England’s international foods
Two weeks ago I wrote about the range of Brazilian food and its global influences in anticipation of Brazil hosting the greatest international sporting event of all: the World Cup. For the most part the World Cup, now in the concluding matches of the group stage, has not disappointed. There have been huge numbers of goals, star players like Messi and Neymar have impressed, and an enjoyable dose of controversy (no surprises that Luis Suarez is involved there). We can only hope that the competition continues in this entertaining vein through the knockout games.
Of course, the Brazilian dishes of a fortnight ago are just the beginning of a possible World Cup viewing style that accompanies games with appropriate national cuisine. So, managing to find time to cook between 5 o’clock, 8 o’clock and 11 o’clock kick offs, watching France could be accompanied by a dinner of canard à l’orange, a bottle of Bordeaux merlot and a tarte au fraise (this latter came courtesy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cookery and was always a family favourite from that book, successfully baking this tart has helped me get beyond my previous beef with Child).
Similarly, before the surprise early exit of the hotly tipped Spanish, the defending champions and first team to be eliminated from this year’s competition, we watched them crash to defeat accompanied by a paella and some San Miguel beers. The red of the peppers and tomatoes and the yellow tint of the saffron coloured rice pleasingly match the colours of the national flag of a country whose king, Juan Carlos I, abdicated within hours of their elimination from the competition (albeit for reasons that were presumably not related to the football).
Spain’s early exit was as much down to a tough draw that placed them against top contenders the Netherlands and Chile along with the general failure of European teams in South America, than it was about the lack of quality in the Spanish line-up. England, too, faced a draw that pitched them against one of Europe’s top teams and a highly rated South American opposition: Italy and Uruguay. The third opponent, Costa Rica, were expected to provide the other three with at least one easy game, a theory that would be quickly shown to be resoundingly inaccurate.
If Brazilian cuisine drew on influences from Japan to West Africa, being made up from many of the World Cup’s competing nations, then the same could be said of England and their three opponents, all of whom have sent culinary influences our way, improving our national food in the same way that the influx of their players has improved the quality of the English Premier League. So, I decided to pay tribute to that by cooking a dish to eat in front of each game that acknowledged the influence of each opposing country on our food.
14th June – Italy 2-1 England – Spaghetti Bolognese
Let’s face it, Italian food has become such a part of our culture in this country that there are endless high street chains offering “Brand Italia“, an Anglicised all-encompassing version of Italian cuisine that standardises and irons out any regional or seasonal variations. Of course a large amount of the success of the likes of Strada or Prezzo lies in the fact that this is good basic food at a reasonable price that offers something familiar and comforting and that has become the role of everyday Italian food in English culture. Nowhere is this more apparent than in English favourite the “spag bol”, a dish of Italian components and influences rather than one that is genuinely Italian.
In my previous look at international influence on our country’s food in search of what might be called our “national dish”, I mentioned this survey from UKTV naming spaghetti bolognese as Britain’s favourite food. The list is filled with the sort of heart fare, from beef casserole, to chilli to shepherd’s pie, that suggests that it is in this spot that we view spaghetti bolognese: easy, reliable and warming. According to the survey 60% of Brits can cook a spaghetti bolognese without a recipe, a lot more than is normal in a culture that values following a recipe more than anything.
Back in January when we last visited Italy, specifically Naples in many ways the country’s food capital, I wrote about the role that the core ingredients of pizza, pasta, tomato, cheese and basil all had in the local and national cuisine, exporting food coloured like the Italian tricolor all around the world.
Naples, who finished a strong third in the Italian Serie A this year and are the spiritual home of World Cup icon Diego Maradona (worshipped like a classic icon in the city), is the home of the spaghetti part of the spaghetti bolognese, but the sauce half comes from the other side of the country, from, as you might expect, Bologna. Far less of a successful football city, Bologna were relegated from this year’s Serie A, but have enjoyed a period of football dominance during the era of fascist Italy’s back to back World Cup wins in the 1930s. The club’s star winger of the time, Amedeo Biavati, was the Bologna star who lit up the tournament with a new trick: the stepover. It’s sort of a shame that today’s greatest exponent of that move, Cristiano Ronaldo, has been so anonymous in this tournament.
The ragú alla bolognese, as the bolognese sauce is known, can be dated back to the serving of pasta with meat based sauces in the Emilia Romagna region (of which Bologna is the principle city) in the early 18th century, while the first recipe appeared in Romagnan businessman Pellegrino Artusi, who used to hang out around Bologna’s famous university before moving to Florence and becoming a success. His book, La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiare bene (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Fine Dining) was published in 1891 when Artusi was 71 and has remained a perpetually popular read in Italy.
A classic bolognese sauce as outlined by the Italian Academy of Cuisine should be made with a soffritto of sautéed onion, carrot and celery, so this is what I began with, to which I added minced beef and pancetta, fresh tomatoes and tomato purée, red wine and beef stock. Typically the people of Bologna pair this with a pasta like tagliatelle, made with egg and soft wheat flour, whose flat shape is good for absorbing the sauce. It is only as it travelled overseas and arrived in countries like this where the Southern Italian dry durum wheat pasta spaghetti was added. So, in a sense, my final spaghetti bolognese dish was more English than it was Italian.
As we tucked into our Anglo-Italian pasta dish, England impressed with some creative, attacking play, bouncing back instantly on going 1-0 down. Ultimately, though, just as they did on the plate, the Italians proved to have too much quality for the English to compete.
19th June – Uruguay 2-1 England – Steak Pie
I mentioned last week that I was pleased as a Southampton fan that one of our ex-players was responsible for introducing football to Brazil. I was equally proud to see so many Saints players appearing in this World Cup, with both England and Uruguay having Saints players available for selection in the second game (none of whom started). For England Southampton had sent youth academy products Adam Lallana and Luke Shaw as well as fan favourite centre forward Rickie Lambert (who had already agreed his dream move from Saints to Liverpool for the coming season). For Uruguay it was young winger Gastón Ramirez and it is Ramirez’s home town, a small industrial town on the border with Argentina that is not even amongst the 20 biggest urban areas in the World Cup’s smallest country, that points the way towards Uruguay’s influence on English food habits.
Yes, Gastón Ramirez may be the most famous person to come out of Fray Bentos to England, but the town has some far better known products when it comes mass produced foodstuffs. As with the southern parts of Brazil and much of Argentina, the countries on either side of Uruguay, the local landscape is well suited to rearing cattle and by 1863 there was already an industrial meat packing plant in Fray Bentos that played a central part in the country’s industrial revolution. Thanks to the German Liebig’s Extract of Meat Company (makers of Oxo), Fray Bentos corned beef was already being shipped to Britain. By the 1940s and 50s the Fray Bentos range had extended to tinned soups, fruits, puddings and pies.
The factory in Fray Bentos closed in 1979, which was a serious blow in a town of less than 15,000 where the factory employed around 5000 at its height of production. It is now a museum to Uruguay’s industrial meat packing heritage (the star object appears to be a pickled two headed calf’s heads) as the Fray Bentos company is now based in Europe and described by current owners Baxters as “an iconic British brand“. If ever there was an example of the English taking on a Uruguayan food a la spaghetti bolognese, then the steak pie must be it, so that is what I decided to make for the second game.
Fray Bentos brand pies come in a variety of types including steak and kidney, steak and ale, and just steak, but I wanted to make mine in a way that would pay tribute to both teams involved and hopefully be a lot more flavoursome than the cheap Fray Bentos tinned pie. If the steak pie element of the dish looked towards Gastón Ramirez, the other part of the filling would acknowledge the old fashioned football fairy tale of England’s Saints forward Lambert, from factory worker to World Cup international.
Lambert, whose goals took Saints all the way from lowly League 1 through back to back promotions and into the top half of last year’s Premier League, was released by boyhood club Liverpool and then Blackpool for whom he played just three games. After that he ended up working for a beetroot bottling plant for the summer of 2001 before Third Division Macclesfield Town offered him £50 in travel expenses to play for them. When he joined Southampton five years ago Lambert had never played in England’s top two divisions. Now, after 106 Saints goals the former beetroot bottler has returned to his childhood team of Liverpool after their second place finish, 17 years after they let him go. The climax of this rags to riches story is, of course, a call up for England, for whom he scored three minutes into his first appearance, and a place in the World Cup squad.
To honour Lambert’s climb to a place in the World Cup team, I decided to make my pie a steak and beetroot pie. I fried steak, onions and carrots in beef stock and added chopped beetroot, all of which I baked in a pastry case and served with mustard mash and green beans.
The pie was nice, although the beetroot was perhaps too strong a flavour for the other components, and it definitely fulfilled the stodgy, hearty style of dish that made the Fray Bentos pie so popular among football audiences. The only thing is, those are usually played in the winter. In front of the summer World Cup the steak pie and mash was perhaps a little heavy.
As for the game, Ramirez failed to make it off the bench and Lambert only managed to come on for three minutes as England struggled for goals in a 2-1 defeat that all but put them out of the tournament, which is bound to put a dampener on the enjoyment of other things like dinner.
24th June – Costa Rica 0-0 England – Casado
Alongside Italy and Uruguay, Costa Rica are not only not a traditional force in world football, they are also far less obviously influential on global and local cuisine. Given the entire population of Costa Rican nationals living over here apparently amounts to all of 256 people, it’s not like there’s a big immigrant community hungry for the tastes of home and keen to offer the same to the people of England. In fact, there is only one sole lonely Costa Rican restaurant in the entire country and it is here in Yorkshire, somewhat surprisingly in the seaside town of Whitby, not exactly known as a hub of vibrant multiculturalism (also, given we are fairly regular visitors to Whitby, it’s a little surprising that we have never encountered this place). However, Costa Rican food has found its way into English kitchens and we didn’t even have to go as far as Whitby to see it.
In fact Costa Rican food is available at the local supermarket. In recent years there has been a marked trend in Morrisons setting themselves up as a trader in unusual or exotic fruit and vegetables and, it turns out, quite a lot of these are sourced from Costa Rica. Visiting the shop in the build up to Costa Rica’s England encounter I was able to buy plantains, eddoes (a hard tuberous root with thick rough skin) and chayotes (a green squash or gourd also known as “pear squash” used in salads, salsas and stir fries). All of these were ingredients that I had never cooked with before, but their easily accessible presence in a fairly small local supermarket speaks of how fruits and vegetables like these from Costa Rica are becoming an increasingly everyday thing in this country and English cooking becoming more bold and experimental (the same cannot be said, unfortunately, for English football which reverted to type as the team were eliminated playing a very bland dead rubber game against the already qualified Costa Ricans).
Like the Brazilian feijão com arroz and feijoada I talked about two weeks ago, the national food of Costa Rica is based around rice and beans (both countries had large West African slave communities in the colonial era and this cultural overlap along with the cheap cost of the ingredients accounts for the ubiquity of this rice and beans combination across much of Central and South America). In Costa Rica this mostly takes the form of casado. The word means “married”, but unlike the leftover dish eaten for the following day’s breakfast gallo pinto, the rice and beans are kept separate on the plate, typically accompanied by some sort of meat and salad components and the ever popular deep fried slices of plantain.
Using the black beans left over from my feijoada, I soaked them overnight and then fried them along with some onion, the sliced eddoes and chicken stock and let that simmer during the first half. As a meat I used chicken, marinated in lime, chilli, sugar and soy sauce in the style of Caribbean jerk chicken (a type of Central American food that is more influential in England than Costa Rican food has). The chayote I sliced and fried with red peppers and tomatoes, flavouring with lime juice and coriander to make a salsa. Finally, I deep fried slices of the plantain to make my finished casado.
In the end I was more pleased that I’d managed a reasonable usage of all the ingredients that I had never used before than I was blown away by the finished product. Like the game that the casado was a little bland compared to the earlier efforts. Not bad, just not as exciting as the exoticism of the ingredients might suggest.
Costa Rica topped the group in football, but in terms of dinner Italy remained the best. England’s early elimination prevents any further England match food fusion. Well, at least until Russia 2018 when the host nation’s food will, perhaps, not be so memorable.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: You don’t really think of Spag Bol as fusion cooking, nor Fray Bentos (I’ve never actually had a Fray Bentos pie – my main reference point for them is the webcomic ScaryGoRound). I think the spaghetti won out as my favourite, though the pie was a close second. As Mustard says, the casado was a little bland and not quite together as a dish, though I suspect a few more goes might make it easier to make sense of. Fuse it more with English cuisine. The fact you can buy plantains, chayote and eddoes in a local supermarket tells you a lot about how the English embrace other countries’ cooking.