Diane Purkiss: “The Most Underrated Food in Europe, or Eating Well in England”

by Celeste Berg ’13

Dr. Diane Purkiss, Fellow in English and historian from Oxford’s Keble College, opened her presentation on February 28th, 2013 with a question to the audience. “How many of you have eaten English food?” she asked. Many hands raised in the audience of community members and students. The aroma of fragrant English cheese to be savored at the talk’s culmination tempted from the side of the room.

Diane Purkiss referred to 17th c. cookbooks in her quest to get to the heart of English cuisine.

“And how many of you enjoyed English food?” Purkiss continued. Sheepish hands sunk into laps, and audience members chuckled discreetly. Thus began Purkiss’ presentation, titled “The Most Underrated Food in Europe, or Eating Well in England.” An “ill image” appeared on the screen: frozen and subsequently overcooked carrots and peas, limp “chips,” and heavily battered, gummy fish—this represented the typical English meal envisioned by many naïve Americans. Exceedingly low-quality, infamous tourist traps on High Street such as Aberdeen Steak House and Ye Olde Cheshire Pub perpetuate this stereotype, Purkiss explained. These unsavory eateries attract unsuspecting visitors who then document and disseminate their unfortunate experiences. Purkiss showed the audience some revolting website reviews as proof.


Brent Wasser, Charlie Cao ’13, and Diane Purkiss

It was precisely this myth of poor quality English food that Purkiss aimed to refute. The English, she explained, are deliberately secretive, and wary about being pinned down to one particular food culture. She neatly reversed the question to the crowd, asking, “What exactly is American food culture?” Just as our national cuisine reflects diverse immigrant culture, English food might be seen as a fusion, incorporating elements adopted from other locales on the European continent. Purkiss cautioned the audience to not compare England with France and Italy, where food cultures are cherished for their traditional dishes rather than lauded for innovative cuisine. English food culture, she claimed, seems to have fallen victim to the idea of authenticity. The result is a sense of food culture inadequacy that has resulted in faux authentic products such as “Lymeswold,” a cheese that mimics artisanal French and Italian examples, but offers none of the quality. Purkiss argued that English cuisine should celebrate its non-traditional incorporation of the food cultures of immigrant ethnicities. In many instances, people in England consume adopted dishes and do not realize that they are eating what has become true English food.

Reputed restaurant St. John conveys a style of English cooking that has

From top to bottom: Stinking Bishop, Mongomery’s Cheddar, and Colston-Bassett Stilton

been preserved through the ages, maintaining aspects of ancient medieval cooking. St. John food is nose-to-tail—that is, all portions of the animal are valued and consumed—and the meat-heavy menu favors dark masculine flavors. This is a “port and stilton cuisine,” featuring rich, meaty dishes offset by pungent bitter greens.

But, as a slide title asked, “When Did it Go Wrong?” Purkiss presented detailed information about historical events that were formative of, but not always beneficial to, English food culture. By displaying old cake recipes, Purkiss demonstrated the often-convoluted ways that English cuisine has been passed down through the ages, constantly evolving under new influences.

These cakes connected directly with Purkiss’ visit to Williamstown by way of Charlie Cao ’13, the senior who organized the lecture in cooperation with the Sustainable Food & Agriculture Program. Cao studied abroad at Oxford University last year and sought Purkiss out for instruction in a food tutorial. This course culminated in Charlie baking five cakes from five centuries of British cooking. Purkiss’ sabbatical study of Hemingway and Charlie’s careful planning brought her to Williamstown.

Purkiss commanded the precise articulation of a seasoned scholar as she left this author salivating with her culminating descriptions of English cooking. Purkiss explained that umami, that dark and strong taste intrinsic of pork pie and sourdough bread, is the definitive characteristic of English cooking. This is a man’s cuisine, not for the faint of heart. Purkiss cited James Bond as the epitome of the English eater, evidenced by the “Bond Breakfast” of potent coffee, eggs, and hearty toast with artisanal strawberry jam. Bond’s adventures also demonstrate that he is not an insular English person. In Turkey, he consumes traditional yogurt, but still maintains his commitment to rich flavors and manly meal components.

Example menus from famous restaurants Dinner by Heston Blumenthal and The Ivy further

Stinking Bishop: “It smells like sweaty trainers, doesn’t it?”

conveyed these ideals. A signature “meat fruit” dish—listed as dating to c. 1500—consisted of a mandarin, chicken liver, and foie gras parfait with grilled bread. Purkiss concluded with a testimony to English artisanal ice cream, citing its Italian immigrant roots, and encouraged all us eager eaters to maintain an open mind when it comes to the breadth and versatility of English food.

A brief word on the cheese tasting that followed: first came long pieces of dark yellow cheddar, the body crumbling along striations much like those found in rock. This was not your supermarket cheddar, but rather Montgomery’s Cheddar, a single-family artisanal selection.  “It smells like sweaty trainers, doesn’t it?” Purkiss remarked about the next cheese, aptly titled Stinking Bishop. This washed-rind cheese bathed in perry tasted mild, sumptuous, sweet, and much more delicate than its scent indicated. We finished with Colston-Bassett Stilton, one of the few English cheeses limited to a selected geographic region. This rich, creamy, and sharp blue cheese indeed seemed the embodiment of dark, umami flavors. Purkiss described the popular English family practice of purchasing a whole wheel of Stilton for holiday celebrations, first consuming the soft interior, and then filling the remaining shell with port to yield a salty sweet delicacy. It was a thought to relish for the rest of the cold winter evening.