The Brits have a way of naming food like unappealing porn films. Menus list dishes like Spotted Dick, Bangers and Mash, Toad in the Hole or our personal favorite, Bubble and Squeak. Bubble and Squeak sounds even more unappealing when you find out it is traditionally made of cold meat and fried vegetables leftover from a roast dinner.
S&M Diner in London, a good spot for all the above.
This little yet historically crucial island hasn’t had the greatest culinary reputation for quite some time. Yes, I know the likes of Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay have been working hard to dissuade the world but most of us still think of British food as bland, mushy, gray and, in Scotland’s case, deep fried.
For research purposes, we had Haggis. Usually made from sheep’s heart, liver and lungs among other bits all stuffed in stomach lining, alongside the traditional Neeps and Tatties (mashed turnip and mashed potato). It wasn’t bad actually, but it didn’t exactly elevate the Scotch cuisine since everything on the plate had a soft, mushy texture. We did miss out on a truly Scottish treat, deep fried Haggis.
We aren’t anti-Scottish or anti-UK; Jeremy is mostly Scottish in his heritage, our last name is Welsh and we have family in England. We just really love complex spices and varied texture in food that won’t give us a coronary while at the table.
Despite being instrumental in the worldwide spice trade, accessibility to this exotic bounty was costly, and heavy rationing during and after WW II further distanced local cooks from variety in the pantry. These factors coupled with heavy industrialization and urbanization saw Britain became a very consumer-oriented society. Today, you can see this in the prodigious array of fast food, and in markets where massive amounts of pre-made, take-home packages dominate the selections. They have elevated the TV dinner to a near art form.
For years, the best food on the Isles hailed from foreign cuisines. Immigrants whose homes had once fallen under the influence of the British Empire brought their own dishes ashore; they quickly gained the respect local fare couldn’t achieve. Many claim the national dish of Britain is the Indian Tikka Masala, some even claim it originated in Scotland. In our case, we often found that “ethnic” food, or cuisine from outside the UK like Pakistani, Chinese or Indian was more accessible, cheaper and often tastier than the local cuisine (especially since we were trying to avoid fast food).
Some of the best cheap, quick and healthy meals we had were from Maoz and Leon’s. Maoz is a clever falafel counter, you pay for a pita with two or four falafel, and then you load it up to your liking at the self-serve toppings stations. You get a nice variety of flavor choices, and the price is one of the lowest in town. Leon is more of a sit-down establishment. You have a daily and seasonal menu, but no more than 8 choices. Everything is already cooking away in the kitchen, so you’ll be served immediately. Their menu toys with Thai, South American, Indian and North African flavors.
However things aren’t as bad as they seem, Britain has been making an effort. While food in the UK is traditionally simple, it has also meant that the simplicity showcase the high quality of the ingredients. The Slow Food Movement (the preservation of traditional and regional cuisines utilizing locally sourced materials, farmed sustainably) has long been gaining strength, and Britain displayed significant interest in local and sustainably farmed goods well before the Movement was established in Italy in 1986. Nearly every product we saw proudly claimed its local origin, nearly flawless organic upbringing, and its humane treatment. Britain has a long standing tradition of fine meat from cattle, sheep and lamb — many folks will be able to comment on veal from the Southern lands vs. Northern, for instance.
For more about fresh foods and markets in the UK, check out our To Market, To Market post.
While the UK is still using much more offal, or pluck (steak and kidney pie is very self-explanatory), in their pies than we are used to, many local dishes are being re-envisioned with a greater complexity of texture and flavor, heightening the merit of the ingredients. The table is still rounded out the traditional way with a main meat dish and two servings of veg, providing a large balanced meal, but now you can tell the difference between eating the food or your napkin.
We had flaky pies filled with a variety of succulent meats and spices, bangers and mash, puddings and fry-ups. One of the best places in London we tried for superbly made traditional fare was the Old Bank of England. It’s also an attractive place to have a pint of Fuller’s.
Ah, but just when you thought you had English pies all figured out as savory, they throw you a Mincemeat Pie. Actually a sweet apple-based preserve in pastry, this is a sweet not a savory. Those crazy Brits still found a way to stick meat in it: Mincemeat Pie often uses Suet, the rendered fat from beef or mutton. Suet is used in many traditional recipes such as actual meat pies, or Yorkshire pudding, a souffle-like pancake (also not sweet, by the way).
Just because pies and puddings are mostly savory does not mean Britain has forgotten how to make excellent desserts. There may be some dubious sweets like Harry Potter’s favorite Treacle Tarts: flaky pastries of corn syrup topped with traditional clotted cream — a pleasure best left to fictional palates.
We found our favorites to be Bread and Butter Pudding; chilled Summer Puddings made with bread and a heaping bowl of cherries; and Trifle: a fluffy mess of liquored sponge cake, custard and fruits. We loved the name, and even more the taste, of a good Sticky Toffee Pudding, a moist sponge cake with dates or prunes, shining with golden toffee sauce.
We couldn’t complain either about the big chunks of real, candied ginger in cookies and scones, or the natural spicy flavor of their ginger ale.
So if it’s not lack of flavor and variety, maybe the real argument to have with British food is for your health? Sure, using rendered fat in cooking tastes great but it clogs the arteries worse than traffic in Los Angeles. The Scottish have a huge death rate resulting from coronary heart disease.
The British Breakfast is a gluttony of fried eggs, sausage, black pudding, fried bacon, hash browns, baked beans heaped with some mushrooms and half a tomato for your “health.” This is the breakfast of a hard working farmer with a life expectancy of forty… We suppose you must eat breakfast, and the best bet for travelers is probably the Pub fare Ploughman’s Lunch, consisting of a thick piece of local cheese like Stilton, a pickle, a good crusty bread, served often with a green salad, an apple, maybe a pickled onion or a hard boiled egg.
In our experience of British food, it was not as bland and boring as we feared. That being said, Britain isn’t hiding any seriously astonishing fare from foreigners. At least we can have a good bit of fun with all the immature names on the menu.
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