I love British food. When people ask me what I love about the United Kingdom, what keeps me coming back, I often blurt out “food!” Some people laugh. Most think I’m joking. Britain, they note, is not exactly known for its cuisine. But I beg to differ.
Perhaps it’s because I’m a Minnesotan. Midwesterners, Northerners, we like our meat and potatoes and we like them covered in gravy so thick the spoon stands upright. We don’t eat kale, or quinoa, or go gluten-free. It’s cold out there. You need something that sticks to your ribs. Three years into living in California, my mother was still feeding her kids hot porridge and pancakes to keep us warm.
We like portions we can see on our plates. Without a microscope. And, as my sister-in-law once pointed out, most of our family recipes involve piling meat and potatoes (vegetables optional) into a pan and baking it until it’s past recognition. When in doubt, roast something.
It should be no surprise, then, that what I love about waking up anywhere in the United Kingdom is not only that I am in a beautiful, historic, lush green country, but that somewhere, in some kitchen within walking distance, there is a good English (or Scottish, or Irish) breakfast waiting for me. Eggs, bacon, sausage, hash browns, baked beans, tomatoes, mushrooms (add Scottish haggis, black and white pudding, depending on location) and toast. Not your whole-wheat 8 grains kind of toast but proper crispy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside, dripping-with-butter, so-tasty-Nigel-Slater’s-biography-was-called-Toast, toast. And that’s just breakfast.
If you’ve managed to work your way through that, and your arteries are still flowing, you can find an increasing number of gastro-pubs for lunch. Irish Bangers and mash? Shepherd’s pie? Beef Wellington? Lamb roasted to fall off the bone and served with mint jelly? Yes, please.
A few hours later, would you like tea with sandwiches, cakes, jams, jellies and puddings? I’d be delighted. I’ll be especially delighted if the scones come with clotted cream: the most delicious thing ever created by man and a heart-attack on a teaspoon. Dessert? Have a sticky-toffee treacle pudding drowned in butter caramel sauce.
True, I can find a Shepherd’s pie in almost any faux-Irish pub in America (usually listed on the menu right after the nachos but before the pizza). Fish and chips are almost a staple, but nowhere so delicious as hot, greasy, wrapped in newspaper, out of a proper chippy stand.
More importantly, nowhere (at least, nowhere outside of a fast food chain) are people quite so unapologetic about their food. This is it. Love it, or leave it. Or try the kebob shop next door. Salad? Try France. Gluten-free? What’s a gluten?
This is not to say that English food is by any means unimaginative. Who else could give you stargazey pie – so named because the fish heads stick directly out of the pie and appear to be gazing at the stars? Or invent marmite? Granted, these weren’t necessarily wild successes. But it has to be a mark in favor of a cuisine that it is willing to try new things.
In fact, one of the better holdovers from Britain’s long colonial history is its desire to try new foods and its ability to absorb them into every-day cooking. Pub down the street? It serves Thai food. And why wouldn’t you want to eat a pad see ew while cheering for Arsenal and drinking a pint of bitter? London is where I first met falafel, out of a delicious street vendor in Piccadilly Circle, and England has adopted the curry so thoroughly that it is now declared a “national food.” There are even British-original curries, including the Birmingham Balti, for which fans are seeking protected status under the EU.
None of this is fancy restaurant fare, two-bites to a serving, impress your boss cuisine. This is good, solid, hungry (wo)man, savory, comfort food. And, to be quite frank, what’s wrong with that?
Written by Anne Siders for EuropeUpClose.com