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Taste: a disappointing turkey
on 12 December 2007
Though it is beautifully illustrated and the cookery texts which are its main basis are carefully considered and explained, the usefulness and value of this book are terribly undermined by the limits of its author's grasp of British history.
There's a hint of the nature of the difficulty in the oddly separated bibliography. The books used by the author are separated into so-called primary and secondary sources, a fashionable thing for a historian to do. But the primary sources quoted are, for the most part, not so much primary as modern editions of primary sources, and a good number of the secondary sources are so out of date that they are better treated as primary sources for their own period than as reliable interpretative sources for a new history.
The weakness in historical interpretation is clearest in the first part of the book, where an old-fashioned and out-of-date account of Britain's early history--apparently rooted in fairly random dips into Romano-British archaeology--encourages the author to guess and make judgements about her subject when a better informed writer might have been more cautious and less judgemental.
There is no evidence here that Ms Colquhoun has come across Colin Renfrew's revolutionary redrawing of Europe's (and Britain's) ethnic and linguistic map ('Archaeology and Language', London, 1987) or Julian Richards' 'Blood of the Vikings' (2001). Between them, these advances in our understanding of the origins of English and the people who spoke it draw a very different picture of southern Britain before 1066, one in which the speakers of early English (including the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who arrived from the European coast from Denmark's Jutland peninsula and south) were by no means the caricature barbarians she represents.
The usual old clichés about the words for cooked food being French, as opposed to the `old English' (that is, Scandinavian-related) words for live animals, are trotted out--but Ms Colquhoun doesn't recognise that the Normans themselves were Scandinavians--Norse-men--settled in France for only a relatively short time, even less that the battle for control of England was something of a family feud between Scandinavian cousins.
It would appear that Ms Colquhoun has been encouraged to stray beyond the safety of more recent times, where she knows and understands more, in order to provide her publisher with a book which has been written to order, to fill a niche in the market which Bloomsbury hope to address with the cash they've acquired so magically in recent years.
But good cookery books come from committed, dedicated authors writing about subjects they know and love, not from commissioned writers, however conscientious and well-meaning. Much of this book may be better than some of it--but I don't trust it at all.