Food & drink
We’ve probably reached the stage by now where the majority are aware that the old mocking derision of English food as largely consisting of things that had been boiled for a weekend to remove any danger of flavour is a thing of the past. you can argue that there’s been a renaissance that’s seen a processed that’ll-do austere post war eating culture thoroughly given the heave-ho. along with English chefs; English restaurants, and English pub food are now in rude health and giving their rather more famed neighbours a run for their money. A culture of home cooking as well as eating out has taken stronger hold, and supermarkets are well stocked with a wide variety of foodstuffs, and a reasonable range can be had at even the smaller village shops. Vegetarian food is fairly easy to come by.
Dinner is usually a main course followed by pudding (or ‘afters’), though in restaurants you’re more likely to have a starter as well. Though it depends on the family, dinner is not usually a huge social occasion, though plenty still make an exception for Sunday roast. the centrepiece of this is a roasted joint of meat, usually beef, accompanied by roast potatoes and vegetables with gravy perhaps over Yorkshire pudding, all accompanied by familial chit chat.
Truth be told, a lot of dinners revolve around some combination of meat and potato, such as sausages and chips or mashed potato and sausages, together with vegetables and gravy, but this does some injustice to the quality of the ingredients and preparation. Sausages themselves come in a wide variety, traditional and non-traditional, but tend to be fatter than continental ones. among the more famous are Lincolnshire sausages (pork, with sage), and the long, curling Cumberland sausage from the north-west; it’s also a pork sausage flavoured with herbs, but has a distinctive peppery flavour and a notably different texture due to being chopped, not minced. There are plenty of other local variations on the theme, and regional difference remains a key characteristic of English food. We should note in passing that though much of this food is fairly humble in origin, designed to fill up working families, several – like Cumberland sausages – have earned themselves protected foodstuff status. Pies are also a prominent English food-form, and again come in a conspicuous variety. Shepherd’s pie consists of minced lamb, Cottage pie minced beef, both topped with a crust, slightly crispy, of mashed potato; Cumberland pie is similar with a crust of breadcrumbs and cheese. Among the many forms of pork pie, the Melton Mowbray (after the town in Leicestershire in the east Midlands) is probably most famous. It’s another protected designation, and true ones can only be made in close proximity to their original home. Meat eaters seeking alternatives might try toad in the hole, sausages in a bed of Yorkshire pudding batter, usually filled with gravy. Lancashire hotpot is a quite different affair: lamb, mutton and onion topped with sliced potatoes and baked. Black pudding, primarily from the Midlands and north-west is a black blood sausage (and sometimes had for breakfast with beans, tomatoes and toast or fried bread).
Despite their name, scotch Eggs seem to be an English invention in their current form (a hard-boiled egg encased in sausage meat, coated in breadcrumbs and deep fried), even if they may well be one of our many dishes deriving from contacts with India; they’re quite often had for lunch. Bubble and squeak takes chopped meat, mashed potato and onions, all fried in a pan with vegetables. Another traditional food is pease pudding, particularly found in the north east, made of boiled legumes, usually with some bacon or ham. All these are fairly working class dishes, though, and though you will always be able to find a Sunday roast at a pub, there’s usually a good array of more sophisticated fare on offer, too. We should also mention curry, arguably still the national dish, though consumption is going down a bit. Curry in England and Britain generally has taken on a life of its own, and some varieties, like Balti, originated here. Curry houses are prolific, with some quite small villages having them.
Fish is easily available (not least with chips, but more on that below) in all the expected varieties. In English terms, we should give an honorary mention to kippers. Whitby on the north Yorkshire coast – of Dracula and windswept goths fame (it also has a rather nice ruined abbey) – is justly famous for its kippers. Eels have a particular connection with the East End of London and the Thames estuary. Oysters, though a famous English product since roman times, are not that common now.
There’s no particular rule to breakfast, and there’s a bewildering variety. It can range from the full English (or ‘fry up’ with many regional variations) of bacon, sausages, eggs, tomatoes and so on (also often found in pubs) to just fruit or yoghurt. Cereal is widely eaten, and there is the usual array you’d expect from mueslis and brans through to sugary child-detonating types. Also widely eaten are crumpets and muffins (though known as English muffins in the us, it would be fair to say that the English aren’t really strongly aware of any proprietary link to them, and they’re not as commonly eaten as the name suggests), either buttered or served with savoury or sweet toppings. Others might have beans on toast, and this is certainly a perennial offering a guest houses. With it you really ought to have your first cup of tea (though coffee is making devastating inroads into our consumption of the sacred drink) or fruit juice if you have to.
Lunch is best had at a pub by a river in the sunshine. A good ploughman’s completes the picture, ideally a large slab of bread accompanied by cheese or ham and pickles. A good one will not stint on the bread or the cheese, and the best pubs proffer superb, filling lunches that will make you feel like a very full titan, accompanied by some excellent beer. It’s important to lead with the ploughman’s because it brings us to cheese, which may be our greatest area of food proficiency. England produces at least 100 more varieties of cheese than France, with a much greater range of texture, flavour and application. More are appearing all the time, and it’s common to find ingenious new confections by small cheese making concerns at farmer’s markets or county fairs, or in the increasing number of ‘farm shops’ in villages and towns around the country. Though cheddar and stilton are rightly famous, they are far from the whole story. The breadth of local varieties is quite staggering (and before the railways came, was wider still). Among the most common, easily obtainable cheese are double Gloucester, a saffron-coloured semi-hard cheese from the West Country; red Leicester, a dark-orange slightly sweet semi-hard cheese; and Lancashire, a crumbly white. Some can be additionally flavoured with peppercorns or herbs and spices, and there are peculiarities like the surprisingly nice nettle cheese. slightly more esoteric, but still easy to obtain are varieties like Shropshire Blue, a creamy stilton-like product but more orange in colour; it’s a recent invention with a traditional sounding name that has no real connection to Shropshire, excellent though it is; various ‘tickler’ cheese come from Cornwall, a creamy, tangy and often quite strong cheese otherwise similar to cheddar. Also from Cornwall is yarg, a cow’s-milk cheese of varying texture wrapped in edible mouldy nettle leaves. As there is a myriad of cheeses, so there is a myriad of ways to eat it. Plenty of different kinds of bread are widely available – split tin loaves or bloomers; round knot loaves, often coated in poppy seeds or baguettes. For lunch, or as an evening supper or third course, cheese can be eaten with crackers (cream crackers, water biscuits or rye). For a snack, melted cheese on toast (known, if you do it in a dignified manner, as Welsh rarebit) is always an option.
If you don’t want to centre your lunch around cheese or a roast (or a warming bowl of soup), or are on the move, there are plenty of other options. For the latter, Cornish pasties (and their near relatives) are easy to get and very filling. Sausage rolls are a fairly common recourse, too. In coastal towns or big cities, you might try scampi, jellied eels or similar. To bring you back to the pub (and why not?), a common home and pub lunch is the jacket potato. Most pubs offer a variety of fillings – baked beans, cheese, tuna fish, coleslaw, even curry. It’s absolutely delicious and will certainly set you up for a busy afternoon. Pubs will also often offer a good soup and bread.
Of course, the king of food-on-the-go is fish and chips. You might need to develop a bit of discernment: as with any fast food on this scale, there are bad outlets. Don’t mix-up proper fish and chip shops with other outlets that do chips or stringy, limp fries. Expect tiled walls and a proper counter thronged with condiments and jars of pickled eggs or pickled onions. Backlit price-boards are probably a warning sign, literally. Equally to be avoided are artisan fish and chip restaurants, professing to offer the authentic experience to (let’s face it) unwary tourists. These usually charge multiples of the normal price and offer a chip that, while perfectly edible, isn’t a fish-and-chips chip. Chips should be fatter than us-style fries and served in paper (blank newsprint as the outer wrapper), either ‘open’ (in a cone, to be eaten as you walk, with a wooden two-pronged chip-fork, if you fancy) or ‘wrapped’. the best chip shops usually mention on the sign the variety of potato used, as if we’re going to turn our nose up if someone’s used jersey royals and not the expected Lincolnshire spud; but it’s a sign of pride, so never mind. With your chips you’ll see a list of fish to have with it, but there are normally also fish-cakes or various pies on offer. you might also find, especially in the north, mushy peas (soft marrowfat peas cooked in their own juice, looking much as the term suggests. they sound, and can look, unappetising, but are delicious) or curry sauce to put over the chips; both of these have long since spread country-wide, but cheesy chips (grated cheese on chips. surprisingly nice, if unsurprisingly unhealthy) seem to have retained a northern distribution. Or you can go old school, and just have a (large) pickled onion (or pickled egg).
Savouries aside, there are also plenty of things to appeal to the sweeter tooth. Much of this is as you’d experience in other countries, and often by the same manufacturers of ice creams and cakes, for example. But there are some quintessentially English treats and puddings that can be had at lunch or when out for dinner. Most tea shops will offer a range of cakes like Bakewell tarts (a shortcrust pastry with jam and a topping of flaked almonds) or scones (you may need to prepare by deciding how you’re going to pronounce the word: to rhyme with stone or, as the joke about the fastest cake goes, s’gone). It’s certainly worth having a cream tea at least once – another regional food in origin (Devon and Cornwall in the south-west): a pot of tea, scones with jam and thick clotted cream. The quality can be variable, and it’s certainly best to have a look and see if you’re about to be offered some recently defrosted mass-produced mockery of the real thing; avoid chain restaurants for this.
Without exhausting the range of cakes, we might mention Eccles cakes (originally from the Lancashire town of the same name, a round pastry with raisins) and the pepperminty Kendal Mint Cake from Cumbria’s Lake District. Some cakes and buns are seasonal – hot Cross Buns at Easter (along with pancakes, one of the traditions we still engage in then), mince pies at Christmas and so on. Lardy cake (made from a lard dough as the name suggests with raisins and spices) might be encountered especially in the south west, jam roly poly (a suet pudding not unlike a Swiss roll) anywhere. More often encountered at home than out-and-about (probably) are spotted dick, a fruity sponge usually served with custard, and bread-and-butter pudding. the latter sounds like a terrible idea, but magnificent when properly executed: buttered bread slices layered on top of each other with custard, raisins, nutmeg and so on, baked and then served with custard and cream. At the other end of the social origins scale, you can place strawberries and cream or the Eton mess (strawberries or bananas with ice cream or cream). Fresh seasonal fruits (strawberries, raspberries, apples) are widely available, of course.
England is most famous, in terms of alcoholic drink, for its beer, which comes in an unspeakable amount of varieties and range of flavours. This has taken some defending by selfless and dedicated connoisseurs, after a nadir reached in the post-war decades when mass-produced and anodyne brown alcoholic liquid masquerading as beer almost drove out the true article. A grass-roots campaign by groups like CaMra (the Campaign for real ale) aimed at promoting quality beers and, crucially, their natural home, the local pub, has had considerable success. There are still factories producing uninspiring beer impersonators, but England’s brewing industry is now in a robust state with a large number of high-quality marques, and good chance of finding an excellent pint wherever you are. There is no single taste of English beer – there is a range of style, and much will depend on where it’s bought, how it’s served and what you want to eat it with: like a fine wine, there are beers that work best with different foods.
Beers come in a number of broad forms. Usually, you’ll encounter bitter (or ale; the meaningful difference between the terms has largely gone). It varies in colour from a dark reddish brown, through hazelnut to a golden yellow – almost lager colour. The flavour and appearance can vary considerably for all sorts of reasons; some beers are very hoppy, others have a flavour derived from fruit or other additives (including lemon, elderflower, honey or even chocolate). Taste and lightness or heaviness can vary considerably with regions – a pint from a northern brewery might be quite different from a Kentish one, for example, but individual breweries can also produce a variety of beers in different styles so locality isn’t everything. IPA (India Pale ale), for example, is yellow and refreshing – a very good pint for a summer’s day; a winter warmer (seasonally produced) will be heavier and stronger and perhaps flavoured with something appropriately Christmassy. Other factors will have an impact on the flavour and there’s as much, if not more, variety as there is in wine. The same beer may be sold in bottles or at a pub with quite different impact due to the manner of delivery, and there will be much local wisdom on how well pints ‘travel’ from their home territories. Pubs don’t just serve local brews; there are nationally-popular pints, and others that may be available specially for a few days or weeks at a time (‘guest beers’). A good pub will be distinguished by its wide range.
If you’re buying a bottled beer, check if its bottle conditioned (‘live’) or not – you’ll need to pour the latter with some care due to the presence of yeast in the bottle. You should be pouring carefully anyway: the cognoscenti (and what pub does not contain great philosophers?) may look askance if you pour the pint at the wrong angle and don’t get the head just tickety-boo. Ignore them; we all get it wrong occasionally. Bitter can also be bought in cans, though this will usually be a matter of necessity rather than choice. If you’re drinking this way, be sure to check if the can has a draughtflow system – this produces a creamy, foamy pint when opened and poured properly, but can leave the unwary in a hilarious mess.
Feel free to drink in a pub and just enjoy the flavour and atmosphere. You may wish, though, to engage in a few of the rituals and pay attention to how the beer is drawn. Pub drinkers will often venture an opinion (occasionally, even an informed one) on how well the landlord is ‘keeping’ the beer – temperature, consistency and so on. you can get very good pints from a tap, but the most noble method is to draw it by a hand pump from an oak cask in which the beer has finished its fermentation: proper real ale (if you’re really lucky, this might be one of those rare pubs that brews its own beers on site). The barman should pull the pump carefully but firmly, and there should be a proper head of foam on the beer without it being too big, and the pint should settle nicely at the top of the glass (if it doesn’t, be sure to get a top-up). your beer will come in a wide variety of strengths – usually somewhere between 3 and 6% abv (average by volume; look out also for OG, Original Gravity, as a guide to strength), but the effect can vary with how ‘heavy’ the pint is, the weather or what it’s eaten with. Don’t treat that 3% difference as if it doesn’t matter, though. A stronger pint is exactly that. If it’s particularly strong (6-16%), it’s a barley wine. don’t plan on lifting any heavy machinery, operating thoughts or engaging in local government afterwards.
If the infinite variety of bitters and ales isn’t enough, or the evening or the meal demand it, try a stout or porter. These are heavier, much darker brews with a malty flavour and quite distinct in taste from their lighter-coloured cousins. There are also some good English lagers as well as easily-available international brands of beer, either in bottles or on tap. If, for reasons best known to yourself, beer is not your thing, then there are plenty of alternatives. You will find cider fairly easy to obtain, especially in one of its home regions, the West Country, roughly the area of the Wessex tour). Again, there’s variety in strength, taste and (cloudy to clear) appearance. There’s a distinct difference between West Country and Kentish/East Anglian cider, based on the types of apple used. East Anglian cider tends to be smoother, that of the south-west sharper and noticeably tangy. Cloudier, more orange-coloured ciders tend to be a better experience, smoother and more nuanced in flavour; mass-produced ones are often yellower and carbonated. White cider tends to be akin to a form of aviation fuel, very strong and notable more for its flammability than anything else. There is also cider’s pear-based relative, perry, though this is rather harder to encounter.
Gin has quite a place in English cultural history, from its horrific Georgian reputation to being the favoured tipple of imperial bureaucrats. London gin is now another of those protected foodstuff definitions, with strict rules on manufacturing processes, flavouring (and when it can be added) and (lack of ) colour, but that’s only part of a revivified production that balances traditional takes with innovative modern developments. As with beer, there’s a growing and high-quality artisan small-scale gin industry emerging all over the country, and you ought to be able to find something different whatever part of England you visit. If you’re visiting in summer, there’ll certainly be gin, and likely Pimms, too, often in a big fruit punch bowl and very much to be found at garden parties.
The usual run of whiskies and other spirits are easily found, but make an effort to try English mead. This is a strong, warming, honey- based drink that comes in a number of varieties (with varying additives to provide a range of flavours). Lindisfarne in the north-east makes a particularly fine product. Conveniently for our purposes, it’s often available at site museums.
England has all the normal varieties of bottled mineral water one would expect, and any restaurant or pub will give you free tap water if you ask. A wide range of fruit juices or other drinks such as elderflower are available in pretty much every town. Even smaller village shops should have something to suit most tastes.
Most international brands of fizzy drinks (‘pop’) are easily obtained and many stores produce their own brands, or their own cloudy lemonades.
For a more local flavour, there are some more local variations on the theme; some of these are a little old fashioned now and somewhat hard to get, but cream soda and dandelion and burdock will have special meaning to people of a certain age. Retro and faux-artisan versions of the latter at least are more widely available. More commonly found are Irn Bru (pronounced ‘iron’, a drink whose flavour can only be described as ‘orange’ – the colour, not the fruit) and Vimto, a fruit cordial particularly found (to the extent that it is the subject of some amiable mockery) in the Midlands. Also found prolifically is Lucozade, an energy drink.