Here’s a warning label on the flashy packaging right up front: my British audience of three might find my food instalments boring. Or if you have no interest in cooking or chefs or a cuisine that people consistently have told you all your life does not exist, you may struggle through all 1,687 glittering words of this post as well as the cuisine-related posts that will follow. However, at least this blog won’t kill you or cause birth defects (I’ve hired a bunch of journalists to check the science on this, so I’m sure I’m right), or even cost you anything except a few minutes of your time. Precious minutes that you will never get back – so if you read this in its entirety, I will be flattered that you thought it worth your while.
To say I like food is an understatement. I wish I felt indifferent to it, but I don’t – so I cope the best way I know how. By looking at pictures of it. (I like to call this Food Porn.) And reading cookbooks and recipes, and of course cooking it, and (gasp!) eating it. All this has led me to develop a decent background in British Cuisine. Such as it is. OK, I couldn’t resist that pot shot – it’s an elderly joke but there seems to be plenty of mileage left in the old girl yet. However, I’m here today (and tomorrow) to challenge your long-held belief that the British don’t have (other than Fish and Chips) “A Food.” Now, if the Italians can have A Food, and the Chinese can have A Food, then the British can also have A Food. This is an equal opportunity blog, dammit.
I’ve found the food quality in England to be quite good, and have noticed the difference, especially with eggs and cheese and other dairy products. The superior richness in flavour is startling. I’m sure that part of this has to do with the widespread availability and use of free range eggs (any other kind will soon be illegal in the European Union), and the absence of mega-dairies. The cows here are still allowed to wander free and eat fresh grass. That should be their right, as it should be the right of chickens to be free of tiny, confining battery cages. I am 100 percent opposed to factory farming. Besides the animal cruelty involved, our food quality suffers immensely when these methods are used.
Crud. I can feel myself Going Native – I’m already submerging in this cultural quicksand. Soon the only thing left of me to see will be an arm slowly sinking in the mire, waving a placard that reads: Please throw in some Extra Mature Cheddar, a jar of Piccalilli and a Cadbury Dairy Milk Whole Nut bar. And maybe a cheese and onion slice.
A very important day in the British Food Calendar is deliciously speeding its way to the population of this crowded island. Pancake Day. Also known as Shrove Tuesday. Also known as Fat Tuesday. Also known as – yes – you’ve probably caught on by now: Mardi Gras. The British are too reserved to drunkenly dance down a crowded street half-naked but for a hundred strands of shiny beads, so they eat pancakes instead.
These Pancakes are nothing like American pancakes; they are the crêpe’s tasty sibling. The traditional topping is granulated sugar and lemon juice. I am told, with great reverence, that technique is extremely important when cooking these pancakes. They must be pan-tossed in the air properly; no other method will do. Sometimes they’re tossed while running down a street in something called a pancake race. There are usually no beads involved, unless you count beads of sweat.
My partner and I celebrate Pancake Day with great gusto, although we cook up a variety of fillings and toppings, both savoury and sweet. Then we eat until we’re sick. Not everyone’s idea of fun – especially those prone to fanatical calorie counting. But the original purpose of Pancake Day was to use up all the fattening foods in the house before Lent descended and one was expected to look sufficiently pious during the forty days preceding Easter.
If you want a recipe for traditional British Pancake Day pancakes, click here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/occasions/pancake_day Delia Smith uses half milk and half water. My husband disagrees vehemently with this method. It is wrong, he says. There should be a complete absence of water from this recipe, he says. This is not the first time one of us has disagreed with Delia, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.
Here are some other traditional British foods that you may or may not have heard of:
- Yorkshire pudding: a baked crust of flour, eggs, and milk
- Toad in the hole: sausages baked into a Yorkshire pudding
- Bubble and squeak: many variations, often including cabbage and potatoes
- Bangers and mash: sausages and mashed potatoes
- Faggots: a disgusting meatball type thing
- Scotch eggs: a hardboiled egg covered in sausage meat, coated with breadcrumbs, then baked or fried
- Puddings: all desserts are called puddings, regardless of whether they are a pudding or not
There are photos of some of the more dubious British dishes on the Bay Area Brit’s blog: http://thebayareabrit.com/2011/02/21/you-eat-what/ I’m proud to say that I have not eaten any of them. Except maybe a bite of the Christmas pudding and perhaps the mushy peas – you have to try some things at least once. I actually like mushy peas – except I just make my own, using soaked dried peas and baking soda – which is called “bicarb” here, just to complicate things. OK, and I admit to eating bangers and mash on many occasions – but they looked nothing like the dish in The Brit’s obscene photo. And Americans, raise your hands, those of you who know what (actually Who) a Gurkha is. A noble part of British Military History and contemporary Army forces, according to Joanna Lumley, is the correct answer. There is a very large ex-Gurkha / Nepalese population where I live and work. There is also a restaurant here called The Gurkha Palace. The food there is Absolutely Fabulous.
The British (except my mother-in-law) also love their curry. This influence from the Indian Subcontinent has permeated the British Isles with its exotic fragrances. Although chicken tikka masala, considered to be one of the most popular curry dishes in the country, was actually invented in the Birmingham area, not the Subcontinent. I think I had eaten Indian food a total of once before I moved to the UK. I like curry, but there are so many Indian takeaways with inferior food, it really is astounding. And takeaways aren’t cheap by any means! The better ones charge even more – getting an Indian takeaway or eating out, tends to be a treat for us, as it’s child’s play to spend £20 or more on a meal for two. That’s $32.55 as of this writing.
“Meat and two veg” is the term that is used to describe a traditional British meal. It is equal to an American’s meat and potatoes. My husband didn’t eat anything but this until he got to university. His parents, although smashing people, aren’t exactly adventurous eaters. Then his eyes were opened to pizza (I’ve yet to find a decent pizza in this country) and curry and Chinese takeaways. Yes, Takeaways. We don’t “Take Out” or get our food “To Go.” Meat and two veg is also a slang term for male bits and pieces. I sometimes wonder if this is a reflection on the poor taste of over-boiled veg.
An exceptionally popular tinned (yes, tinned, not canned) food in the UK is baked beans. I read somewhere once that the British eat more baked beans per capita than any other nation. I don’t doubt it. I eat them now too – but I didn’t used to much. American baked beans tend to be made with pork. British baked beans are vegetarian friendly. They are also more sugary than American baked beans. There are a ridiculous number of baked bean brands here. Personally, I think that Branston and Sainsbury’s (a big supermarket chain) brands are better than Heinz – which likes to claim that it is the leading brand. Their slogan is burned into my brain now too, along with the rest of the British population: Beanz Meanz Heinz. Branston is more famous for its pickles. These pickles are nothing like an American pickle. They’re more like a kind of brown chutney or relish. An acquired taste. I have almost acquired it, but I’m waiting for Branston to make it taste better. One of the Branston pickle factories burnt down in 2004, a couple of months before Christmas, causing a terrible pickle shortage. This event sparked mass culinary hysteria and panic pickle buying among the British.
As for tea, you need to know little except that the black tea in Britain is superior to the average black tea in the US. With the possible exception of iced tea, which doesn’t exist in the UK – or at least I haven’t found any yet. No one ever needs to cool down here. It never gets hot enough.
“Tea” is also the word that many use to describe the evening meal – Dinner or Supper to many Americans. The British who use “Tea” for the evening meal, often use “Dinner” to describe Lunch. Confused yet? There are also Devon or Cornish or Somerset Cream Teas. This is the delectable combination of a pot of black tea, scones, clotted cream (a thick, sweet, spreadable cream) and jam, usually strawberry. One of the most sublime activities in the world in which one can participate, is to sit outside in the summertime at a country or coastal tea room, gulping down this fattening, sugar laden delicacy. I just had one yesterday – not as good as in the West Country, but satisfactory.
All this blogging about food is making me hungry. I’m off to a tea of jacket potatoes and ale. Maybe I’ll cover those in my next post. Until then, cheers!