Most people who follow me online do so because they enjoy my books. So I thought I’d organise some Zoom events to revisit my backlist.
I’ve largely enjoyed Zoom events – I’m lucky, I haven’t had to do too many during the day at work, so they’ve remained a bit of a treat. I’ve also spoken to people at online beer events who actually prefer these chats to meeting up in real life – either because they can get to them more easily and cheaply, or because they feel more comfortable attending from the safe space of their home. I can’t wait to do physical events again, but even when we’re back at pub gigs and festivals, I still plan to both attend and run events online in addition to IRL.
Last week, I pushed an idea out on social media – what if I do a Zoom book club? Each session, we focus on one book from my backlist. I do a talk or presentation about it, then open it up to a Q&A. After we get to the end of the formal bit, if anyone wants to stay on and chat longer, we can. It got a great response, so here we go.
I’ll be going through the books in chronological order, starting with Man Walks into a Pub on 28th April. I’m charging a small ticket price of £3.50, and tickets are on sale now.
Obviously, we thought it might be nice idea to do this with a drink in hand. You don’t have to drink through the talk, but you may well want to.
My intention is to link up with an online retailer and try to come up with some kind of offer for event attendees. I want to try to make these, in an idea world, bespoke cases that fit with the theme of the book.
For Man Walks into a Pub, I have the perfect case ready to go, with a special offer for event attendees that’s a bit complicated, but very good. I’ve done a series of cases with Beer52 for a Master Beer Taster qualification. There are four cases in total, covering the classic beer styles associated with four great brewing powerhouses: the UK and Ireland, Germany, Belgium, and the USA. Each case comes with a short book covering the history, beer styles, quirks and trivia of brewing in that country. The UK case makes the perfect accompaniment to Man Walks into a Pub and is available here.
Beer52 would like to support this project but are not set up to give a discount on this case specifically. However, if you buy a ticket for any Book Club event, you’ll be given codes for some great discounts on other Beer52 stuff.
Here’s my provisional schedule for all the events. I’ll update details on this blog post as we go, and also post them on the events page of this website. In case you’re not familiar with my full backlist, the links on the book titles below take you to more information on each of my books.
The Pub – A Cultural Institution – Wednesday 2nd June, 7pm. 250 pubs lovingly reviewed. For this, we’ve put together a range that evoke a typical (but good) pub bar, with Best of British Beers. Tickets and beers in sale as soon as we’ve finalised the range.
Many of my books were originally published around this time of year specifically because publishers thought people would buy them for Father’s Day. They weren’t wrong. If you’re stuck for a small gift, here’s a brief recap.
I’ve always tried to write for a general audience rather than an audience of fellow beer geeks (though I hope they enjoy my books too.) I use beer as a jumping-off point, a vehicle, to explore wider themes. When I do signing events, I’d say at least half of the books I’m asked to sign are for the dads, brothers and husbands of the people buying them. I must stress that the women who have read them have really enjoyed them too, but I’m definitely a bit typecast as someone who writes for blokes who are difficult to buy for and don’t read all that much, but enjoy a beer-based yarn.
So with Father’s Day approaching on Sunday, here’s a recap. The links go to my individual pages about each book that give more detail, a bit of background and some quotes from reviews.
For the Dad who enjoys starting conversations with “I bet you didn’t know…”
Man Walks into a Pub is still my best-selling book. I called it a “sociable history” of beer because I wanted to write it like a long conversation in the pub and so it is, in the words of one reviewer, “full of bar-room bet-winning facts”. Miracle Brew is similarly full of insane facts but with a more specialised focus on what beer is made from. The title happened because of the sheer number of times I thought, “Whaaaat? No way!” as I was researching it.
For the Dad who prefers cider to beer
Bill Bradshaw and I wrote the first ever world guide to cider, and as far as I’m aware it’s still the only one. We put so much creativity into the book – Bill’s photos are utterly gorgeous – that we had none left for the title. So it’s called World’s Best Cider. There’s also quite a bit about cider in The Apple Orchard, which is not really book about cider even though some people think it is, because if I’m going to write about apples…
For the Dad who’s into British history
The history of beer and pubs is the history of Britain itself. Man Walks into a Pub got me into way more historical research than I had realised, and I wrote not just about how beer and pubs developed, but why – in order to understand them, I needed to know the context surrounding them. The same goes for IPA specifically – why did beer go on a six-month sea voyage to India? Why were the British in India in the first place? That’s what I explored in Hops & Glory. Finally for the history buff, if you’re watching A House Through Time at the moment, fancy seeing the same idea for a pub? Shakespeare’s Local is six centuries of history seen through one South London pub, in which in all likelihood Shakespeare used to drink.
For the Dad who loves a bit of natural history
The nature writing section of your local bookshop, the bit I like to all “bees and trees,” is big business right now, and I realised it is also a big part of the story of beer and cider. The Apple Orchard and Miracle Brew are very similar books: one about apples and how and where they grow, which covers how they are made into cider, and the other about hops, barley, water and yeast, and the incredible story behind each one before they even get to the brewery.
For the Dad who loves a good fry-up or fish and chips
Pie Fidelity is essentially the same idea as Man Walks into a Pub, but written about overlooked and unfairly maligned classic British dishes rather than beer. It’s my most personal book, full of memoir, food history and eating. It also happens to be my wife Liz’s favourite book of mine, and not just because it’s the one with the least stuff about beer in it.
For the Dad who enjoys a laugh
Most of my books have a good degree of humour in them, even if they aren’t ‘comedy’ books. Man Walks into a Pub has some good gags in among the history, but without doubt Three Sheets to the Wind is the funniest book I’ve written. Mainly because lots of funny stuff happened while I was researching it, and I succeeded in getting most of it down.
For the Dad who’s simply missing propping up the bar
The Pub: A Cultural Institution is a guide to 250 of the best pubs in Britain. It’s a coffee table book, and as such it’s full of gorgeous pictures. It looks incredibly vogueish just now, because the convention around these things is that you take photos of empty pubs, so the pictures have never looked more like pubs do at the time I’m writing this. But as well as being a coffee table book, I’ve also tried to provide little vignettes of what makes each pub, and pubs in general, so special.
My new book,Pie Fidelity: In Defence of British Food, is finally published today after two-and-a-half-years’ hard work. To celebrate, here’s another off-cut that didn’t quite make the main text. One of the main themes of the book is that we don’t celebrate our food culture in the UK as much as other nations celebrate theirs. When I started researching the book, I realised I’d first written about this back in 2010, when I did a bit of research into European Protected Designations of Origin (PDOs) – the regulations that stipulate where and how something must be made if you want to give it a particular name, such as champagne, cognac or Cumberland sausage. I found the differing stories of Wensleydale and Roquefort to be quite staggering in what they reveal. The Roquefort part below is intact on the book, but I went on to write at length about cheddar, so there was no room for my nine year-old story of Wensleydale. Here it is then, in its original form.
‘The term culture … includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people; Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, 19th-century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar. The reader can make his own list …’
TS Eliot,Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, 1948
One of France’s most celebrated cheeses is produced in Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in the south of the country. The town’s cheesy fame allegedly dates back to Pliny the Elder, who supposedly lauded it in his CE79 work, the Natural History.
Pliny was certainly a fan of cheese generally, writing, ‘It is a remarkable circumstance, that the barbarous nations which subsist on milk have been for so many ages either ignorant of the merits of cheese, or else have totally disregarded it’. But what fans of Roquefort don’t tell you is that Pliny’s mention was ambiguous, and not exactly complementary. In a chapter where he details all the fine cheeses available in Rome, ‘where the various good things of all nations are to be judged of by comparison’, he says, ‘Goats also produce a cheese which has been of late held in the highest esteem, its flavour being heightened by smoking it. The cheese of this kind which is made at Rome is considered preferable to any other; for that which is made in Gaul has a strong taste, like that of medicine’.
What we now understand to be Roquefort cheese is not smoked, and is not made from goat’s milk. When Pliny says this cheese was made in Gaul, that could mean anywhere in a region that today encompasses France, Luxembourg, Belgium, most of Switzerland, Northern Italy, as well as the parts of the Netherlands and Germany on the west bank of the Rhine. And anyway, Pliny didn’t like it that much because it tasted of medicine. This could mean he’s referring to the chemical hit of a ripe blue cheese, but even if that’s the case, it’s doubtful Roquefort cheese was unique in this. But never mind all that: if you’re marketing a food icon, when the legend becomes fact, we invariably print the legend.
Prehistoric cheese-making colanders have allegedly been discovered near the town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, and what is undeniable is that it has the perfect conditions to make great cheese. The region is honeycombed with caves formed by faults in the mountain cliffs, and these faults channel a gentle flow of air into the caves that creates a fairly constant temperature of between eight and twelve degrees and keeps the humidity high. These are perfect conditions for the growth of a mould known as Penicillium roqueforti. This mould, plus reliable access to salt from the Mediterranean, led to the evolution the soft, blue, salty, cave-aged cheese we now know as Roquefort.
The cheese was popularised by local Benedictine monks from the 11thcentury, and soon other monasteries in the area were buying caves to make their own. In 1411, Charles VI granted the town of Roquefort a monopoly for the ripening of the cheese in these caves – the first ever appellation d’origine– meaning only producers in the town could use its name. In 1961, a landmark ruling decreed that while similar maturation methods could be used across southern France, only those whose ripening occurred in the natural caves of Mont Combalou were permitted to bear the name Roquefort. On top of that, the milk must be whole and raw, the sheep it comes from must be Lacuane dairy sheep, and they must be fed on pasture.
Today, much of the economic activity in the region centres on the production and distribution of the cheese. A visitor’s centre run by the Roquefort Caves Society illustrates the process of making Roquefort cheese, gives a guided tour of the caves, and offers guests free samples and a chance to buy cheese. Despite still only being produced locally, Roquefort is enjoyed around the world and considered one of the best blue cheeses ever made.
It’s a great story, a fantastic cheese, and a symbol of how food and drink can come to define a region, or even a nation. Now let’s compare that story to one of Britain’s most famous cheeses.
French monks also seemingly brought the art of cheese making to Wensleydale, in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales, when they settled in the region around 1150. The cheese they made was originally blue and made from sheep’s milk, allegedly because Norman nobles wanted a local equivalent to Roquefort. When Henry VIII dissolved their monastery at Jervaulx in 1540, the monks passed on the art of Wensleydale cheese making to the wives of the local farmers who had supplied their milk. In 1897, local merchant Edward Chapman became the first commercial Wensleydale cheesemaker when he opened a creamery in the village of Hawes.
Wensleydale is now made mostly from cow’s milk with a little sheep’s milk added for flavour. The Hawes creamery in Wensleydale still makes a blue cheese among others, but since the 1930s the cheese we now think of as Wensleydale has been white and hard. It has an open, welcoming aspect to it, a crumbly texture, with a mild, clean, flavour that has faint hints of lemon and honey. It gets these characteristics from the local milk, delivered fresh to the creamery within a few hours of milking, from cows grazed on rich, wildflower meadows down in the valleys, and heather moorlands further up the slopes. The cultures used to make the cheese go through a unique and complex system that combines mother cultures of different levels of maturity.
Through the twentieth century, Wensleydale gained a reputation as one of the best British cheeses, and a hallmark of what is great about British culture. In his essay ‘In Defence of English Cooking’, Orwell wrote, ‘I fancy Stilton is the best cheese of its type in the world, with Wensleydale not far behind’, while TS Eliot proclaimed Wensleydale ‘the Mozart of cheese’.
Wensleydale is therefore comparable to Roquefort in many ways. They taste quite different: Roquefort is rich and salty and creamy and probably not to everyone’s tastes, while Wensleydale is straightforward and friendly and perhaps a little plain for cheese aficionados. But both are famous cheeses acknowledged as some of the best in their style. Apart from flavour, they differ in one more important aspect: while Roquefort was the first ever cheese to be given a protected designation of origin, Wensleydale was never given any kind of protection or formal acknowledgement at all until it was almost too late.
During and after the Second World War, with milk production commandeered by the government, the Wensleydale creamery in Hawes began to struggle. In 1966, it was sold to the Milk Marketing Board, which in 1980 separated off its milk processing division to become Dairy Crest, which in turn floated on the Stock Exchange in 1996. By the time of its flotation, Dairy Crest was a business with a broad portfolio of dairy-based products, with little place for historical tradition and local terroirin its brand marketing save for imagery and loose claims that focus-grouped well. In May 1992, the corporation closed down the Wensleydale Creamery with the loss of 59 jobs, and announced their intention to transfer production of Wensleydale cheese out of Yorkshire and into a factory in Lancashire. They were both just cheese factories after all, so why would that matter? And it’s not as if there was any kind of historical rivalry between the two counties that meant the move might upset people.
As it turned out, there was quite a lot of resistance to the move, and six months later a management buy-out succeeded in bringing Wensleydale back home, hiring eleven former members of staff to ensure the cheese was on sale again by Christmas. But sales refused to pick up, and Wensleydale continued to struggle.
Film-maker Nick Park had no idea of any of this when he made his animated films A Grand Day Out (1989), The Wrong Trousers(1993) and A Close Shave(1995), featuring cheese-loving Wallace and his resourceful dog Gromit. In the third film, Wallace falls in love with Wendolene Ramsbottom, a shopkeeper. But at the end of the film, with evil robot dogs vanquished and sheep saved, Wendolene reveals that she doesn’t like cheese. “Not even Wensleydale?” cries Wallace. No, it brings her out in a rash. The relationship is doomed, and Wendolene leaves.
Park only chose the word ‘Wensleydale’ because he thought it would be funny to animate Wallace’s mouth saying it, as he put it, ‘nice and toothy’. But this whim had a dramatic effect. Demand began to pick up, and the creamery asked for and was given permission to launch a tie-in cheese using the characters’ names and likenesses. Sales soared. Wensleydale opened a new creamery in 2015, modernised but still using traditional techniques and local milk, and it now employs over 200 people. Oh, and ‘Yorkshire Wensleydale’ successfully acquired a European Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) in 2013. It requires the regional qualifier that ‘Aveyron Roquefort’ does not, because our historic disinterest in denominations of origin means that Wensleydale – like cheddar – has become too generic to enforce. This PGI is not quite as stringent as the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) that Roquefort has held since 1925, but it’s a start.
Like the difference between Champagne and Bass Ale, the differing fortunes of these two wonderful cheeses illustrates a wider gulf in how the British and French care for and view their food and drink. (I find it telling that, as I write this, whenever I type ‘Roquefort’, my ‘UK English’ spellcheck function is fine with it, but flags up a red, wavy line under every ‘Wensleydale’.) The European system of geographic protection for foods came into operation in 1993. This means that within the area in which the scheme operates (and in countries with mutual agreements) regionally produced food and drink is protected from competitors passing themselves off as the same thing. At the time of writing in 2018, Britain has a total of 65 products with protected status. France has 217, Italy 267, and Portugal 125. Breaking that down, Britain has 16 protected cheeses, the French 52, the Italians 47. To be fair, this is a slight improvement from 2010, when France had more cheeses enjoying protected status than Britain had for all its products together.
But now, that might not count for anything. The rules that protect Britain’s iconic foods are part of the European Union’s regulatory framework. When Britain leaves the EU, Wensleydale, Melton Mowbray Pork Pies, Stornoway Black Pudding, Cumberland black sausage and Cornish pasties will all lose the European-wide protection that means no one else can falsely claim theirs to be the real thing.
In case you hadn’t noticed, this week is British Pie Week. It’s also just four weeks until my next book, Pie Fidelity, is published. Pie Fidelity is about a lot more than just pies: it’s a celebration of all that’s great about traditional British food. But to celebrate British Pie Week, here’s another off-cut from the main book that tells the story of when I witnessed the closing together of two great Yorkshire legends: Tetley Dave, and Percy Turner’s pork pies.
I’m back in Barnsley, to help celebrate the fifth birthday of Acorn Brewery, which has resurrected the legendary Barnsley Bitter decades after the brewery that created it has been closed down. A few friends, customers and media folk have been invited to the brewery to sample the beers and have a chat. As a beer writer who grew up in Barnsley, I’ve been an enthusiastic supporter of Acorn since I first met founder Dave Hughes a few years previously, and he’s asked me up here to do a talk to the throng.
One of the customers is publican and local legend ‘Tetley’ Dave Parker. Tetley Dave runs the Shoulder of Mutton in Castleford and is what’s known in the trade as a ‘character’. He reminds me of the late Jim Bowen, presenters of Bullseye, only Dave is funnier and more confident. As soon as he enters the room, he seems to be in the middle of every single one of the various conversations going on around it. He has a quip or gag to answer every point anyone makes. He’s in the audience today, in the middle of the third row of chairs, and yet somehow he’s centre-stage throughout the entire thing. He’s not scheduled to give a speech, but Tetley Dave doesn’t do schedules.
When I take the stage to share some thoughts about cask ale and tradition and Barnsley’s place within it, it quickly becomes clear that this is going to be a dialogue rather than a speech. Tetley Dave sits with his arms folded, sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing, sometimes with nothing much to add, but he adds it anyway. I’ve dealt with hecklers before, and I’ve dealt with aggressive people who want to interrupt and take control. This is different. Tetley Dave is not being difficult; he’s just being Tetley Dave. He simply doesn’t recognise the conventions of public speaking, the implied contract between speaker and audience. There’s no such covenant when he’s behind the bar in the Shoulder of Mutton, when everyone just piles in and the sharpest tongue wins. I think he genuinely doesn’t realise that there are situations that behave differently from the pub. Why should they?
After the formalities, the brewery unveils lunch, the kind of beige buffet the beer world seems to subsist on, and is at least as much to blame for my middle-aged weight gain as the beer itself. There are plates full of small pork pies, two or three bites worth, still warm from being freshly baked this morning, the jelly still just about liquid, the meat around body temperature, slightly gamey, pink and glistening rather than the dead grey of the cellophane-wrapped supermarket pie. They’re insanely good. I ask Dave Hughes where they’re from.
“Percy Turner’s in Jump,” he says. ‘Had to queue for ‘em for half an hour this morning.”
It turns out that Dave Hughes’s experience is not uncommon. There are queues outside Percy Turner’s shop in the village of Jump, just outside Barnsley, most mornings. The queues of several hundred people on Christmas Eve have become a bit of a celebrated meme on the unofficial Percy Turner’s Pork Pie Appreciation page on Facebook, unaffiliated with the butcher’s itself, with over 4,000 likes. Other shops in town have A-boards outside giving an estimated time when their consignment of Turner’s pies will arrive. There’s a spoof M&S ad one admiring fan made for YouTube, but I’ve failed to find any official recognition for the best pork pies in the world. Percy Turner is too busy making pies to bother with a website, entering competitions, or indulging in any kind of promotional activity. But then, he hardly needs to.
Something’s not quite right in the room. The atmosphere is oddly muted. The silence extends from seconds into minutes. And then I realise: Tetley Dave has stopped talking.
I go back to the buffet for a second pork pie, and am alarmed to see that despite a ratio of pies to people that was at least 4:1 ten minutes ago, they’ve almost disappeared, so I nab a third. Still the room is quiet. No one speaks at all. After ten minutes of this bustling brewery doing as pretty good impression of a Trappist monastery, the final evidence of Percy Turner’s pork pies ever having been here is been eradicated from the room.
Ten seconds later, Tetley Dave’s voice rises from the centre of the throng: “Nice bit o’ growler is that.”
It’s seven weeks until the launch of my new book, Pie Fidelity.Here’s a bit that got cut from the chapter on breakfast, not because it’s no good, but because I had way too many breakfasts in the book, and my primary readers were starting to feel stuffed and greasy just reading it.
I don’t think it’s too hysterical an observation to make that civilisation has peaked, and has now entered a sustained period of decline. I don’t base this on the blanket coverage of war, famine, refugees and insane megalomaniacs in positions of power – these have always been with us. I’m talking about peaks of civilisation and progress that we attained in the past, but no longer enjoy.
We used to have regular manned flights to the moon and ambitions of going further beyond into space. We used to have supersonic passenger aircraft. We no longer do. To this list, I’m preparing to add the mighty bacon sandwich.
Time pressures and health concerns mean that, for most of us, the full English breakfast or its equivalent is no more than a weekend treat. But it sends forth its ambassador, the bacon buttie, to do battle in the week, a signifier, a reminder, of what breakfast is really all about. In many of the surveys I’ve seen, the bacon buttie rivals the full breakfast itself as an icon of British life. Like fish and chips, curry or the question “Fancy a pint?” It’s impossible to hear the suggestion of it without it raising a smile. But for no good reason, we seem to be in reverse gear on our journey to bacon nirvana.
You can spot civilisation’s decline in public buildings too. The Victorian train station, for example, was a grand edifice that inspired you with the possibilities of travel and made you feel as though you were embarking on a great and noble adventure, even if you were only going to Swindon to see your aunt. These and other municipal buildings erected around the same time were nicer than they had to be. They were designed to prompt an emotional response, to have aesthetic value rather than being strictly utilitarian.
New or rebuilt railway stations could not be more different. Their functionality is brutal to the point of outright hostility. The ‘seats’ on the platforms of stations such as Derby could only have been designed by someone with a pathological hatred of other people: shiny, slippery benches four inches deep, sloping forward at a 45-degree angle, mocking you for even daring to think they could offer any kind of comfort. It’s more restful to stand.
This contrast is echoed by the refreshments offered in each kind of station. Until recently, inside old Victorian stations such as London’s King’s Cross, homely little cafés would lurk. These independent businesses were run by shiny-faced men and women in their fifties, blasting steaming tea from huge urns into chunky white mugs. This tea was tannic and dark, as a friend of mine once remarked, ‘the colour of He-Man’s skin’. They served bacon rolls made with thick juicy rashers. And a roll and a cup of tea would cost £2.50.
In all but a handful of British train stations, these cafés have been replaced by the same chains you find in the new stations. These franchises, with names like Pumpkin and Lemon Tree, come across as low-rent versions of Costa and Starbuck’s. Along with Upper Crust, Caffè Ritazza and every other stand on a typical British train station concourse, are all owned or operated by one company, SSP. Whichever franchise they’re working in, the staff are trained to ‘upsell’ you, and seemingly trained to do little else. The bacon is always overdone and the bread is the wrong kind – baguette, ciabatta and focaccia all have their time and place, but by the gods it’s not here, not now. The staff often seem confused when you ask them to heat the roll or baguette, despite the fact that the little card on the stand says ‘served hot!’ If they deign to ask you if you want sauce, you’re lucky if they remember which one – often they give you tomato and brown because that’s easier than trying to remember the answer to a question they asked you ten seconds ago. And instead of costing £2.50, like the bacon roll and cuppa in the café that stood here before the station’s last refurbishment, your baguette and flimsy cardboard cup of wan tea costs at least double that.
The first time I was presented with this perplexing excuse for a bacon roll and a cup to tea, I simply couldn’t understand how any big corporation could get something so simple so colossally wrong. And then I realised that part of the problem is that in every chain like this, everything is prepared off-site, packaged in cellophane and delivered to each branded outlet, foolproof and ready to eat or microwave. Head office has decided that the branch staff can’t be trusted with the simple act of cooking, that they’re incapable of performing tasks at work that they, you and I carry out perfectly well at home in our leisure time. This is what now passes for ‘progress’, as our civilisation starts to pick up speed on its downward curve.
In any of these franchises, or on the trains themselves, or even in the supposedly more upmarket coffee shop chains these places emulate, a closer inspection of the contents of whatever they pass off as a bacon sandwich provides further confirmation of the inevitable demise of our way of life. I can’t have my bacon sandwich, baguette, ciabatta or whatever-else-they’ve-decided-to-serve-it-on-except-a-simple-fucking-roll without sauce, so this means I have no choice but to open the thing to apply my sachet of HP. (Despite the sachet’s design, I sometimes even succeed in getting more onto the roll than on my hands, sleeve and chin.) Opening the roll to apply the sauce makes it more edible, but at the same time removes any desire to eat. Inside, you find a few gossamer-thin strips of streaky bacon the colour of old blood, covering a quarter to a third of the surface area of the bread. In my time, I’ve bought some pretty cheap and nasty bacon from some fairly down-at-heel supermarkets and corner shops, and it’s never looked as mean and ugly as this. I’ve no idea where they get it from.
Even in the rare chains where the bacon is better quality than the scrapings from the abattoir floor, it’s still streaky. There’s a great deal I admire about American culture and cuisine, but bacon seems to be some kind of national blind spot. They seem unaware that back bacon exists, because if they did know about it they wouldn’t insist on serving streaky bacon on their breakfasts and burgers. And as the popularity of American cuisine surges in the UK, chains here are replacing back bacon with streaky, to be more like the Americans, even though they know it’s not as good.
We’re going backwards.
This is just one example of Britain’s food identity crisis, the sense that anything British must somehow be inferior to something foreign, even when this is evidently not true. At the time of writing, Pret à Manger’s ‘bacon roll’ is in fact a ‘bacon brioche’, served ‘with a dab of unmistakably French butter’. The French don’t do bacon rolls. The English do. So why would anyone think a French-style bacon roll would be an improvement on the English original?
As well as offering a warped version of the bacon sandwich or roll, these chains also offer something they usually call an ‘all-day breakfast’ roll, sandwich, bloomer or even wrap. These generally contain streaky bacon, a sausage sliced into tiny wafers, some kind of omelette and a ‘tomato relish’ because you could use ketchup or brown sauce like a normal person but where would the fun be in that? These products are a plangent reminder that the modern ‘on the go’ lifestyle – a phrase beloved of food marketers but no one else – means we don’t have time for a real breakfast any more. The whole concept depresses me so much I’ve never been able to bring myself to try one.
Until I went to Belfast.
St George’s Market is a beautiful Victorian indoor market that has won many awards. While it’s unashamedly foodie, it celebrates the traditional and affordable as well as the more exclusively gastronomic. I’m advised to get there early to try the Belfast Bap.
The saying around here is that the word ‘bap’ is an acronym for ‘bread at affordable prices’. This isn’t true in terms of etymology, but it is true in Belfast: the Belfast bap was created by an Armagh baker called Barney Hughes to help feed Belfast’s poor in the 1845-49 famine, and stuck around as a favourite food for the workers in the docks nearby.
Appropriately, given the history of shipbuilding in those docks, the roll itself is of titanic proportions. It’s roughly the size and shape of the millennium dome, deep brown, almost burnt on top. Served as a breakfast bap, it comfortably accommodates two thick rashers of back bacon, two sausages sliced once lengthways, and a fried egg, all sitting on a thick stratum of mushrooms and fried onions. I order it with a cup of tea, and haul my breakfast to a small table in front of the baked goods stall that assembled it. The roll is the same height as the top of the Styrofoam cup.
The first word that strikes me as I tuck in is ‘comforting’. Everything is well done without quite being burnt. There’s caramelisation and depth, richness, and an instinctive threat of danger. Rolls like this give the cooked breakfast its cancerous reputation: it has nothing to do with the scare stories stoked by the Daily Mail: you look at this, and taste it, and your gut says, ‘Oh wow, this is obviously carcinogenic. How could it not be?’
The roll is so big it probably inspired the building of the Titanic in the first place. And like the ship, it sinks. It takes time to work through this thing, and after the first ten minutes, while the dome that forms the top half remains unbowed, the base just can’t cope and simply dissolves in the watery grease that’s now pooling on my paper plate. It’s now no longer possible to gnaw away at this edifice unassisted.
On the counter, there’s a cup full of disposable knives and forks.
I have a word with myself. The dissolving base is a failsafe mechanism. You could quite reasonably walk away at this point. No one would blame you. You’ve done as much here as any reasonable person could. Whereas if you pick up a knife and fork and carry on, you’re making a statement, a declaration of reckless bravado.
OK, just another couple of bites…
Twenty minutes after I bought it, stuffed after eating about two-thirds of the thing, I finally admit defeat. The mess that’s left on my plate is so substantial it could easily be used to make a new all-day breakfast muffin or wrap of the same size and consistency as those found in high street coffee shop chains. As far as I know, this could be how those chains do source their produce. It doesn’t matter to me: I never need eat breakfast again.
Pie Fidelity is published by Particular Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, on 4th April 2019, and is available for pre-order. Disclosure: my trip to Belfast was partially funded and made possible by Tourism NI. Thanks to the wonderful Claire Keenan for introducing me to the amazing worth of Northern Ireland’s food and drink.
“We just don’t want it to be about beer or cider,” they said.
“What else ya got?”
“Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.”
Anthony Bourdain (1956 – 2018)
I was devastated when Bourdain died.
He caught a lot of flak from beer geeks for criticising craft beer, but when he spoke about lots of people earnestly sipping tiny samples of their “Mumford & Sons IPAs”, I had to hold my hands up in surrender. Even when he was being unreasonable, he was usually right. His writing style was, along with George Orwell and Stephen King, a significant influence on the development of my own.
I was just starting the second draft of this book when news of Bourdain’s passing broke. I hadn’t been thinking about him as a direct influence while I was writing the first draft – which is weird given that this will be my first book overtly about food. But then, after his death, I was reading lots of stuff about him, and lots of his best lines, and I found the quote above and realised he’d perfectly described the book I’d just finished, even though he will never know about it.
I’m using this quote in the front of the book because it’s pretty much an introduction to the entire idea in three punchy, beautifully syncopated, passionate, enlivening, third-eye-opening sentences. I can only hope there are three sentences in the book that read as well – otherwise, it’s all downhill once we get into the text proper.
I always wanted to write more broadly than beer. Not because beer is limiting – it’s not, in terms, of what you can write about, even if it is in terms of the breadth of people you can reach – but it’s not the only subject in the world that I’m interested in exploring via the process by which I write books.
Most people I know who are passionate about beer – or cider- are also passionate about food. The best ones, the ones whose opinions I respect the most about what they drink, are also experts on what’s good to eat – not just what it tastes like and how we might get our hands on the best, but also how food fits in with everything else.
After The Apple Orchard proved to be pleasantly successful, Penguin, who published that book, asked me what else I might want to write about. (There was a glut of beer books at the time.) I realised that when I’m not thinking about beer or cider, for a good chunk of the time I’m thinking about food – not just eating it (though a lot of it is that, as my physique suggests) – but also about how to cook it, the act of sharing it, what it means, how it impacts us and defines us. Yes I’m post-rationalising here, but what I mean is, I realised that in the same way it had long puzzled me that British beer drinkers tend to be dismissive of cask ale even as craft beer drinkers around the rest of the world revere it at least as much as any other beer style, we also tend to be down on our food in a similar way.
Except that if you actually engage us in talking about food, we’re not: fish and chips, Sunday roasts and bacon sandwiches are three of the most dominant icons that define Britain. Our food and drink is indelibly linked with how others see us, and our own sense of who we are.
And people love talking about them: their memories of both the best and the worst, the comfort they bring, the way they brought families and friends together when we were much younger. More recently, we’ve made other dishes such as curry and spag Bol as British as the rest – but go back far enough, and all our favourite meals have multicultural origins.
So this is a book about nine meals that define us. It’s about appreciating these meals in their perfect context and situation, about the typical example rather than the best, about how they are important to us, and what it means that they are.
This is also my most personal book to date: I had no idea when I started writing, but if you want to explore the meaning of food, you can’t do so honestly without delving in to what food means in your own life. About a quarter of the word count in this book turned out to be memoir. If you’re looking for dispassionate food history, stop reading now. If you’re honest with yourself, your relationship with food is a gateway to your own memories and emotions too, whether they are happy or sad. (Mine tend to be snatched moments of joy in a relatively unhappy childhood.)
If you’re looking for something patriotic, something that can make you proud to be British in these uncertain times, this is the book for you. If you’re expecting that to come with some kind of “And the thing is, because we’re good at something, that means every other nation on earth is shit compared to us, let’s kick all the fuckers out” then I’m sorry. but maybe it’s not for you. #notsorry.
From the blurb:
‘Yes, it’s good. It’s great.
But we’re British, and we don’t have to bang on about it all the time.‘
In Britain, we have always had an awkward relationship with food. We’ve been told for so long that we are terrible cooks and yet according to a 2012 YouGov survey, our traditional food and drink are more important than the monarchy and at least as significant as our landscape and national monuments in defining a collective notion of who we are. Taking nine archetypically British dishes – Pie and Peas, A Cheese Sandwich, Fish and Chips, Spag Bol, Devonshire Cream Tea, Curry, The Full English, The Sunday Roast and a Crumble with Custard – and examining them in their perfect context, Pete Brown reveals just how fundamental food is to our sense of identity, perhaps even our sense of pride, and the ways in which we understand our place in the world.