Best British Food – From Pies to Puddings
From Little Acorns: The Rise of Food Britannia
by Jo Keohane
British food has come a long way. In fact, it is amongst the very best in the world. It really is okay to say it out loud. Even if we still, with typical British understatement, have difficulty shouting about it. Judging by the constant stream of comments I get about British food from living in America, it may take the rest of the world some time to catch up with just how good our grub is. But with more Michelin stars than at any other time, we are well on our way. Images of soggy vegetables and boiled meat are fading – even if everyone I meet still asks me if I really do make steak and kidney pudding (yes, it’s delicious!).
The renaissance of British food has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years. This is thanks in part to high profile celeb chefs like Jamie, Heston and Gordon. Our rich heritage of pies, roasts, stews, cakes and puddings can be found on menus all over the world. So what did the damage to our culinary image in the first place?
Two world wars clearly didn’t help – rationing would stop the most creative chefs in their tracks. Add to that the problem of bland, processed food and ‘mystery’ meat, which, thankfully, we’ve made progress in banishing. Then there is the difficulty of defining ‘British’ food. Our focus going back over the ages has always been to let the great quality of our ingredients shine (which sounds trendily familiar). But the influences of the four corners of the world on our island mean that curry is now as British as toad-in-the-hole.
“Brit puds are enjoying a massive surge in popularity”
Invasion, colonisation and immigration mean we’ve been cooking with herbs and spices for centuries. Yet some dishes you think of as quintessentially ‘British’ like plum pudding come from outside influences. Our other issue is a lack of culinary confidence. You don’t see other countries hiding their tarte tatin under a bushel. However, we don’t always feel as comfortable as we should with our contribution to the world’s table. When you take a look at some well-known British classics – as well as some other dishes whose British origins are a bit less well known – it’s really not surprising we’re once more getting the recognition our cuisine deserves.
Let’s start with our crowning glory. British puds are enjoying a massive surge in popularity. Every other menu I see when dining out in New York City lists sticky toffee pudding, bread and butter pudding, trifle, Eton mess or crumble. The appeal, admittedly, is partly the comforting stodge. But they also just seem so relaxing and informal in comparison to their French counterparts.
While we’re on the subject of dessert, we should get this straight. Crème brûlée – or burnt cream – is one of ours. The French may have re-named, re-branded and re-packaged it, but this custardy dessert with the crunchy topping was apparently first served up at Trinity College, Cambridge in the seventeenth century. How we ever lost the bragging rights to this worldwide favourite is a mystery but our Gallic cousins certainly knew a good dessert when they saw it.
“The simplicity of a good British sarnie is hard to beat”
These days steak is synonymous with America, where it’s easy to eat half your body weight in cow. But we Brits have always been a nation of meat lovers and not for nothing did we name an entire army regiment the Beefeaters. Numerous American steak houses have laid claim to the daddy steak of them all – the Porterhouse. But in a blow to the Texan cowboys, the name Porterhouse allegedly came from the humble English pub, where slabs of seared meat were served with a dark ale called porter beer.
Yep – also one of ours. Foodie folklore says that the sandwich was named to honour the fourth Earl of Sandwich’s habit of eating slices of meat between bread in the mid eighteenth century. Adopted, and it has to be said, often elevated by cuisines around the world, the simplicity of a good British sarnie is hard to beat.
The Cheese Board
Cheese is yet another example of our Gallic neighbours winning the PR food fight. We had an enviable artisanal cheese industry until WW2, when rationing took its toll – and meant that only one type of ‘National cheese’ was available. Rationing ended in the early 1950s but it affected our cheese production for years to come. Thankfully small producers are now creating British brie and Camembert as well as classics like Stinking Bishop and Cornish Yarg. These are now taking a well deserved place on the world stage alongside better known stalwarts like Cheddars, Stilton and Wensleydale.
“Our pies and pasties are second to none”
Fruit and Veg
We’re still accused around the world of eating peas and carrots with everything. And putting the veg on to boil with the roast meat. But our fresh produce deserves singling out, if only for the world class fruit and vegetables we grow. Our temperate climate and long agricultural heritage mean that jersey royal potatoes and tomatoes, East Anglian asparagus and Scottish raspberries (to name just a few) would compare favourably to fruit and veg anywhere grown in the world. Not forgetting, for the modern chef and forager, samphire, truffles and wild mushrooms.
An odd but great catch-all term for the pickles, preserves, relishes and chutneys that go so well with our meats and cheeses. Maybe it’s because we traditionally focused on simple flavours that we also developed such fabulous sauces, which many overlook when they dismiss British grub as tasteless. Mustard, horseradish, mint sauce, bread sauce, redcurrant sauce – our roasts are just not the same without the correct accompaniment.
What have the Romans ever done for us? Actually they bought us the concept of the pie, which we made our own. Melton Mowbray, steak and kidney, chicken and leak, fisherman’s, cottage and shepherd’s pie – our pies and pasties are second to none. And although apple pie is as American as the fourth of July, they’ve been baked here for centuries. We clearly cottoned on fast that anything encased in pastry and baked tastes pretty amazing.
And a few British classics that haven’t quite made the grade…
It probably doesn’t help that it’s difficult to say what’s in these fluro pink sticks – and unsurprisingly most people prefer the real thing.
Hasn’t quite gone global but there’s still time for this fifties schoolboy’s favourite.
Does anyone in Britain actually still eat these?
Why does no-one else get just how good fruit cake is?
Still taste great on chips with plenty of malt vinegar. But so processed they’re unrecognisable. And let’s not even mention the curry sauce.