Eating like an Anglophile: A guide to British cuisine
I’m going to be honest: I’ve never really understood why British cuisine gets such a bad rap. Ask someone what they think about it and you’ll get all manner of disgusted responses: “British food is heavy,” “British food is bland,” “The British are terrible cooks,” etc. The sad thing is that this attitude even extends to Britons themselves—Mrs. Beeton, the most well known culinary writer of the 19th century, wrote, “We are the worst cooks on the face of the earth.” I would attribute a lot of the bad press to limited experience of what is mostly working-class fast food: it’d be like judging American cuisine on the quality of McDonald’s and Denny’s. Nonetheless, the stereotype persists.
With the new wave of Anglophilia that is sweeping American culture comes an opportunity to challenge this viewpoint. I do not deny that the last century has been hard for British cuisine—Ivan Day, a prominent British food historian, points to wartime rationing and the collapse of British aristocratic culture as primary causes for the destruction of British haute cuisine—but fundamentally British food is as good as any of its competition—and it’s been that way far longer than there have been individuals like Jamie Oliver to revive it. Just look at Downton Abbey for proof that at the turn of the century, British cuisine, both in the aristocratic dining rooms and in the servant quarters and working-class neighborhoods, was serious business with novel use of ingredients from local agriculture and the British Empire.
The same can be said for contemporary British cuisine: not only are innovators like Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay reinventing dishes like Beef Wellington and the Sunday Roast, but British cuisine is developing a rich synthetic diet that continues the centuries-long tradition of adopting outside culinary influences from the legacy of English imperialism. This is a basic guide to British food—the Edwardian cuisine you might be familiar with from watching Downton—as well as contemporary food. Perhaps you might reconsider your conception of British cuisine when you see some of the food that has come out of the Isles.
The full breakfast is a traditional staple of insular cuisine and what really distinguishes it from continental fare. The concept is simple: get the majority of your calories in at the beginning of the day to keep you productive and content until you can get home from the field or factory. For working-class Britons, this means high-fat, filling food: proteins such as eggs, savory puddings, sausages and back bacon; buttery pastries and whole-meal breads; and the traditional cup of tea or coffee. For the health-conscious, it’s not exactly A+ food, but in the turn-of-the-century worker culture it provided cheap and filling nutrition.
These days the full breakfast has become at best a weekend affair. Changing work schedules, the popularity of continental breakfast fare—perpetrated by café chains like Pret a Manger and Café Nero—and the rise in health consciousness among Britons, has made breakfast a quicker and lighter affair than in the past. The energy density of the meal has decreased significantly—modern reinterpretations of the full breakfast often include smoked salmon or continental-style charcuterie, fruit and yogurt, and poached rather than fried eggs. From my experience in England, the workweek breakfast has become as rushed an affair as the American one, focused on consumption of more portable food—more traditionally the “bacon roll,” and more recently cereals and continental-style cold sandwiches.
If the British can be accused of being excessive with breakfast, they make up for it with the light character of the lunch spread. After such a heavy start to the day, traditionally upper-class Britons staved off hunger in the afternoon with “tea”—light snack fare such as finger sandwiches, pastries, and a reviving ‘cuppa.’ Among lower-class Britons a similar tradition arose in the “ploughman’s lunch” of cheese, bread, and alcohol or coffee—heavier fare for a more active contingent of the population.
The modern British lunch/tea has seen a distinct derivation from tradition. The appreciation for an afternoon cup of tea—often paired with digestive biscuits—remains an entrenched part of British society across the social strata. That being said, continental influences have also raised coffee and other pastries such as pain au chocolat to similar levels of prominence, again provided by popular café chains. Even more so than the full breakfast, the tradition of high tea has fallen to the wayside—the aristocratic culture of leisure that promoted it has disappeared. With the lighter breakfast modern Britons are eating, they often have turned to café sandwiches or other fast food to sate their appetites. Nonetheless, contemporary lunch food has remained lighter.
British cuisine has always been heavily influenced by outsiders—especially the legacy of British imperialism. Nowhere is this more evident than in their choice of dinner. For contemporaries of the Crowleys in turn-of-the-century England, the primary influence was the French. Upper-class cuisine emphasized the prestige of foreign food with dishes such as crêpes, soufflés, boeuf bourguignon, and canapés gracing the plates of the British aristocracy. For the lower classes, the spread was more rural—potatoes, turnips, stews and puddings, savory and sweet. After a day of service or labor, the heavy character of dinner helped working-class Britons recover with its emphasis on a reviving mix of starchy carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
Modern Britons have abandoned both the tradition of heavy working-class food and expensive French-inspired upper-class cuisine. Dietary exhaustion has been cited as a major factor—Britons became tired of roasts and stews with little to no spice. Health concerns also brought up the idea that consumption of so much fat (between breakfast and dinner) was detrimental to the national health. Another major aspect is the changing demographic of British culture: with a large population of immigrants from the British Commonwealth, synthetic cuisine has really taken hold in Britain with Chinese, South Asian, Middle Eastern, and Caribbean food becoming staples. The “Sunday Roast” has really become a once-a-week thing; most Britons would rather have curry, stir fry, or kebab than Yorkshire pudding and roast beef. This development has been long in coming: coronation chicken (chicken salad spiced with curry) and pickled relishes (inspired by chutneys) entered the popular culinary consciousness as early as the 1930s.
Forget eel pies and fish and chips—English food has a lot more to offer than its unfortunate reputation suggests. If you’re a fan of British culture and good food, the variety of British cuisine should warrant investigation. Whether you go for the traditional roast or full breakfast or you break into the revivalist options of the Anglo-Indian and New British sphere, you may be surprised at the quality and diversity you find.
To learn more about turn-of-the-century British cuisine, I suggest you look here. For more modern cuisine, Jamie Oliver and the crew at Sorted Food bring new interpretations of the traditional British staples and popular synthetic dishes. If you’re as fond of Serious Eats as we at Tasty Tufts are, here is a great set of “American-friendly” British recipes.
(Cover photo source.)