(Photograph Property of The Jane Grigson Trust)
“If you cannot buy Italian Mozzarella it is better to use a soft Bel Paese or Port Salut rather than Danish imitation Mozzarella. At least one can buy Parmesan, which is essential. No other cheese has its concentrated flavour. It’s the soul of this dish.“
(Jane Grigson on Aubergine Parmigiana, from Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book, p.50)
Life is not too short to stuff a mushroom, not anymore. The British (and the GreatbrItalian) Superwoman has finally found the time, if she wishes, to stuff one, ten, even twenty mushrooms – in spite of what the Vanity Fair, Daily Mail and Observer writer and columnist Shirley Conran had proclaimed exactly one year after Jane Grigson, the famous food writer and food journalist for the Observer for more than two decades, had published her seminal Jane Grigson’s English Food (Penguin Books, 1974-I Edition). And let’s also not forget the revolutionary power of digital technology: to enjoy her now self-imposed international mushroom-stuffing tasks the contemporary British Superwoman can find a lot of help from her fellow Superwomen (and men, even) internauts to find a million variations of the original recipe.
In fact, let’s admit it, dear Reader, classic stuffed Portobello mushrooms with cheese and parsley, and then oven-baked, can be a bit of a bore after, say, the second or third time in a week. Specially for who has to stuff them. At least add some chopped garlic and chilli flakes for a bit of extra fun. Also, as Vogue Editor Susie Rushton recently rightly wrote, “Life is too short to stuff a mushroom. But did Shirley Conran ever try sieving a potato? Probably not; she wrote that famous line back in 1975 when, as everybody knows, there were endless fun things for a busy superwoman to get up to on a Saturday night, like swallowing drugs at a David Bowie gig or protesting Vietnam in a loud flowery-printed smock, or watching Al Pacino’s latest movie. Well, things have changed, Shirl. The feminist war mightn’t yet be won, but the remaining battles are in public life and the workplace, not the kitchen. There’s no shame in stuffing a mushroom any more – only in doing it badly”.
So, would Jane Grigson have been pleased of the newest cooking and baking trend that has been gripping Britain lately? Furthermore, would she have included the huge GreatbrItalian influence from the postwar to the 1990s to today in her history of contemporary British food renaissance (handmade, using organic produce)? Would have she been pleased of the hand that Italian flavours, recipes and ingredients have been giving to British cooking and British kitchens? In the words of her daughter, also a cookery writer and columnist, “She [Jane Grigson] was chauvinistic about English food, but only in the most intelligent and unblinkered sense of the word. With clear-sighted determination she ploughed her way through layers of fossilised myths, to find the original honesty that has characterised the best English cooking. Why deny the French or Italian origins of a dish, or ignore it altogether, when it has become an established part of the English repertoire?” (Foreword to the 1992 edition, which follows the 1979 revised edition, by Sophie Grigson, p. X).
Actually, Jane Grigson was an extremely well-travelled woman of culture, married to an English poet, who had also spent some time in Florence. Jane spent ten years as a translator from Italian, sharing with Kenelm Foster the John Florio Prize in 1966 for their 1964 translation of Alessandro Manzoni‘s The Column of Infamy (1842), an historical and juridical essay on human rights and judicial abuse of power based on a true story occurred during the 1630 Great Plague of Milan, written by the most famous Italian Resurgence writer. The 1964 Oxford University Press book is prefaced by another famous juridical treaty, Of Crimes and Punishments, by Manzoni’s grandfather, the Italian Enlightenment philosopher and jurist Cesare Beccaria, who campaigned against the state use of torture and against the death penalty through his essay – in 1764. I suppose some of Jane’s philosophical and political outlook regarding justice and her fellow human beings did transpire in her food writings too, just as her love for literature and history did.
In her English Food masterpiece, she reflected on the decadence of classic English recipes, of the ever-decreasing time dedicated to cooking in the English family, and of the availability of non-industrial ingredients in the British society of the time. In her 1979 introduction to the new book’s edition, she wrote: “The English are very adaptive people. English cooking – both historically and in the mouth – is a great deal more varied and delectable than our masochistic temper in this matter allows. There’s an extra special confusion nowadays in talking of good and bad national cooking. The plain fact is that much commercial cooking is bad, or mediocre in any country – it’s easy enough to get a thoroughly disappointing meal even in France where there exists an almost sacred devotion to kitchen and table. … In spite of all this the English cook has a wonderful inheritance if she cares to make use of it. It’s a question of picking and choosing, and that exactly is what I have done for this book” (p. XI-XII). Jane also included some Welsh dishes, “because I like them, and because they are linked closely with much English food, while retaining a rustic elegance which we have tended to lose” (p. XII).
Interestingly, this book was indeed written in the early to mid-1970s, when the pronoun ‘she’ could still be the usual gender that people, and women too, would associate with the word and the world of cooking. No wonder Shirley Conran felt the urge of screaming to the world to stuff its own mushrooms, or, as the greatly missed Poly Styrene could have later screamed in the golden year of punk, 1977, Oh Bondage Up Your… Mushrooms! Nevertheless, the ‘homely’, ‘housewifey’, practical cook Grigson had also a quite feminist side to her: she and her poet companion and only love of her life had to wait around 20 years before entering into their amazingly happy, successful marriage, as when they had met he was still married to his previous wife – something that in the mid-50s was very romantic but also truly quite revolutionary.
Jane Grigson had an enormous, enthusiastic, encyclopaedic knowledge of British food history, and her introductory paragraphs on soups, vegetables, fish, meat, desserts, and her practical advice of all sorts, are incredibly interesting, thought-provoking, and extremely relevant also today. She was also a very early champion of “unadulterated” (what we now call ‘sustainable’ and ‘organic’), seasonal products and happy, “farmyard chickens that have run free” (p. XIV). In a Guardian article by Rachel Cooke, one of her editors, Jill Norman, says: “So much that she wrote about is important now: foraging, for instance, and regional food. …” Prue Leith, another friend, agrees: “Oh, she was way ahead of her time in terms of the glory of the carrot!”
(Jane Grigson at home in Broadtown, Wiltshire, September 1989. Photograph: John Wildgoose. From http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/mar/15/jane-grigson-her-life-and-legacy)
Jane Grigson had at the same time an accessible and scholarly approach to food writing as a thing of both culture and chats with people she met. Elizabeth David, another colossal British food writer of the time, friend of Jane, to whom we must dedicate a post very soon (not ultimately because her penchant for Mediterranean food – very much including Italian cuisine – has been lately accused of xenophilia, or of referring British chefs and food lovers abroad, to the sunny southern European regions, instead of concentrating on Britain’s best), wrote that Jane was “a writer who could combine a delightful quote from Chaucer on the subject of a pike galantine with a careful recipe for a modern chicken and pork version of the same ancient dish, and who could do so without pedantry or a hint of preciousness. Jane was always entertaining as well as informative” (Introduction to Enjoyment of Food: The Best of Jane Grigson, Roy Fullick ed., 1992, Michael Joseph Publisher).
Jane Grigson’s defence of high-quality British produce and traditional, all-year-round comforting, honest, good food comes straight from the heart, but also from her very deep knowledge. She was indeed an ‘ethnofoodologist’ too. “No cookery belongs exclusively to its country, or its region. Cooks borrow -ad always have borrowed and adapt through the centuries. Though the scale in either case isn’t exactly the same, this is true, for example, of French cooking as of English cooking. We have borrowed from France. France borrowed from Italy direct, and by way of Provence. The Romans borrowed from the Greeks, and the Greeks borrowed from the Egyptians and Persians. What each individual country does do is to give all the elements, borrowed or otherwise, something of a national character. The history of cooking is in some ways like the history of language, though perhaps it’s harder to unravel, or like the history of folk music. The first mention of a dish, the first known recipe for it, can’t seldom be taken as a record of its first appearance” (p. XII).
(Picture from http://grubstreet.co.uk/gs-author/jane-grigson/ )
Jane acknowledged English cuisine’s historical influences – but did not always like what was happening at present. History was often described in a better light. Of course, her book’s present was quite horrific, not just because English produce (farmed, cultivated, harvested, fished) was being slowly but surely abandoned in favour of foreign (not local, not ‘zero-kilometers’) and/or canned, industrial, chemical, frozen, flavourless, expensive, pre-packed, pre-chopped, pre-pre-organized bits of things with unusual colours, and of ready meals. Food was being “adulterated and spoilt in ways that are entirely legal, even encouraged” (p. XIV). Jane Grigson was, it seems, quite political. The so-called progress that would explode in the 1980s was horrific for her also because the nation was being indulgently and passionately propelled towards the tinned, microwaved catastrophe of cheating in the kitchen (Delia Smith’s still very popular How to Cheat at Cooking was published in 1971, and quite contentiously recreated again in 2008 – I can forecast yet another post…). And we all agree with Jane on this too. Not allowing the right time for animals to breed, for vegetables to grow, and for people to cook – and thus not making time for stuffing mushrooms – was for Jane a national catastrophe. Live fast, die young, is not really something we would like to do, especially as we are not beautiful and gifted rock stars.
Her mid-1970s present was also being quite filled by new exotic ingredients and tastes, many of them coming from such an extraordinary, diverse, incredibly food rich country like Italy. Jane did recognise the importance of including (good) foreign (and GreabrItalian in our case) ingredients in British cuisine just like it had happened in the past: “… for good food one needs to understand that a Cox’s Orange Pippin in a pie will give you a quite different result from a Bramley; that for a good cheese sauce a Parmesan must be used because English hard cheeses will put too much fat into the sauce before they can achieve the same intensity of flavour; that sliced bread and frozen poultry are not worth buying – ever” (p. XIV). I completely agree with the Observer journalist Rachel Cooke when she writes that “If you want to know how to make, say, a comfrey fritter or jugged hare, then Grigson is your first port of call; she was Soho hip when the cooks at the likes of Duck Soup were still in nappies. But she can talk to the Bake-Off crowd, too: there is, for instance, a whole chapter devoted to tea in English Food …”. In the words of Nigel Slater, she was “food’s quiet revolutionary“. Also because she was not part of the Celebrity Chef Culture, just as Anna Del Conte has not been – and this gives all these Silent Cookery Ladies a particularly graceful aura -, she must unquestionably be remembered, her recipes readapted and reused, and her books re-read and translated, as she can still and again speak to other cultures interested in English food, such as to us GreatbrItalians.
So finally, Dear Reader, what would Jane Grigson said of this contemporary great British food renaissance, with a little help from Italy, France, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Pakistan, Peru, Colombia, Japan, Thailand, etc., etc.? Maybe, possibly, she would have embraced the new ingredients and fusion uses and she would have traced their international histories and stories, up until their arrival to the British table, writing about it with her usual wit, passion and practical tips. Especially, I believe, the many successful GreatbrItalian contemporary concoctions, although she may have shivered, like I do, to see so many terrible errors in spelling on restaurants’ names and menus, and on newspapers and magazines (which seem to enthusiastically rewrite Italian orthography and morphosyntactic rules on the ‘doubles’ – le doppie, per favore! Even on her corresponding 1966 winning space on the Society of Authors’ John Florio Prize page, “Allesandro Manzoni“…).
Jane Grigson had an open, inclusive mind and she would have possibly rejoiced at the contemporary craze for fresh, healthy, organic, sustainable, seasonal, local (when possible), certified, small producers and independent business ingredients and products, which would have maybe reminded her of the times before Britain was tricked into adulterated industrial food (Mad Cow, anyone?). Quoting the last paragraph of her Introduction to English Food, “Somehow I can never quite suppress a naïve optimism; an optimism that is buffed every time I visit my local shops, but yet refuses quite to lie down even when confronted with perceived realities. Sometimes I hear from people who live in some pockets of good food that has escaped the attentions of commerce in hastening that sad process which Max Weber described as ‘the disenchantment of the world” (p. XV).