I am often rather grumpy about the way in which food history is represented on British television. Commissioning editors in this country seem to regard it as a niche subject area only suitable for three minute intercuts into popular food programmes such as The Great British Bake Off. I suspect the purpose of these bijou interludes is to afford viewers a brief moment to make a coffee between the thrills and spills of the great cupcake, or gingerbread house challenge. Another approach has been the 'Carry on Banqueting' comedic slant, such as that of the Supersizers series some years ago, when Giles Coren and Sue Perkins took the piss out of our culinary past, while a medley of well-known celebrity chefs made fools of themselves making a mess at recreating ancient dishes. Because the food genre is considered a branch of entertainment, there has never been a serious cultural survey of our food traditions. You might say, 'what about the living history programmes, such as The Tudor Farm, or Clarissa Dixon-Wright's Hannah Glasse or The King's Cooks?' I don't suppose I am going to be popular for saying it, but I am afraid these programmes give the false impression that the food of our ancestors was terribly lumpen and unskillfully prepared. Watching the 'expert' presenters for instance, making raised pies that look like wobbly junior school pots does not really celebrate the incredible skills that our ancestors possessed in pastry work. I am afraid that they really need to up their game.
When a virtuoso chef such as Heston Blumenthal is given the opportunity to examine our culinary past, he favours an approach which tends to use highly technical contemporary methods, telling us more about modern restaurant presentation than past traditions. Very little recognition is given to real experts. For instance, the makers of a recent BBC documentary about the food writer Dorothy Hartley actually filmed Peter Brears in his home kitchen talking about her dessert recipes. But this excellent sequence never made it into the final edit. This is ironic, as the outstanding contribution that Mr Brears has made to our understanding of English food will prove in the long term to be far, far more important than that of Miss Hartley. I think we have a lot of growing up to do when it comes to this subject on British television.
Imagine my surprise then, when I was recently invited by KBS, the South Korean equivalent of the BBC to work with them on a programme about medieval food and dining in England. They did n't want a celebrity chef or restaurant critic presenter and they did n't want to dumb down the narrative. What they did want was to celebrate the true history of English food using real expertise, rather than bang on in the usual stereotypical way about how bad it was. During the process of making the documentary, which was directed by the celebrated Korean producer Kim Seung Ook, I quickly discovered the remarkable technical virtuosity, fresh perceptions and high production values of his outstanding crew.
The recipe for Sawce Madame, a goose stuffed with quinces, pears and herbs from The Forme of Cury. This is a page from a c.1420s version of the text - courtesy John Rylands Library, University of Manchester. The original text dates from the 1390s.
My aim was to accurately recreate an ambitious medieval meal in a high status household, so we chose to film at Gainsborough Hall in Lincolnshire with its wonderful great hall and kitchen complex. I enlisted the help of the outstanding re-enactment group Lord Burgh's Retinue, who regularly work at the hall. Led by Paul Mason, the group excelled themselves in a long, but exciting day's filming. I coached the kitchen crew in using their roasting range properly, showing them how to splint a salmon with hazel wands and how to skewer meats authentically, so they did n't stay still while the spits rotated. We also spent two days in my own kitchen where I demonstrated the preparation of a number of fifteenth century dishes, including a sawce madame, bake metes of partridge, gingerbread decorated with box leaves and a hastelet of fruyte. At Gainsborough we filmed a high table sequence led by Paul with full Plantagenet dining ritual, from Latin grace and blessing to washing of hands with an ewer and basin. The table and buffet was dressed correctly for the period and there were demonstrations of carving, sewing and correct service.
|A bake mete of partridge surmounted by the bird itself with gilded beak and spots of gold on its feathers|
|A soteltie waits to be taken to the top table|
|A chastelet, a pie made in the form of a castle with different fillings in each tower awaits a spectacular flambé with brandy before being brought to the table|
|An early fifteenth century gingerbread coloured with red sanders is ornamented with box leaves pinned on with cloves|
|The great hall at Gainsborough. There was originally a lantern on the roof, which allowed the smoke from the central hearth to escape. The magnificent perpendicular oriel window floods the high table with bright light.|
KBS director Kim Seung Ook(second from right) and his remarkable crew. Development producer Gina McDonald, who co-ordinated the production in the UK with me is in the middle.