How is it that a Belgian graphic designer came to be an authority on British food culture? Thanks to a nursery rhyme, apparently. As a kid, Regula Ysewijn became enamoured with the English isle across the water “of black and white swans”. When she started her blog, Miss Foodwise, her mutual passions for food, antique cookbooks and all things Brit finally found a home. Ysewijn celebrates the farmers, producers and honest British fare she encounters through her travels around England as a photographer, but it’s in her posts (and recipes) on age-old dishes that Ysewijn really hits her stride, as she delves deep into the history of the country’s classics, from Bonfire Night parkin cakes and cottage pies to medieval chicken soup and Tudor prune tarts. It’s a fascinating read, heightened by Miss Foodwise’s charming writing and neatly styled pics – which you can find more of in her debut cookbook, Pride and Pudding, released later this year.
“British food culture knows a long and intriguing history. From the beginning of time, invaders have influenced the food, helped it evolve and shaped it with the introduction of new crops, spices and animals. Foreign visitors have found British food so outstanding that many of them literally wrote home about it. We know from these letters and diaries that the British were always applauded for the supreme quality of their meat, the art of roasting and the large variety of puddings on offer. All this history amazes me and intrigues me every day, so much so that I have just finished writing a book entirely devoted to the history of British puddings.
“Of course, we all know British food has had a bad reputation for decades, but before the decline, which can be attributed to social shifts and wartime, British food was outstanding and I do believe today British food has come to a point where it can seriously rival French and Italian food, just like it did centuries ago. Britain hasn’t lost its traditional regional dishes; some of them are a little forgotten, but they can still be found in my precious collection of old cookery books.”
“Modern British food celebrates the fruit of the land, and those who grow and rear it. Traditional breeds of farm animals have been revived and there is a strong group of artisan producers who understand, like centuries ago, that when you have the best possible produce, food will be beautiful.”
I started my blog to… Uncover the forgotten and traditional food culture of Britain. Since I was a little girl, Britain has been my greatest passion, and I love food, so it became a blog about British food and culture. When I am writing for the blog and other publications, and travelling around for my job as a photographer, I often meet the most incredible people: fishermen, farmers, butchers and bakers. I like to write down their stories, so the blog isn’t just recipes, it’s the stories of the artisans and stories about the land.
The must-cook recipe on my website is… Sweet lamb pie a dish from the 18th century. The flavours are very much inspired by those of medieval times. The pie contains not only meat but also sweet potato and artichoke, along with sweet spices, currants and candied peel. It is a very delicate dish, and it will guarantee a flavour sensation. It really is a crowd-pleaser every time I cook it.
I can’t wait to go back to… A little fishing village in North Devon to eat freshly caught mackerel or herring with my fisherman friends there. The fresh salty sea air brings seasoning to a simple fish, which is better than any food at a Michelin-star restaurant for being taken from the surrounding waters just hours before it hits the hot butter in a frying pan. It is humbling food, with great importance given to the remaining small-scale fishing fleets left around the British coast.
My current food obsession is… Cheese-making. I am so lucky to live near a farm where I can buy raw milk to make cheese. I find it magical to see the curds set, and even more magical to then use the cheese in my cooking. I sometimes teach children to make cheese and the amazed look in their eyes when the milk transforms to curd is just the most rewarding thing ever. If everyone would make cheese, the world would be a much better place, I’m sure of it. A little magic brings happiness.
Eating… Traditional fish ‘n’ chips takes me back to a rainy Sunday in Devon in the ‘90s when my parents and I couldn’t find a pub or restaurant open to eat dinner; back then, most of them were closed on a Sunday evening and those that were open often didn’t welcome children. We eventually found a ‘chippy’ and had our fish ‘n’ chips straight from the newspaper it was wrapped in, hiding from the rain in our car. Maybe not the most fancy of memories but nonetheless unforgettable. It was my first fish ‘n’ chips and as wrapping in newspaper was banned around that time, I was fortunate to enjoy that old custom of doing some reading with my food!
Nugget of cooking wisdom… Stop holding on to recipes and try to cook from your gut feeling. Don’t over complicate things; when the ingredients are superb, let them shine.
I learnt to cook from… Jamie Oliver’s The Naked Chef series on the telly. I had a special notebook in which I wrote down the episodes each dish appeared in with added notes. As a teenager, I had no money to buy cookbooks, so notebooks were my alternative. My mum, bless her, has always cooked from scratch, but she wasn’t very good at it so I had to look elsewhere to learn.
When I go back to my home town… Antwerp, the first thing I eat is prune tart. It’s traditionally eaten on Ash Wednesday, but these days you will be able to find it in bakeries as it is such a traditional tart.
British food in one word… Inventive.
Friends always ask me to cook my… Mussels. They are grown not so far from where I live so I can get them super fresh. I serve them with good Belgian fries and Belgian beer. My foreign friends go absolutely wild for this down-to-earth food. We eat with our hands and there’s a giant pile of freshly made fries and beautiful mussels in the middle of the table. It is brilliantly simple.
The one thing I can’t cook is… Kidneys. I’ve tried a couple of times, but I end up not eating them because I’ve lost my appetite when I’ve cooked them. I just can’t get over the smell.
If I ever met… Elizabeth David, I would ask her to tell me about the moment she began to be interested in British food and its history. Her first books were all about Mediterranean food, ignoring British food, which appeared bleak to her on her return to Post-war Britain after her travels abroad. She was given The Gentle Art of Cookery by Hilda Leyel by her mother and noted that she learned to cook from it. I adore this book as well. I’m sure we would have plenty to talk about.
I always have… A truckload of British organic flours in my pantry; butter, milk, cheese and eggs in my fridge; and homemade bread in my freezer. With that, I always have a meal.
My favourite biscuit to dunk in a cup of tea is… A Rich Tea, proven as the best dunker.
My most sauce-splattered cookbook is… Eliza Smith’s Compleat Housewife (1727). I have the original book from 1737. Needless to say, I am very careful I don’t splatter any sauce on it as it is very precious to me, but also as it is a very rare edition. I realise I am probably just a temporary owner of the book, just like those who owned it before me. It will most certainly outlive me.
Beyond my own blog, some of my favourites reads are… Ivan Day’s Food History Jottings – Ivan Day is an authority on social history and his blog is one in which you loose yourself reading. I recently discovered Annie Grey’s blog Musings on Food and History – she is a food historian like Ivan, but never noticed she had started a blog. Her witty way of writing about food history has me smiling behind my desk every time. I know both Annie and Ivan and wish I could photograph all the historical dishes they prepare! Then, for the more general blogs that I enjoy for their photography and stories, and also because they are my friends: Jul’s Kitchen by Giulia Scarpaleggia; her blog takes me back to Tuscany every time I visit it. Emiko Davies for her Florentine food and stories. Life Love Food by Valeria Necchio, who writes from London about Venetian food and the intriguing produce she brings home from her day job at Natoora.
Top picks from Miss Foodwise
Blog Appétit Editor Yasmin Newman
Blog Appétit is our curated list of go-to food blogs we love, with a focus on high-quality photography, trusted recipes, strong editorial themes and a unique voice and personality. View previous Blog Appétit entries.