English Food

English Cuisine

English food seems to have two distinct faces in the American culinary imagination. The first is the decidedly grey image of boiled meat. Indeed, boiled meat may be the paradigmatic emblem of loathed English blandness.

The other face of British food, is perhaps best described as the great British flair for the pageant of the meal. High tea served in an oak-paneled room, where rich fabric, antique porcelain, and mountains of cakes and clotted cream sparkle in reflection from the mirror-polished side of a sterling silver tea pot; the picnic by the bank of the Thames; the white cravatted public school boys on their way to an evening meal in some Gothic-vaulted dining hall.

Still, the stuff of the meal itself, the food of England, is not nearly as awful as some make it out to be. With its double creams, rich puddings and straightforward flavors, it can be quite marvelous.

One point must be made clear: for centuries the English aristocracy ate French food, and their menus are peppered with accents graves and circumflexes. To compare boeuf à la bourguignonne to the Scottish haggis is to compare apples and oranges, haute cuisine to the invention of necessity. This is not to say that there aren’t distinctly British tastes that cross class lines. There are. One is a love for the first meal of the day, another is a taste for meat.

The British butcher wears a white smock and a straw boater. Perhaps his most important job has been to prepare the great roast beefs that anchor the traditional Sunday lunch feast. Roast beef is the national culinary pride. It is called a “joint,” and is served at midday on Sunday with roasted potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, two vegetables, a good strong horseradish, gravy, and mustard. The leftover joint could feed the family until Friday (traditionally fish day), recooked in a curry, pie, stew, or fried with cabbage, onions, and potatoes into the onomatopoeic “bubble and squeak.”

Beef is big industry in England, and the Aberdeen Angus is one of her famous beef-producing breeds. Dairy cattle are also farmed extensively — England is famous for its creams and butters and for its sturdy and delicious cheeses: Stilton, Cheshire and its rare cousin blue Cheshire, double Gloucester, red Leicester, sage Derby, and of course cheddar. Lamb and mutton are the second most-widely consumed meats followed by pork, farmed mostly in Ireland, at a distant third. Game has always had a central role in the British diet. This reflects both the abundant richness of the forests and streams and an old aristocratic prejudice against butchered meats. Formal feasts were built around venison, rabbit, and game birds. This preference can still be seen today on the menus of good English restaurants.

Being an island makes fishing easy for the Brits. Fish are central to the English diet. Many species swim in those cold waters: sole, haddock, hake, plaice, cod (the most popular choice for fish and chips), turbot, halibut, mullet, John Dory. Oily fishes also abound (mackerel, pilchards, and herring) as do crustaceans like lobster and oysters. Eel, also common, is cooked into a wonderful pie with lemon, parsley, and shallots, all topped with puff pastry.

The English are justifiably famous for their gardens, and the kitchen garden has long been a source for herbs and vegetables. But much of the flavoring in British cooking comes from further horizons than the garden out the back door. The Brits have long incorporated exotic spices. When the Frankish Normans invaded, they brought with them the spices of the east: cinnamon, saffron, mace, nutmeg, pepper, ginger.

Sugar came to England at that time, and was considered a spice — rare and expensive. Before the arrival of cane sugars, honey and fruit juices were the only sweeteners. The few Medieval cookery books that remain record dishes that use every spice in the larder, and chefs across Europe saw their task to be the almost alchemical transformation of raw ingredients into something entirely new. Throughout northern Europe, elaborate concoctions of mixed meats and offal (almond flour thickeners), spices, raisins, and other dried fruits were the result…and to the credit of the successful chef, there was often no chance that any of the discrete, original flavors could be recognized.

Spices were of course a handy way to mask slightly off meat. There is, in fact, a rule of Victorian etiquette that deems it less than polite to sniff at meat when it is on the fork. The affair with the spices of the East has continued, even to this day, and can be seen preserved in the tastes of the early American colonists, and in the caraway-, ginger-, and mace-laced cakes that grace the tea table. In this vein, the Brits have proven exceptionally good at condiments: strong mustards, horseradish, chutneys, vinegars, marmalades and jams, curries, even Worcestershire sauce.

Now, the cynical may still say it’s a good thing the English have worked so hard at that which covers food. But, for a moment, imagine the perfect cup of tea accompanied by scones, with clotted cream and strawberry jam, a juicy slice of beef with a dollop of strong horseradish, or the perfect piece of Scottish smoked salmon, and you just may find your mouth watering at the thought of what the British have brought to the table.

Formal English Dining

Proper Attire for an Englishman in India

“In the eighteenth century a gentleman could go to a formal dinner comfortably dressed in jacket, waistcoat and trousers made of white or buff-coloured cotton. In the early nineteenth century, however, he was expected to arrive for diner in a formal black coat. Then a faintly ridiculous ritual would be enacted, where the host or hostess would invite him to swap his heavy black coat for a lighter one. This he would accept, and he would then go out to the verandah where his bearer would be waiting with the lighter jacket, having been instructed to bring it along in anticipation of this very invitation.

Later in the century things became even more formal, with men having to dress in complete black woolen dinner suits as they did in Britain in the depth of winter. Even white cotton trousers became the exception rather than the rule. As C.P.A. Oman, author of Eastwards, or Realities of Indian Life commented in 1864, some men in Calcutta became used to this and did not seem to feel the heat, but “to see, however, some stout Colonel from the north-west provinces, or a robust individual fresh from home under the ordeal is painfully ridiculous.” Right up until the First World War men would appear at dinner parties in boiled white shirts, white waistcoats, black or white ties, and tail coats or dinner jackets.”

From The Raj at the Table: A Culinary History of the British in India, by David Burton. London: Faber and Faber, 1993. See especially p. 28.

English Food in India

“The tables were covered — groaning beneath the slaughtered hecatombs. It was a feast fit for Homer’s heroes…Soups of all kinds — mulligatawney, and vermicelli, and turtle; huge turkeys and huger hams; barons of beef; saddles of mutton; geese, and all manner of tame fowl; legs of pickled pork, and pease pudding — these were the delicacies that tempted the appetites of Indian epicures. Two or three ultra fashionists, just imported from cold and icy Europe, stared, and turned a little pale as they inhaled the steam arising from the various “savouries” — swallowed a jelly, and a biscuit, and a glass of wine; but the rest of the party addressed themselves valiantly to the work of devastation. They drank beer in huge tumblers, men and women; they ate of the beef, and the mutton, and the pork, and the turkeys and the fowls, and they closed with real Mussulmauni curries….”

A description of a dinner at a ball in the 1830s exerpted from The East India Sketch-book in The Raj at the Table: A Culinary History of the British in India, by David Burton. London: Faber and Faber, 1993.

Dishes From The United Kingdom

Beefsteak, Oyster, and Kidney Pudding
Oysters may seem unlikely in this meat pudding, but their great abundance in the Victorian age and earlier eras inspired cooks to find ways to incorporate them creatively in many different recipes. This steamed pudding combines the meats with mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, and Worcestershire sauce, then wraps the whole in a suet pastry.

This Scottish specialty can be classified as a soup or a stew. It combines beef, chicken, leeks, and prunes to unusual and spectacular ends.

Crown Roast Lamb
The crown roast encircles a stuffing of apples, bread crumbs, onion, celery, and lemon.

Eccles Cake
Puff pastry stuffed with a spicy currant filling.

Hasty Pudding
A simple and quick (thus the name) steamed pudding of milk, flour, butter, eggs, and cinnamon.

Irish Stew
An Irish stew always has a common base of lamb, potatoes, and onion. It could contain any number of other ingredients, depending on the cook.

Lamb Cutlets Reform
Lamb cutlets are dredged in bread crumbs, mixed with minced ham, then fried and served under a port sauce with cloves, juniper berries, and thyme.

Likky Pie
Leeks, pork, and cream baked in puff pastry.

Beef suet is used to bind chopped nuts, apples, spices, brown sugar, and brandy into a filling for pies or cookies.

Mulligatawny Soup
What this soup is depends on who is cooking it. Originally a south Indian dish (the name means pepper water in tamil), it has been adopted and extensively adapted by the British. Mullitgatawny contains chicken or meat or vegetable stock mixed with yogurt or cheese or coconut milk and is seasoned with curry and various other spices. It is sometimes served with a separate bowl of rice.

In the seventeenth century, a milkmaid would send a stream of new, warm milk directly from a cow into a bowl of spiced cider or ale. A light curd would form on top with a lovely whey underneath. This, according to Elizabeth David, was the original syllabub. Today’s syllabub is more solid (its origins can also be traced to the seventeenth century, albeit to the upper classes) and mixes sherry and/or brandy, sugar, lemon, nutmeg, and double cream into a custard-like dessert or an eggnog-like beverage, depending upon the cook.

Layers of alcohol-soaked sponge cake alternate with fruit, custard and whipped cream.

Welsh Faggots
Pig’s liver is made into meatballs with onion, beef suet, bread crumbs, and sometimes a chopped apple. Faggots used to be made to use up the odd parts of a pig after it had been slaughtered.

Welsh Rabbit (or Rarebit)
Cheese is grated and melted with milk or ale. Pepper, salt, butter, and mustard are then added. The mix is spread over toast and baked until “the cheese bubbles and becomes brown in appetizing-looking splashes” (Jane Grigson in English Food, London: Penguin, 1977).

Westmoreland Pepper Cake
Fruitcake that gets a distinctive kick from lots of black pepper. Other ingredients include honey, cloves, ginger, and walnuts.

Against English Food

“Every country possesses, it seems, the sort of cuisine it is appreciative enough to want. I used to think that the notoriously bad cooking of England was an example to the contrary, and that the English cook the way they do because, through sheer technical deficiency, they had not been able to master the art of cooking. I have discovered to my stupefaction that the English cook that way because that is the way they like it. This leaves nothing to be said, as I suppose the rule that there can be no argument about matters of taste applies to the absence of taste — in the literal sense — as well.”

From The Food of France, by Waverly Root. London: Cassell, 1958.

English Taste In The Morning

English Breakfast photo
Photo by Ewan-M 

Breakfast is the pride of the British Isles. In its fullest glory, it has three or more courses. The first is usually the classic plate of eggs and bacon or ham, grilled up with a tomato.

Second is the fruit or cereal course.

Finally, there is a fish course, like kippers (herring that is split, salted, dried and cold smoked) or kedgeree (an East Indian curried rice and lentil dish, to which the English added flaked smoked fish, hard-boiled eggs and sometimes a cream sauce).

On occasion the fish course will be followed by a final cold course. The Brits don’t shy away from rich meats at breakfast.

Deviled kidneys are made from lamb kidneys marinated in mango chutney, then broiled in a sauce of mustard, lemon, and cayenne pepper.

A mixed grill combines a lamb chop, sausage, liver, and a half a tomato: this hearty plate of food might accompany or follow an egg course! Oat cakes, crumpets, an assortment of toasts, and, of course, jams are always present on the breakfast table.

An English Woman Cooks Curry

“Half the taste and colour of the curry would be destroyed if it were cooked in the very peculiar way that an English woman in England once cooked it.

`This is my rice and curry day,’ she explained to an Indian acquaintance who had accompanied her husband’s regiment to England. `Would you like to stay and see me make it? I believe you Indians do not know how to cook.’

“Her friend expressed her willingness, and many a time after she told the story with amusement.

“The Englishwoman tied a teacupful of rice in a muslin bag, and boiled it in a saucepan of water. She then took a small plateful of cold scraps of meat, one week’s savings, and put it in another saucepan with some curry powder, some butter and stock, and proceeded to boil it.

“When she thought both rice and curry — save the mark — done, she untied the muslin, served the rice in a flat dish, made a hole in the centre of the rice, poured the curry into it and served the unappetising stuff. …”

Quoted from The Wife’s Cookery Book of 1906 in The Raj at the Table: A Culinary History of the British in India, by David Burton. London: Faber and Faber, 1993.

English Pub Fare

At the heart of pub food is the fare of farmers and laborers: cheese, bread, a bit of sausage or bacon — often only the fat — and ale. The ploughman’s lunch is cheddar cheese, bread, pickled onions, and ale. From the bar-man one might also order a Cornish pasty (a savory turnover filled with a mix of meat and potatoes) or eggs wrapped in sausage meat — natural accompaniments for a pint of ale, stout, lager, or hard cider.

English Pies and Puddings

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Photo by Bods

Pies and puddings are related phenomena in British culinary history. Originally, both solved the problem of preparing dinners made with less expensive meats. Pies covered a stew or other ingredients with a crust; puddings were made from butcher’s scraps tucked into a sheep’s stomach, then steamed or boiled.

Pies have remained pies, although, in addition to savory pies, there now exist sweet variations, which tend to have two crusts or a bottom crust only. Pie crusts can be made from a short dough or puff pastry. Snacks and bar food (Britain’s fifth food group) are often in pie form: pasties (pronounced with a short “a” like “had”) are filled turnovers.

Over time, however, in a confusing development, pudding has become a more general term for a sweet or savory steamed mixture — as well as a word that describes desserts in general. Black pudding, a stomach stuffed with pig’s blood, is of an ancient variety.

Also typical is plum pudding, a Christmas treat consisting of a steamed cake of beef suet (the white fat around the kidney and loins) and dried and candied fruits flamed with cognac. And, of course, one can’t forget rice pudding, which, along with so many other British nursery foods, has been rediscovered by the late twentieth century American palate.

The Bounty of English Gardens

The English gardener grows cabbage, various tubers such as parsnips, potatoes, and turnips, all of which are culinary staples. Garlic and leeks, too, have found their way into every plot and pot.

Fresh herbs — sage, dill, parsley, and thyme — grow among the flowers. Rosemary and oregano are rarely grown and used considerably less than in their native Mediterranean homes.

Tea sandwiches are flavored by balancing the pungent taste of freshly picked sorrel and watercress against the light flavor of cucumbers.

The garden is also bounded by hedgerows thick with berries. Raspberries, currants, blackberries, juniper berries, cranberries, and elderberries are everywhere, even along the roadsides, and wild strawberries too can often be found nearby. The British use berries to make sauce for duck, jam for tea, trifle, or to enliven liver pâté.

Apples are another fruit with high visibility. Cider, both hard and soft, lies at the base of many recipes sweet and savory.

Grapes don’t grow well in Great Britain, and wine has always been imported. It is rare to find wine in indigenous recipes (though port, brandy, and sherry are common), which sets English foods off sharply from better-known French and Italian cuisines.

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