Feeding a need to know: Tom Jaine bought a food publishing firm and set about making the British care about culinary heritage
by Tamasin Day-Lewis
Daily Telegraph, Saturday September 30 2000
“We ought to know about our culinary past. Food and identity is terribly important, but no one takes it seriously in England.” This statement may seem like a sweeping generalisation, but agent provocateur Tom Jaine is uniquely placed to make it.
His culinary credentials are impeccable. When Tom was 12, his stepmother married George Perry-Smith. Christopher Driver described George’s Hole in the Wall in Bath as “the single most influential restaurant of the post-war years”. As a boy, Tom would whip out of his boarding school after lunch, and into The Hole for a second lunch. “It was like being a papist in a Methodist school,” he says.
Even in the mid-1950s, restaurant life was considered a little racy. “I really liked being part of the restaurant, it was so Bohemian,” he explains. “George had sandals and a beard and all that French stuff. I liked it. I liked the life. If you’re brought up in any game your environment does tell.”
After reading modern history at Baliol, Tom became an archivist. “I would have liked to be the new Simon Schama, but archives don’t allow that.”
However, burrowing away as a back-room boy didn’t last, and scholarship, which in Tom’s case is prodigious, was temporarily consigned to the back burner when, in 1974 George bought The Carved Angel at Dartmouth, and suggested that Tom ran it with Joyce Molyneaux. “George had been 100 per cent father to me. I felt tremendous filial solidarity, and we had had lots of adventures, so I thought, ‘Oh, well, whoopee’!”
We hurtle into the kitchen. Tom is baking bread for lunch. Excitably, he remonstrates with the dough, or, rather, with the inferior, quick-action yeast he has used. “This is really bad. It should be double the size.”
He returns to The Carved Angel. “I loved it, absolutely loved it. It was 10 years of bliss. But I think that in this business you have to give up at 50. If you cook beyond 40, there must be something wrong with you. It’s so punishing.”
I ask Tom if The Carved Angel made a lot of money when it became successful.
“We never made a large profit. George will tell you that money and me don’t quite mix. I don’t know what happened. George would say we didn’t charge enough. He tried. We were quite mean and not hideously extravagant.”
Tom’s slightly wacky, professorial charm and wit tail off into a sort of boyish helplessness. “I seem to be very good at business, but I’m just not.”
He makes another roll-up and, with hilarity, goes on to recount the selection process for the Good Food Guide, which he edited between 1989 and 1994.
“I had to be passed by the boss of the Consumers Association. He thought I was a limp-wristed fool from start to finish. I nearly blew it at the interview.” After five years, Tom returned to Devon and became a baker. “I was the world expert on bread, built my own bread oven, and wrote my bread book, Making Bread At Home.”
Then, seven years ago, when publisher and food historian Alan Davidson needed to offload Prospect Books to complete The Oxford Companion to Food, Tom, who describes Alan as “my other father figure”, bought the publishing company. “Alan’s twin prongs had been the ethnology and history of cooking. I’ve simply carried on where he left off. The distinction is, I’m probably keener on the history.” Prospect publishes between six and 12 books a year. “We are not talking Grub Street, we’re talking micro-publishing. I never expect to sell more than 1,000 books, and some only sell 50. I edit, re-write, typeset, design; the authors get no advances, only royalties. We just keep afloat.”
Last year’s great success was Traditional Foods of Britain, by Laura Mason with Catherine Brown, which Tom describes as “the most important book in any sphere published last year”. It is a book that clearly helps define our contemporary culinary identity, the issue closest to Tom’s heart. “We are quite specifically different from other European countries. Oh, we’re brilliant magpies; we garner and garnish from our imperial past, but our identity is in crisis.
I don’t mean we should go out and eat historic dishes, but we should know what makes us different, not so that it makes us more different, but self-confident nations have that sense of where they come from.”
The 17th- and 18th-century facsimiles Tom publishes tell us precisely what made English food different; that we used suet, which no other countries did; cooked puddings when others didn’t (the idea of the pudding cloth is specifically English); that in the early 19th century, the French did not think our cuisine beyond the pale but considered us the best roasters. Read William Ellis’s The Country Housewife’s Family Companion of 1750 and you will see just how different the recipes are to, say, a French book of court cookery.
“It is the most wonderful book,” says Tom. “It’s one of the few 18th-century books that discusses the diet, farming, medicine and household of ordinary English people. Most books were about haute cuisine. Ellis’s is almost a social-studies book. The pig cookery is thrilling – how to salt pork and prepare flitches of bacon. And the gruels, potages, barley and wheat: we don’t cook with grain these days, but the farmer or peasant did then.” Tom is hoping that Tomas Graves’s delightful book Bread and Oil will underwrite the Ellis, which has only sold 39 copies, but which cost him £5,000 to produce.
Recent publications include Helen Sabieri’s brilliant Afghan food and Cookery, which tells of the life, culture and hitherto undocumented cuisine of the Afghanis and contains an inspirational chapter on cooking rice. The most exciting future publication will be George Perry-Smith and Joyce Molyneaux’s recipes, which will arc the past 50 years, the period in which George began the process of redefining British food and taste.
No Arts Council grant has been forthcoming to the valiant and valuable Prospect Books. What does it say about our country, that we are not enabling someone whose driving passion, appreciation, and deep understanding of food scholarship is unparalleled to flourish?
If this slim volume of an enterprise should cease to exist, we will lose something priceless. Not elite and narrow, but fundamental, a utility, a slice of history that should exist for future generations.