Food and England

‘I’m hungry, not tired; I want to eat heaps.’
‘That’s good. What’ll you have?’
‘Fish pie,’ said she, with a glance at the menu.
‘Fish pie! Fancy coming for fish pie to Simpson’s. It’s not a bit the thing to go for here.’                             (E. M. Forster, Howards End)

As a foodie and keen cook, I feel very grateful to be living at a time when we have access to so many foods from around the world. Not a week goes by when I don’t eat – whether home-cooked or in a restaurant – some form of international food, even if it is just the ubiquitous Italian pasta or risotto. But sometimes I yearn for classic English recipes: stews, pies, crumbles or even the scones and tea-cakes that make up the archetypal afternoon tea.

This week I got back to London after a few days away for work – where I had dined well in various restaurants (one of the perks of my new job) – very glad to be back in my own kitchen again. With the temperatures dropping and the nights drawing in, my mind turned to warming English dishes, so I was pleased to find a reference to fish pie in Howards End.

E. M. Forster’s 1910 novel – about the relationships between three very different groups of characters: the liberal, cultured, idealistic Anglo-German Schlegel sisters; the conservative, wealthy, pragmatic Wilcoxes; the poor but aspirational bank clerk Leonard Bast – can be read as a story about England and the direction in which it is heading at the turn of the 20th century.

The house – Howard’s End – which gives its name to the novel, is used by Forster as a metaphor for England. Ownership of the house is contested by the different characters, representing the way England was ‘up for grabs’ in this new post-Victorian age. Mrs Wilcox, the actual owner of the house, leaves Howards End, to the elder Schlegel sister, Margaret, in her will. The Wilcox family are horrified to discover this when they read the will, and withhold the information from Margaret. However, Margaret and the widower Henry Wilcox grow close and – despite their many incompatibilities, and the revelation of his infidelities to his first wife – marry. At the same time Helen, the younger more impetuous Schlegel sister, has a brief affair with the married Leonard Bast, who has been reduced to poverty after being given disastrous career advice by Henry. Whilst Leonard dies in an altercation with Henry’s elder son, Charles, Helen falls pregnant and gives birth to their son.

At the very end of the novel Henry announces to his children that he is leaving Howards End to Margaret in his will – so at last the terms of Mrs Wilcox’s will are met – and that ‘she intends when she dies to leave the house to … her nephew.’ A house that had once belonged to a politically and socially conservative business family is passed to an independent, intellectual outward-looking woman whose mantra is ‘Only connect‘ and who will then pass it onto a child who embodies that idea of connection, being the product of a union between two different social classes. As Margaret says to her sister: ‘I feel that our house is the future as well as the past.’

But back to fish pie. Before he proposes to her, Henry takes Margaret to dine at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, a famous London restaurant. The restaurant – which is still in operation – first opened its doors in 1828 and, according to its website, ‘One of the earliest Master Cooks insisted that everything in the restaurant be British and the Simpson’s of today remains a proud exponent of the best of British food’. As well as appearing in Howards End Simpson’s has other literary connections: famous regulars have included Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and it also features in Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life which I wrote about over the summer.

Margaret wants to eat fish pie, but Henry pours scorn on her choice and, at her request, orders ‘Saddle of mutton’ for her instead – Simpson’s was, and still is, famed for its roast meats which are carved at the table. But I felt that Margaret deserved the recipe that Henry had denied her – so here it is, with added prawns, salmon and cream to provide the luxurious touch that I’m sure Simpson’s prides itself on.

Ingredients (serves 3-4):
250g cod fillet
100g salmon fillet
100g cooked prawns
300-350ml milk
1 bayleaf
2 eggs
450g potatoes
100g butter
25g plain flour
75ml double cream
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
salt and pepper

Place the seasoned fish fillets in a large saucepan with 250ml milk and the bay leaf. Bring the milk to the boil and then reduce the heat and let it simmer for 8 minutes. Remove the fish and place on a plate to cool. Reserve the milk for later use.


Place the eggs in a small saucepan and cover with water. Bring the water to the boil – boil the eggs for 7 minutes, then remove the saucepan from the heat, place in the sink and turn on the cold water tap so that the boiling water is displaced from the saucepan. Keep the tap running until the water in the saucepan is cold. Leave the eggs in the cold water to thoroughly cool down.

Preheat the oven to 200C / Fan oven 180C / Gas mark 6.

Peel the potatoes and divide each potato into 2-3 chunks. Boil till soft and then mash with 1 tablespoon of butter and 1-2 tablespoons of milk. Season to taste.

Make a bechamel sauce by melting 50g butter in a small saucepan over a moderate heat. Add 25g plain flour and beat with a whisk until combined. Allow to cook for about 1 minute. Remove from the heat and gradually add the milk that the fish was cooked in, whisking all the time until it is fully incorporated. Return to the heat and allow to cook for 3-5 minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon all the time. Pour in the double cream and heat through. Season to taste. If the sauce is too thick you may want to add a little more milk.

Now it’s time to assemble the fish pie. Grease a medium-sized oven-proof dish with butter. Add the cooked fish, prawns, shelled and sliced egg and parsley to the white sauce. Check for taste and add more seasoning if required. Pour the fish mixture into the dish and then spoon the mashed potato on top. Smooth the potato down with a knife, and then using the prongs of the fork make a pattern on the top. Dot butter on the top of the mash and bake in the centre of the oven for 25-30 minutes until golden brown.


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