British cuisine has a bit of a bad reputation in many parts of the world. The rumours say that the food is bland, oversalted, overpriced and devoid of fresh vegetables, and ultimately stems from traditions built on the extreme food rationing during the world wars. Having never been to Britain, I can’t fairly judge the situation. However, to me British food has a romantic haze around it from the comfort-food influences on Australian cuisine (roasts, fish and chips etc), as well as my childhood love of British books that described food so decadently. I grew up filled with fantasies of having tea, toast and sardines with Mr. Tumnus the faun, Elevenses with hobbits in The Shire, picnics of sandwiches, lashings of boiled eggs and ginger pop with The Famous Five, and a welcome feast at the Hogwarts great hall. British food originated as local ingredients cooked in simple ways, such as the typical “meat and three veg” home cooked meal. However, the cuisine has also had a long tradition of incorporating flavours brought in by its immigrants and discovered in the British Empire of old. This integration of flavours is perhaps best exemplified in chicken tikka masala, which was purportedly invented in Scotland with Indian-influenced spices, and has been listed on numerous polls and surveys as the most popular dish in modern Britain. It could be argued that the scarcity of fresh and varied ingredients during wartime rationing was an impetus for the modern generation to seek novel and abundant spices and flavours, and may have contributed to the integration of Mediterranean and Asian ingredients in modern British cuisine, as well the rise of so many celebrity chefs. How all of this has culminated in the current food climate, I can’t say, but I certainly enjoyed eating and looking at my interpretation of British cuisine this week!
Sunday roast beef with all the trimmings
The Sunday roast lunch is a British tradition that originated as a family meal eaten after church on Sundays. So popular is the British roast that it came in at second on a poll of things Britons love about Britain – above Shakespeare, The Queen, The Beatles, and even Harry Potter! The Sunday roast can involve cuts of lamb, pork, chicken, duck, goose or turkey, which were traditionally put in the oven before church so that lunch would be ready upon the family’s return. There are typical accompaniments to each of these (although not exclusively), for instance, apple sauce with pork, mint sauce with lamb or sausage and sage stuffing with chicken. I elected for one of the most traditional British roasts: beef, which is commonly accompanied by Yorkshire puddings and English mustard. I coated my cut of beef in salt and pepper, mustard powder, thyme and rosemary before cooking, and elected to leave it medium rare. I also baked roast potatoes, parsnips and Brussel sprouts in duck fat (which is definitely the only way one should roast vegetables…) and steamed carrots and peas. I’ve never made a Yorkshire pudding before, but have always found them intriguing. It turns out the traditional way to make them is with the drippings (i.e. liquid molten fat) from your roast, which is placed in the bottom of muffin tins to start smoking in the oven until it’s as hot as possible. A sloppy batter of eggs, milk, flour and salt is then poured into each of the wells and then put into a very hot oven until risen with little indentations in the middle. The result is a surprisingly light and fluffy texture that’s like a cross between a bread roll, a quiche and a savoury custard. Most importantly, the indentations in the middle are a perfect vehicle for gravy. Gravy, in my opinion, is the best and most important part of a roast dinner. I hold this conviction so dearly that I have been close to tears when the gravy aspect of a roast dinner has been substandard, or, horror-of-horrors, missing altogether. Luckily my gravy turned out very nicely, as I strictly followed my protocol for achieving smooth and delicious gravy every time. The secret is to start with fat (pan drippings), then slowly add plain flour over a low heat until you form a smooth paste. Then you add a stock appropriate to your cut of meat very slowly, making sure it’s all smoothly incorporated before adding any more. I finished my gravy by adding some red wine and seasoning with plenty of pepper. In true time-honoured tradition, I served this roast for Sunday lunch with my Mum and Dad and ate leftovers for half the week!
The full breakfast is famous across the UK as well as Ireland. It’s typically called a full English breakfast in England (or full English for short), and a full Irish, Scottish or Welsh in the respective regions. It can also commonly be referred to as a “fry up”. It has since gained popularity across the world, being offered at cafes and hotel buffets internationally. It generally includes sausages, grilled or fried tomatoes, eggs (fried, poached or scrambled), hash browns (or alternatively roasted or fried potatoes), toast, fried mushrooms, bacon, baked beans and blood sausage. Even in Australia, emotions run hot over the brand of tinned baked beans that is acceptable. I’m a Heinz girl myself, but I suppose everyone is entitled to their opinion. Blood sausage is quite uncommon here, to the extent that the concept is often met with revulsion. It’s made with animal blood mixed with spices and a filler (like rice) to solidify it inside a sausage casing. If you can get over the thought of eating blood, the taste is actually a nice balance of rich, salty and sweet. The full breakfast gained popularity during the Victorian era, and began to be referred to as a “Full Monty” after World War II. There is an urban legend that this phrase arose when British Army Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery – nicknamed “Monty” – declared his daily affection for the dish when campaigning in North Africa, and that it has since come to mean “everything possible”. Wikipedia lists numerous other possibilities for the origin of the phrase, but I think I like this one most.
Chicken, ham and vegetable pie with boiled potatoes and salad
The pie is a British institution, whether it be steak and kidney, game, fish or pork. I chose chicken and ham partly because I’d already planned for red meat, pork and fish this week, but mostly because I’ve been fantasising about tasting a chicken and ham pie for some years now. In fact, I can tell you the exact date that my desire for chicken and ham pie was kindled: 8 July 2000. I know this because that was the date that the fourth Harry Potter book was released, and of course, being a tragic Potterhead, I read the entire thing in one day after lining up all morning dressed as a witch. In my defence, I was 9, but that defence may get a tad shaky if I told you that the situation was similar for the final book in 2007… The particular excerpt of Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire that references this meal is as follows:
By seven o’clock, the two tables were groaning under dishes and dishes of Mrs Weasley’s excellent cooking, and the nine Weasleys, Harry and Hermione were settling themselves down to eat beneath a clear, deep-blue sky. To somebody who had been living on meals of increasingly stale cake all summer, this was paradise, and at first, Harry listened rather than talked, as he helped himself to chicken-and-ham pie, boiled potatoes and salad.
I made my pie filling with shredded chicken breast, smoked ham, carrots, potatoes, leeks, onions, thyme and creme fraiche. I made the pastry by combining plain flour, butter, cheddar cheese, egg, creme fraiche, seeded mustard and water. I was very pleased with this pastry because it was easy to combine and shape, and came out unsodden by the filling and crispy on the outside. In full homage to the Harry Potter meal, I also included boiled potatoes, dressed in mustard, vinegar and parsley, and a garden salad of mixed lettuce leaves and radishes. I would have been quietly devastated if this meal hadn’t met my long-held high expectations, but luckily it was everything my imagination had devised and more – I hope that Mrs. Weasley would be proud of me!
Fish and chips with mushy peas and a Scotch egg
British fish and chips classically originate from the “chippy” – the local fish and chip shop. The chippy is traditionally located precisely “down the road” and sells cheap deep fried beer-battered fish and chips in newspaper or butchers’ paper, which becomes varying degrees of transparent depending on how much oil your meal exudes between the time you pick it up and when you get home. Chippies, like hairdressers, are notorious for being named with terrible puns. Even in Australia, my local chippy is called “A salt and battery”, but other British classics include “new cod on the block”, “chip-in-dales”, “frying nemo”, “the codfather” and “contented sole”. The traditional accompaniments of fish and chips include salt, malt vinegar, mushy peas or a squeeze of lemon. I made my fish and chips using fillets of cod, and used a beer batter, which consists of beer, plain flour and baking powder. The fizziness of the beer adds a light fluffy texture to the batter and also contributes to the deep golden brown colour. I then deep fried the batter-coated fish and chips, and made the mushy peas by cooking peas in butter and mint, and then roughly mashing them. A Scotch egg is a soft-boiled egg wrapped in spiced sausage meat, then crumbed and deep fried. Although they are sold in British chippies, they’re not at all popular in Australia and therefore I’ve never tried one, but have long held a curious fascination for them. The origin of Scotch eggs is disputed; some think they were invented by a London department store, others argue that they were an interpretation of an Indian dish called “Narcissus meatballs”. I thought the Scotch egg had too much unbalanced protein for my liking – I think it would be better with some more acidic elements. There are variations with pickled eggs, so I think perhaps that would tickle my fancy more.