The blog and me

This blog will be erratic and seldom follow themes. It will make no claims to being structured or logical. It will, I hope, be fun and occasionally insightful. I do still publish more coherent work (though in economics, and in very strange places) but that may take some believing after reading these pages. I've a PhD in economics/economic history from Cambridge, I've taught in several universities (and still do, when I get the chance) but now focus energy and attention on commercialization for a large London university, and dealing with the daily commute.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Meat flavour and the British palate: why so dull?

During the siege of Paris in 1870 a peculiar variety of animals were consumed from among the live specimens kept at the zoo in the city: lions, tigers and even elephants famously went to the abbatoir. What has always seemed extraordinary to British sensibilities, but perfectly normal to French ones, is that in the midst of the most remarkable dearth and rarity of meat the gourmands of the city could expend so much endeavour in describing and appreciating the subtle differences in the flavour of these exotic meats. Henry Labouchere, incarcerated in the city throughout the siege, noted 'Epicures in dog flesh tell me that poodle is by far the best, and recommend me to avoid bull dog, which is coarse and tasteless.' (Labouchere, 1871, p. 84).

William Hogarth 'The Roast Beef of Old England' (1748)
How such a refined epicurean sense of meat flavour obtained in France, and survived the rigours of the most withering and unremitting siege of nineteenth century Europe while England's dull 'rostbifs' dully and dutifully ate boiled and grilled meat with an apparent indifference to flavour and taste, has seemed almost to prefigure the caricatured differences between these two nations. The British, indifferent to flavour, sought sustenance and protein; the French, even in meagre privation, revelled in the taste of different, and differently cooked, meats and meat flavours. While France boasted the appreciative and discriminating palates with regard to meat of Grimod de La Reynière and Brillat Savarin, England possessed an attitude to meat best represented perhaps by George Dodds's observation that 'we may have acquired a sort of national taste for strong in preference to delicate flavours' (Dodd, 1856, p. 410), and Englishmen smothered indifferent meat with condiments to avoid meat flavour. The Exeter Post journalist seems largely correct who said of English meat cooking in 1865 that '...if the sauce were the dinner, truly there was nothing left to be desired. But...of meat flavour there was none' (Exeter Flying Post, 22nd February 1865).

Was there, in fact, something more than the caricature of the lazy and barbaric British palate for meat and the sophisticated and subtle French one behind this reported state of affairs? In recent years, a picture of English pasture agriculture has emerged which seems to suggest that English preferences for flavour as a significant component of discrimination in meat emerged only toward the end of the 19th century, and only then started to be translated into the realm of gourmet appreciation.

During the agricultural revolution of the eighteenth century in England, 'improvement' focused primarily on yield and other elements of efficiency (such as improving herd survival rates and maximising the value of by-products such as tallow). However, even at the height of the movement to use breeding to improve output, there was some interest in improving the flavour of meat. The great breeding experimenter Robert Bakewell for instance, whilst interested principally in breeding sheep able to yield more wool, was not  indifferent to the claims of breeding's effect on flavour (Wykes, 2004). Arthur Young, noting the impact of Bakewell's work on mutton quality in 1804, noted in fact that the effect of selective breeding on flavour was understood even in the kitchens of Eton College (Young, 1804, 454-5), while later writers, such as Low (1834, 541) reflected that the most successful of the new sheep breeds of the period (the Southdown cross, which with a broader back and deeper carcass produced more meat, tallow and wool) was conspicuously improved in meat flavour too.

It was not until the 1850s, though, that flavour became a dominant or even significant element in breeding and husbandry (Copus, 1989), and only then largely due to the declining significance of non-meat animal products in domestic trade. The science of breeding, such as it was, began to interest itself in the effect on meat quality and meat flavour, and - through the new agricultural chemistry of the 1860s - in taint, kinetics in cooking and the effect of preservation techniques on flavour. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century and into the 20th, as Richard Perren has shown (Perren, 2006), selective breeding for flavour in the extensive hacienda and prairie farms of the New World was responding increasingly to flavour requirements, and flavour fashions, in European dining rooms. It is for this reason that, until the gourmand years of the last quarter of the century, English palates accepted 'bad beef badly cooked' while Frenchmen could, even as German mortars fell about Paris, dine appreciatively on rare meats with relish - and even then, not one manufactured by Herr Liebig.


Copus, A.K. (1989), 'Changing Markets and the Development of Sheep Breeds in Southern England 1750–1900' Agricultural History Review, 37, 1, 36-51

Dodd, G., (1856) The Food of London (London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longman)

Labouchere, H. (1871) Diary of the Besieged Resident in Paris (London: Bradbury Evans & Co.)

Low, D. (1835) Elements of practical agriculture : comprehending the cultivation of plants, the husbandry of the domestic animals, and the economy of the farm (Edinburgh : Bell & Bradfute)

Perren, R. (2006), Taste, Trade and Technology: The Development of the International Meat Industry since 1840 (Aldershot: Ashgate)

Wykes, D.L. (2004), 'Robert Bakewell (1725-1795) of Dishley: Farmer and Livestock Improver' Agricultural History Review, 52, 1, 38-55

Young, A. (1804), General view of the agriculture of the county of Norfolk : drawn up for the consideration of the Board of Agriculture and Internal improvement (London: R. Phillips)

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