What's so great about British Food?
United Kingdom Travel Blog› entry 7 of 12 › view all entries
Round about the two month mark in any trip, people start asking me if I'm homesick yet. I'm not. But there are certain kinds of food that I start to miss. And when I tell people this, they fall off their chairs laughing. British food? You miss British food? You're kidding, right? No, I'm not. British food is great. It's just that it's also really hard to find, and that we've spent the last hundred years or so telling ourselves that it isn't worth saving. At the moment, though, it's going through a bit of a rennaissance. So, with a few cautions that I'll put at the bottom, i am writing a nostalgic entry about the greatness of British Food. I'm also going to keep adding to it, so suggestions and comments are really welcome as long as I can steal them for the body of the text as I go along.
Roast beef, or lamb or pork or chicken but mostly beef, has given the Brits their French nickname Les Rosbif. Properly cooked (which to me means slightly pink), and served with roast potatoes, gravy, yorkshire puddings (despite the name, savoury - they're made of pancake batter puffed up in the oven) and vegetables and gravy. Proper gravy is made of meat juices, but a lot of places wimp out and use granules. Don't do it. If you are my mum, you get carried away at this point and make mash and broccoli and cabbage and all sorts of other goodies. Variations include bread sauce to have with chicken, and we have wholeheartedly adopted Turkey from our American pals. Not for vegetarians, but really good.
Cottage Pie/ Shephards Pie
Ground meat - beef in the former and lamb in the latter - cooked with carrots and onion and topped with mashed potato.
The British Sausage
Sausages are not the same as saussicon or wurst. They are totally different, and there are many kinds. Lovely herby Linconshires, slightly peppery Cumberland Rings, the poncy ones with boar and wine you get in posh restaurants... Yum. Ideally they should be served with mashed potato (you're picking up a theme, aren't you?) and onion gravy. have a pint while you're at it.
The British Pint
You're laughing again, aren't you? I am not talking about lager here. the Brits aren't, in all honesty, great at lager. Especially as a lot of us view a decent head as theft of 0.02 of our beer and therefore demand the glass full. I'm talking about cask conditioned ale. There are many, many kinds of ale, and some of them are nicer than others. Go to a quiet pub with a CAMRA logo, and have a chat with the barman. If you're used to lagers go for a summer ale. And it will be slightly warmer than lager. It's meant to be. Because it's not lager. Having said that, if it's actually warm then you aren't in a very good pub. But it is very, very nice. Especially with sausages.
Fish and Chips
Proper fish and chips is getting harder to find, but it is the food of the Gods when it is fresh and the batter is good and crispy. Special prizes go to any place where you can get salt and sauce - the special kind you only get in Edinburgh and parts of the East of Scotland - and eat your chips in a gale at the seafront, burning your fingers. Bliss.
Pastries, pasties, and sundry pies
For posh, the chain Pieminster in the South West of England - can't say nice enough things about them, and they are a take away and not dear. Otherwise, the universally available bakery chicken and mushroom slice, the Scotch pie, sold as a meat pie in those bits of Scotland still not bowing to the English version of the name, the steak and kidney pie with (you guessed it) mash and gravy... and of course, the cornish pastie, made of ground beef, carrot, onion, and all sorts of great things like that. All of these are portable foods and sources of huge nostagia when I lived in the USA and could only get pies with fruit in. It's not the same, guys, it just isn't. I've just been reminded about steak and ale pies too. Lush. Absolutely lush.
The British traditional pudding is currently the subject of a campaign to save it. It is no longer fashionable, a casualty of the move away from eating fatty sugary stodge to pretending that an apple fills the same hole. But once in a blue moon, a steamed pudding, Christmas pud, sticky toffee pudding or apple crumble is amazing. Especially with Birds Custard. Also, Bread and Butter pudding is a good way of using up left over bread. I make it obsessively, wherever I have access to an oven and a loaf tin. If anyone wants the recipes I'm sure I can share. These are usually available in the better sort of decent, but unpretentious, gastro-pub. It probably will be reheated, as most of these things take 45 minutes to cook, but if they do it well they won't suffer. And thanks for the reminder about treacle tart - not one of my favorites, but very traditional, sticky, and pretty amazing.
Curry (the British kind, not the stuff you'd get in Asia)
You're laughing again, aren't you? There is an oft told British legend that some forms of curry were invented for Brits who didn't like real curry. I don't know if it's true, but I do know that Brick Lane in London and the curry miles in most Northern cities are sources of amazingly good food. Authentic I wouldn't swear too, and my Asian friends say it's unrecongnisable as actual Indian or Bangladeshi cuisine, but it tastes great. As an aside, Pataks, a British company, now export their curry sauces worldwide, and I saw a jar of "English Curry Spice" on sale in a posh deli in Utrecht.
If I want luxury, then I want belgian chocolate, American Godiva, swiss... the usual suspects. If I want something good to eat at the bus stop, I crave Cadbury's. The stuff you get in America is made under license by Hershey's so it tastes of Hershey's. And I don't like Hershey's. The range of chocolate you get in a British newsagent is stunning, and there are so many kinds. Which brings us to
We are good at boiled sweets. We should be prouder of this. I recommend sour green Soor Plooms and fizzy Sherbert pips. But british sweets could easily form their own page...
Moving North to Scotland: All of the above, plus
Irn Bru is made of sugar, food coluring, and girders. Yes, girders. I don't know how either. It acts like red bull, has no redeeming nutritional value at all, and is the best hangover cure/ energy burst when you have to catch a stupid-o clock flight thing in the world, ever. I miss it horribly when I am in the South of England.
I'm not going into what's in it. It's good. Trust me. Spicy, oaty, and best served with turnip (suede) and - yes, you're ahead of me, aren't you - mashed potato
The Scottish equivalent of fudge - even sweeter, slightly crunchy, and amazingly good. Not good for you, except that it makes you happy and that's meant to be good for your immune system. Whether that cancels out the harm you do by eating all that sugar I wouldn't like to say, but you're going to climb a hill at some point if you're in Scotland, so you'll cope, right? Can be bought in shops, but it's better if you befriend someone's grandmother again
Two cautions and an acknowledgment:
1) It is hard to find good British Food - it takes a bit of research, because a lot of places either don't serve good British food because it's unfashionable or if they do they pre-cook it and then heat it back up and it's all dry. especially guilty of this are the pubs - carvery that's been out all morning, and re-heated cottage pie that I would hesitate to use as a building material. Most of the recommendations you get in the UK will be for a good sushi bar or a dececnt Italian. My advice on this matter is to go to Farmers markets and food fairs, if you get the chance, and failing that to make such good friends with a local that you are introduced to their grandmother. It has to be their grandmother, because their actual mother will probably make you spaghetti.
2) This stuff is not diet food. For that you need some other cuisine. Sorry and all.
The acknowledgement - many European countries will have versions of these foods, and I'm making no claims to uniqueness. Just Britishness