fare of the slaves is bacon and greens’.[18] Slave narratives, likewise, state that children on the plantations were fed with pot liquor:

These children were fed cornbread and milk for breakfast and supper, and “pot licker” with cornbread for dinner.[19]

Likewise:

Dey wuz six uv us chillun an dey would feed us in a big wooden tray.
Dey’d po’ hot pot liquor in de tray an crumble braid in hit.[20]

Yet, while it was the case that bacon and greens was a meal eaten by the slaves, an article in an 1860 issue of The Southern Cultivator magazine states that ‘people of all classes, sexes, ages, and conditions’ in the South consumed large quantities of fat bacon and pork, and ate ‘boiled bacon and collards at dinner’.[21]

The Southern states were largely agrarian, and had been from the colonial period, when Englishmen – ranging from the planter gentry to small farmers and indentured servants – first settled Virginia and established it as a British colony. These Englishmen brought their culture, traditions, and foodways with them, so it is entirely unsurprising to find that the common English dish of bacon and greens gained a foothold in the South, or that English rural labourers’ practice of eating pot liquor and bread, and seasoning strong leafy greens with bacon fat, should have entered the slave diet (especially given the fact that, early on, English indentured servants worked in the fields alongside slaves).[22]

Did Macaroni and Cheese Come to America from England?

‘Mac ‘n’ cheese’ is a very popular side dish in the United States (just as ‘macaroni cheese’ is a popular main dish in Britain), particularly in Southern and ‘soul food’ cooking, but how macaroni and cheese entered into American cuisine is somewhat obscure.

Thomas Jefferson is often cited as the source for the American love of macaroni and cheese, as he enjoyed the dish in Italy and even had a pasta machine imported from Europe. The Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia doubts this, however: ‘Jefferson was most likely not the first to introduce macaroni (with or without cheese) to America, nor did he invent the recipe. He did, however, probably help to popularize it by serving it to dinner guests during his presidency’.[1]

If not Jefferson himself, then perhaps Mary Randolph – raised by Thomas Jefferson’s parents and author of the seminal book of Southern cookery, The Virginia Housewife (1824) – might be responsible for the dish’s entry into the canon of American cookery? This is unlikely. While Randolph’s inclusion of a simple macaroni and cheese recipe in her book [2] may well have inspired many Southern cooks to make the dish, it is likely that its presence there is the result not of any innovation on Randolph’s part but, rather, because it was already a known dish in wealthier Southern circles (Randolph’s book is less a collection of original recipes than a compilation of the kind of dishes a Virginia cook might be expected to be able to prepare).

Perhaps the answer to how macaroni and cheese first entered American cuisine may be found in an English cookery book. In the colonial era, American cooks relied heavily on cookery books from England and, along with Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747), Elizabeth Raffald’s The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769) was one of ‘the most popular cookbooks in colonial and postindependence America’.[3] Raffald’s influential book includes a recipe titled ‘To Dress Maccaroni [sic] with Parmesan Cheese’.[4] At least as early as 1769, then, an ‘experienced English housekeeper’ was aware of a macaroni and cheese dish, as would be her many American readers. While we may never know how macaroni and cheese entered Southern cuisine and, by extension therefore, African American soul food cooking and the wider American culinary tradition, there’s a good chance that, as with other iconic dishes such as fried chicken,[5] England may ultimately be the source.

The British Roots of Jamaican Tonic Wines

Tonic wines are very popular in Jamaica and among the Jamaican diaspora, with a tonic wine named ‘Magnum’ being particularly successful through its association with the dancehall music scene and as a result of the popularly held view (encouraged by its bottle label artwork) that it enhances male sexual potency. Other similar Jamaican tonic wines include ‘Lion Pride Roots Tonic Wine’ and ‘Put it een Wine’. Also still popular, and produced in Jamaica under license by J. Wray & Nephew Ltd, is the veteran ‘Sanatogen Tonic Wine‘, which dates back to the early twentieth century and is a British product. As with many other British food and drink items that have found popularity in Jamaica, Sanatogen Tonic Wine made its way to Jamaica many decades ago, and its success was the inspiration for the development of similar homegrown products.

‘Magnum’ and other Jamaican tonic wines are relatively recent newcomers and, while they are of Jamaican origin, their roots clearly lie in Europe, rather than the Caribbean. Indeed, Magnum is basically a slightly tweaked copy of Sanatogen Tonic Wine. The tasting notes for both products found on the UK Tesco website illustrate this clearly. Of Sanatogen Tonic Wine, the site states: ‘Sweet full bodied tonic wine with damson and cherry notes’. And of Magnum: ‘Mellow, syrupy sweet with a distinctive cherry taste’. The key difference between Magnum and Sanatogen tonic wines is that the former is made using mead (honey wine), a drink with a very long British history – ‘something of a defining national drink from the days of yore’, as The Telegraph puts it. The Jamaican honey business has been a success story for a long time. A 1902 trade journal refers to ‘colonial honey’ in Jamaica, a 1901-2 edition of The Epicure (‘a journal of taste’) reports on ‘a boom in Jamaican honey’, and a 1905 edition of Agricultural News (a journal of The Imperial Department of Agriculture for the West Indies) refers to honey as ‘another product of the colony’. A 1924 edition of The Journal of the Jamaica Agricultural Society offers a recipe for a non-alcoholic mead. Alcoholic versions were, no doubt, also available. The majority of alcoholic meads drunk in Jamaica today are imported from the United States, particularly from producers in Michigan, which has a long history of bee keeping, a legacy of the introduction of honey bees by British colonists.

The Tesco site gives also gives an identical disclaimer regarding both Sanatogen Tonic Wine and Magnum Tonic Wine: ‘The name “Tonic Wine” does not imply health giving or medicinal properties’. Such disclaimers point to the long history of dubious claims being made for the purported health-giving properties of tonic wines. In 2012, Magnum fell foul of alcohol marketing rules in the UK for ‘suggesting an association with sexual success and enhancement of physical capabilities’, but this was nothing new. An 1824 British book titled The Family Oracle of Health: Economy, Medicine, and Good Living, had the following to say about tonic wines:

This quack drug the Tonic Wine appears to be composed of very cheap stuff though it is sold at the exorbitant price of about 1s per pint… England no doubt is a free country and the people of England have the undoubted right to be gulled if they so please. Quacks therefore find it is the only country in which they can live and thrive. The same blessed freedom gives quacks and extortioners a right to charge what they please for their trash whether it be Tonic Wine, Balm of Gilead, Jordan’s Rakasiri gin or Hunt’s Roasted Corn.

Given the popularity of tonic wines in Jamaica, the authors of The Family Oracle of Health would no doubt be saddened (or perhaps, reassured?) to find that England is not, after all, ‘the only country in which [quacks] can live and thrive’.

The section of the book in which this quote is found focuses on the ‘Humbug of the French Tonic Wine’. The link to France is also referred to on the website of the English tonic wine, ‘Buckfast’, produced by the monks of Buckfast Abbey near Buckfastleigh in Devon since the late nineteenth century, and now notorious for its links to binge-drinking:

The recipe for the Tonic wine is attributed to the original French monks who settled at the Abbey in the 1880’s. Base wines from Spain, known as mistellas, were imported and to these were added the tonic ingredients according to an old recipe.

Buckfast Tonic Wine is to this day very popular in Jamaica and the Bahamas.

The aforementioned Sanatogen Tonic Wine is another English product that comes with European links and, interestingly, was also originally produced in Devon, in this case by Whiteways Cyder Co. Ltd. of Whimple, near Exeter. ‘Sanatogen’ was originally the brand name of a ‘brain tonic’ invented in Germany by the Bauer Chemical Company, in 1898. The English went on to combine this tonic with Ruby British wine. Many claims were made for the health-giving properties of the formula, and a 1939 advertisement for Sanatogen Tonic Wine in The Farmer’s Home magazine states:

‘SANATOGEN’ Tonic Wine consists of a full-bodied wine to which has been added the active ingredient of the famous ‘SANATOGEN’ Tonic Food. The latter has for many years enjoyed the highest reputation as a revitiliser of the whole body…

Santogen Tonic Wine was marketed to both men and women, with adverts in agricultural journals such as The Farmer’s Home and Modern Poultry Keeping, alongside many articles and adverts aimed specifically at women. However, while this advert, featuring a male, could appeal to anyone, by the 1960s, the focus was very clearly on a female demographic. Sanatogen Tonic Wine adverts of the period presented drinking the product as an answer to the boredom of being a housewife and the frustrations of motherhood. This was far from unique to the Sanatogen brand of tonic wine, for Buckfast promised to help women ‘cope with life’s little ups and downs’, and Phosferine Tonic Wine adverts claimed that women could ‘say goodbye to depression’ and ‘keep calm and banish depression’, by regularly drinking a high ABV wine-concoction with added ingredients of a dubious restorative nature. In the UK, tonic wines continue to be associated in the popular imagination with older women and younger binge-drinkers, but the products are still popular, as the website of the UK supermarket chain Morrisons makes clear:

Half a century on and the famous British institution of Sanatogen is going stronger than ever… An instant hit when it was introduced to the British shopper 50 years ago, this ruby tonic wine, which still includes the famous ‘Sanatogen Formula’, continues to win an army of fans. No longer making quite such wild claims for its restorative powers, it nevertheless remains a welcome taste of medium-bodied blended red wine with a fair heft of grapey fruitiness and nice warming finish. Whether Sanatogen ever ‘restored’ anybody remains a subject of debate, but we can confirm that they’d certainly be cheered up by this little bit of British history.

Over in Jamaica (and in the ex-pat Jamaican community in Britain), tonic wines are also going strong, but not as an answer to the anxieties of frustrated middle class housewives. Instead, as noted earlier, Magnum (and other similar brands) is a drink that appeals to a younger crowd, who like to party and who are very much sexually active. When sipping a Magnum and moving to dancehall rhythms, it is unlikely that any of these young people realise that the drink in their hand, far from being a novel product of Jamaican culture, is actually thoroughly British in origin.

The English Roots of Southern Barbecue

Long before the birth of Southern barbecue, wealthy Englishmen were enjoying smoked meats and highly spiced foods. As early as the 14th century, the English were eating smoked fish:

By 1349 smoked fish was an established part of the British diet. Documents of that era outlining how to build a herring smokehouse reveal plans for high, narrow brick buildings crossed with beams holding up sticks from which the herring were hung. Fires from oak or ash were lit below and the smoke escaped through loosely laid tiles on the roof.

Smoked meats were also a part of medieval English cuisine, particularly smoked pork, which was ‘cut into relatively thin, lean strips, immersed briefly in a salt solution and hung over a fire to absorb the smoke flavoring as it dried — slowly’.

The slow roasting of whole hogs on a spit was popular for medieval feasts. During cooking, the meat was basted with a sauce made of red wine and spices such as garlic and ground coriander, to keep it moist and to add extra flavour. Spices were used extensively in the cooking of the time and the nobility enjoyed a ‘highly spiced cuisine’.

Bacon was also present in medieval English cuisine and goes back many centuries. It was heavily salted or cured, with sugar also added to cut through some of the saltiness. By the end of the sixteenth century, bacon was also being smoked.

So, the cuisine of wealthy medieval Englishmen included smoked meats, spice blends, slow-roasted whole hogs, and seasoned basting sauces. Such tastes continued amongst the wealthy into the early modern period and consequently influenced the cuisine of the colonies.

After English colonists settled Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, they introduced pigs to the region. In a short time, feral pigs were widely available and the centrality of pork to Southern cuisine was established:

By 1614, feral animals were seemingly everywhere. Ralph Hamor wrote that there were “infinite hogs in herds all over the woods”… In 1619, the Virginia Company confirmed that there were “some horses” and an “infinite number of swine broken out into the woods.”

The English colonists of Virginia, then, had an abundance of pigs and a taste for smoked meats and seasonings, and it was here that Southern barbecue developed:

[I]t was in Virginia and in the Carolinas that barbecue as we know it would begin to evolve. In Virginia, British colonists observed the Native American method of drying meat on a grill of green sticks over a smoking fire and soon married this method to their own interest in spit-cooking hogs and other small animals.

The colonists applied English basting techniques and sauces to the Native American smoking method, thereby keeping the meat juicy and flavourful and stopping it from drying out. The basting sauces were derived from English cooking:

Virginia colonists brought European cooking techniques and recipes with them when they arrived in Virginia during the early years of the seventeenth century. In colonial times, Virginians endeavored to emulate European customs, especially when it came to entertaining guests at meals. Because most colonists were not trained cooks, they made good use of cookbooks… These cookbooks contain numerous recipes for carbonadoing and roasting foods that would become colonial Virginia staples such as venison, beef, mutton and pork, all with sauces made of spices, vinegar, pepper, and butter. Some call for mustard and/or sugar added to the mix.

The Virginia colonists took these English sauces and applied them to barbecuing:

Colonial Virginians also used the carbonado sauce recipes made of salt, vinegar, butter, peppers, herbs and spices to baste barbecuing meats while they cooked. By combining the Powhatan Indian cooking technique using a hurdle with English carbonado recipes, Virginians gave the world what we now call southern barbecue.

The idea of the barbecue as a social occasion also developed in Virginia, and arguably has echoes of the medieval English nobility’s feasts, with roasted hogs and revelry:

Feasting was a vital part of Virginia cultural traditions – much more so than in New England – and pigs were plentiful, as well… As the wealth of Virginia planters grew in the 18th century, so did their desire to build great houses, engage in consumer culture to display their wealth, and entertain guests in their homes. By the 1750s, barbecues were one of the most accepted and well-liked forms of entertainment in the colony. George Washington, among other Virginia gentry, frequently attended and hosted barbecues. The gatherings evolved from small get-togethers of family and friends to large all-day events. These large barbecues were expensive to host. Some planters objected to the cost and the drunken antics that often went along with barbecues, but they often went along with hosting and attending the events because it was an expected part of their roles as Virginia gentry…

When Virginians settled North Carolina, known at the time as ‘Virginia’s Southern Plantation’, they took their love of whole-hog barbecue with them. While this style of barbecue is today most commonly associated with North Carolina, its roots lie in the English colony of Virginia, and, as Joseph R. Haynes writes:

Just as Virginia hospitality would spread to become southern hospitality and Virginia smoked ham would spread to become country ham, so would Virginia barbecue spread throughout the South to become southern barbecue.

And this Southern barbecue, while making use of Native American smoking techniques and African slaves for its preparation, was deeply rooted in the culinary traditions of the landed gentry of England.

The English love of spicy foods: A brief history

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.