Ah British food…
At its best, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding (something I really do enjoy). At its typical, fried scampi & chips in a smoky pub, or perhaps a Wimpy Burger (virtually nonexistent these days).
Other regional delicacies include mushy peas, bubble and squeak (fried leftovers from a roast dinner), the less appealing sounding ‘spotted-dick’ (a dessert or pudding), and the iconic fried fish and chips.
The unofficial national dish of England is chicken tikka masala – a dish of distinctly South Asian roots.
All this can be washed down with a warm, flat pint of bitter beer. Yum.
Yet in our modern world, I will argue, the United Kingdom in general, and England more specifically has gone through a culinary revolution. It is now genuinely worth a trip just for the food.
I am absolutely serious – every time a trip to England presents itself, I fast for a day or two in order to eat (and drink) as much as possible.
This essay is very much from personal experience, but I do find many fellow travellers have formed a similar opinion. Even my well travelled British friends note the excellent value for quality now available in England.
When I first began travelling to the UK on my own I was only 17 years old. In fact, with my parents blessing I bought a British Rail Pass and travelled all around Great Britain. Food was fine, but expensive for anything refined (not that I had – or have – a particularly refined palate). General food seemed rather stayed; eggs were all fried, burgers just beef and bread, grease was ubiquitous.
Pubs were so smoky as to render food tasteless and everything seemed plain.
So what has occurred over the last 30 years?
- Smoking has been totally removed for indoor spaces!
- An increased presence of products from across Europe have entered UK supermarkets and very reasonable prices
- Strict drink-driving laws have encouraged ‘gastro-pubs’ in the country, rather than just drinking establishments
- Chain pubs/restaurants have lowered prices (the merits always debatable), encouraging eating out and competition
- A large and increasing vegetarian/vegan population has demanded a greater variety
- More worldly food culture in Britain has encouraged both new menu items and a new twist on traditional foods – this marks the emergence of a genuinely modern British cuisine
- Economies of scale. England is one of the most densely populated jurisdictions in Europe. This brings challenges, but offers so much opportunity to offer fresh variety within an active and fluid economy. A mix of good competition and dense consumer environment is one of the benefits.
I now look forward to almost any meal in England – and not just in multicultural London. From here in Canada, I find eating in the UK less expensive in almost every aspect and I certainly find food in Britain far superior to most in the USA – at least when cost is factored in.
Take out (take away) sandwiches are fresh and affordable. Late night food is filling and tasty (I am still a kebab guy) and I love the fact the 20% VAT (tax) is included in the price. Tipping is an optional 10%. This is easy.
In fact I have regularly ordered vegetarian options simply because of taste. And I have always loved a classic cheese and pickle sandwich (pickles are chutney style)!
Britain has a tainted colonial history, but those who followed the colonizers home, brought their culinary traditions. Indian, Pakistani, Middle Eastern and Chinese (Cantonese influence) restaurants have been popular since my parents met in London.
Nowadays, smaller communities will boast really interesting pub menus (delicious gastro-pubs and extremely affordable chains with predictably average food) all with much friendlier service than in the past. Additionally, there will likely be an Italian restaurant (run by someone from Italy), Tapas, Greek, Turkish, fusion (yum) and many other possible options.
Even the classic English breakfast has been highly refined – although I still leave the baked beans.
A few other foods worth mentioning:
- I love duck and I can eat that poor fowl almost every day. Confit (my favourite) I have enjoyed more in England than on my last trip to France!
- Lamb. The traditional style and preparation can be outstanding.
- I do not personally like fried fish, but the classic is far less greasy than in the past.
- British cheese is delicious – the great cheddar tradition! And French cheeses are ubiquitous and affordable.
- If you try Chinese food in Britain, I enthusiastically recommend the crispy, shredded duck and fried seaweed (this has long been part of the regional diet). One of my first jobs was working in a Chinese restaurant in Cork, Ireland. I love the way Chinese cuisine takes on local elements.
- Salads – once a foreign concept, now healthy and diverse.
- Farm-to-table regional dishes (Wales and the west of England are excellent for this)
- Seafood – this is an island after all!
- Rashers – British / Irish bacon trumps the streaky / fatty kind in the States any day.
- Wine in the supermarket is extremely reasonably priced and although there are many different beers, I still opt for a cask ale – as warm and flat as possible!
- The West Country is famous for cider.
- Haggis in Scotland. Still anyone’s choice if they want to eat it 😉