Let’s face facts: British food is not too popular outside Britain, particularly in Europe. I came across an article in the summer in which continental Europeans voted our food the least popular in Europe. Only three percent of our European brethren thought our cuisine was any good.
To be honest, I don’t know why. I love British food (though I have to admit there are some dishes that are a bit of an acquired taste).
Let me take you on a tour of traditional British fare. I have tried most if not all of the offerings below and can in most cases vouch for their quality and taste. So let’s begin:
English breakfast: What better way to start the day than with a plate full of grilled bacon, sausage (not the American sausage but the “Great British Banger”), baked beans, fried mushrooms, fried egg and grilled tomato? Believe me, it sets you up for the day (particularly after too much ale the night before). For added zest, slaughter your bacon and sausage with HP sauce, a thick spicy brown sauce or add some black pudding. I must tell you about black pudding (or “blood sausage” as it is known in some quarters). It is made by cooking pig or cattle blood until it is solid enough to congeal when cooled. In fact, the best black pudding comes from a town called Bury, which is just a few miles north of Manchester. As disgusting as it sounds, black pudding is actually surprisingly tasty. And I tell you what? If you are ever in England and sample a little too much of our warm beer the night before, there is no better hangover cure than a full English breakfast. I speak from experience. Oh - and the picture beneath the English breakfast is black pudding. Doesn't that look fantastic?
Fish and chips: First of all, let me just say that although deep fried, battered cod and chips wrapped in newspaper may not sound too appetising, let me assure you that it can be a divine meal, particularly in the north of England where the best fish and chips are produced. I wouldn’t advise eating it for every meal, simply because if you do you will almost certainly double your weight. However, as a one-off it is a great meal, especially if you add a tub of mushy peas to add a little flavour. When I really can’t be bothered to cook, I often stroll down to my local fish and chip shop (or “chippy”). Unbeatable.
Bangers and mash: As I mentioned above, “bangers” are traditional British sausages. I have travelled to many countries and never have I ever tasted “bangers” as succulent and delicious as the ones you find in the British Isles (including Ireland). And, as the name of this dish suggests, bangers taste divine when firmly embedded in a pile of fluffy mashed potato, with gravy as an option.
Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding: Really this means any roast meat (pork, chicken etc.) served with two vegetables, roast potatoes and Yorkshire pudding smothered in gravy. Yorkshire pudding originated in Yorkshire (of course!) but are eaten just about everywhere. In Yorkshire itself, the pudding is often served before the meal covered in gravy as a sort of starter. Strange lot, these people from Yorkshire. In France, this dish is considered so typically British that the French actually call us "rosbifs". Cheeky buggers! But to be honest it is better than certain Brits call them.
Cottage pie: I love cottage pie. Basically a cottage pie is cooked mince covered in mashed potato, which is grilled to form a crust. For added flavour, I usually grate some cheese on top as well. Truly divine.
Ploughman’s lunch: There’s a pub around ten minutes walk from my house that serves an amazing ploughman’s lunch with a wedge of cheddar cheese so colossal that you could ski down it. A ploughman’s lunch consists of chunks of homemade bread, cheese, salad, raw onion, fruit and pickles.
Lancashire hotpot: You can’t beat a good Lancashire hotpot to warm your cockles on a cold winter day. The dish originates in Lancashire, the area just north of Manchester and consists of meat, potatoes and as many vegetables as you can throw in. Throw the whole lot in a pot and leave in the oven for as long as you like (on low heat of course).
Toad in the hole: What do you get if you cross bangers with a massive Yorkshire pudding? The result is “toad in the hole”. Why it is given this weird name I don’t know. Weird ancient British humour perhaps? I am reluctant to speculate, given the oddness of my trains of thought.
Cornish pasty: These originate in Cornwall and are really beef, onion and potato pies. Well not pies exactly; they are semicircular in shape and wonderfully tasty.
Haggis: I’ve eaten haggis – once! I won’t eat it again, that’s for sure, but not for the obvious reason. If you don’t already know, haggis is a traditional Scottish dish consisting of sheep’s innards minced with onions, suet, oatmeal and spices and then stuffed into a sheep’s stomach and boiled for a few hours. It doesn’t sound very appetising does it? To be fair, it wasn’t the taste of it that I disliked; it was dry and stodgy and a real chore to eat. I’m sure that there are loads of people in Britain who love it – it’s just not for me.
Cream tea: Cream tea is a traditional afternoon snack in the county of Devon in the south west of England. If you visit the place, you will see cream teas advertised everywhere. A cream tea is not a cup of tea with cream. It is a cup of tea served with a scone, a dollop of clotted cream and a splodge of jam. Clotted cream and jam are not my cup of tea (if you’ll pardon the pun) but this snack is very popular all the same.
Afternoon tea: We all love our tea in Britain. I prefer it to coffee and drink several cups during the day. Many other countries drink tea too but the problem is that outside Britain it is horrifically weak. The only country I have been to outside the British Isles that serves a decent cup of tea is Australia. Afternoon tea normally involves a good strong cup of tea and a sandwich. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t all eat cucumber sandwiches; it seems to be the required snack for members of the so-called upper classes. Normal people rarely eat them. Personally I love ham and cheddar cheese sandwiches smothered with Branston pickle.
Marmite: When it comes to marmite, people are in two distinct camps: those who love it and those who loathe it. I love it. It is made from yeast extract (left over from brewing beer) and is a thick, brown sticky spread suitable for toast or sandwiches. The Aussies have their own version called vegemite but I prefer good old marmite because it is stronger tasting.
Jellied eels: I am very squeamish about eels, particularly after having eaten a clossal and disgusting eel stew in Hong Kong, which was full of all sorts of very suspect objects that I ate with trepidation and a shaky hand. The chances of me ever trying this traditional East London delicacy are extremely remote because of this experience. As the name suggests, this dish consists of eels, stewed in a spiced jelly and is available almost exclusively in London. I’ve never seen anybody from anywhere else in Britain actually eating them. We all have sense!
Bubble and squeak: I know what you’re thinking – what the hell is bubble and squeak? I have no idea why this particular dish has such a bizarre name. I have eaten it a few times and I can tell you that it doesn’t squeak and there are no bubbles involved (thankfully before AND after it has been eaten). Basically bubble and squeak is a simple concoction made up of cabbage and potatoes and any other vegetable you wish to throw in, all fried in a pan. And mighty fine it is too.
Scotch eggs: I love scotch eggs but I haven’t had one for years. I feel an inner craving for one even as I type. Contrary to popular belief, scotch eggs originate in England so why they are called “Scotch” I do not know. A scotch egg comprises a cold hard boiled egg, wrapped in sausage meat, dipped in breadcrumbs and deep fried. They are unbelievably tasty!
Bread and butter pudding: Only in England would somebody dream up the bizarre notion of baking a plain sandwich and serving it as a dessert. It is of course more than that. Bread and butter pudding is made by baking buttered bread in an oven with raisins, egg and milk. It may sound revolting but is actually quite nice, especially served with piping hot custard.
Spotted dick: This dessert causes smirks amongst those British people who love double entendres. “Have you a spotted dick?” is surely a line that has been included in a “Carry On” film or “Benny Hill” show at some point – I’d stake my reputation on it. As mad as it sounds, spotted dick is a very nice dessert. It is simply a suet pudding containing dried fruit that looks kind of spotty (because of the fruit). Where the “dick” comes from, remains to be seen (and again I don't really want to speculate)
Trifle: I used to love trifle as a child but these days I find it far too sickly. It contains every ingredient a child would crave in a dessert: jelly, sponge cake, custard, whipped cream and fruit.
I have one final traditional British dish to tell you about that I know for a fact any American readers will either be shocked about or will fall off their chairs in hysterical disbelief. I know this because when I was at university, this foodstuff had this affect on an American student I lived with for a few months.
Picture the scene.
I’m cooking in the kitchen and Eric, my American friend, strolls in and sits down.
Eric: Whatcha cookin’?
Me: You don’t want to know.
Eric: What d’ya mean?
Me: Trust me, you don’t want to know.
Eric: Come on. Are you burning something?
Me: No! I’m cooking a traditional English dish that may … well … shock you.
Eric: Come on now. What the hell are you cooking?
Me: OK – I am cooking faggots.
Me: I am cooking faggots.
Eric stops breathing temporarily.
Eric: You’re joking, right?
Me: No. Here’s the packaging.
At this point Eric erupted in a cataclysmic explosion of pure uncontrolled hysteria that was so astonishing he fell off his chair, which was so hilarous that I reacted in a similar way. We both laughed so loudly and hysterically that it took us both a full ten minutes to recover our composure and be able to breath again. The conversation continued:
Eric: You do know what a faggot is, don’t you?
Me: Yes. It’s a spiced pork meatball from the Midlands.
Eric: I mean in the States?
Me: Yes – why do you think I didn’t want to tell you what I was cooking?
Eric begged me for the packaging so that he could take it home to show all his friends back in America. I imagine that he has the box to this day and still telle the story.
I hope this post gives you an insight into our culinary tradition. I have to say that in Britain today every cuisine you can dream of is available in supermarkets and restaurants but in a typical British home you will almost certainly find one of the above delicacies being consumed with gusto.
Anyway, I must go because unfortunately it is my turn to cook tonight. I won’t make the obvious joke about what it might be. And in case you don’t believe me about the faggots …
I will return with a post about British icons.