Yes, we do have a wide and varied cuisine in Britain today. The image of grey boiled meat is gone! Britain now has a strong culinary reputation. In fact some of the great chefs now come from Britain, I kid you not!
However Britain's culinary expertise is not new! In the past British cooking was amongst the best in the world. Mrs Beeton is still one of the renowned writers of cookery books, her creations have now gained international popularity, years after her death.
Traditional British cuisine is substantial, yet simple and wholesome. We have long believed in four meals a day. It has been influenced by the traditions and tastes from different parts of the British empire: teas from Ceylon and chutney, kedgeree, and mulligatawny soup from India.
A brief history
British cuisine has always been multicultural. In ancient times influenced by the Romans and in medieval times the French. When the Frankish Normans invaded, they brought with them the spices of the east: cinnamon, saffron, mace, nutmeg, pepper, ginger. Sugar came to England at that time, and was considered a spice -- rare and expensive. Before the arrival of cane sugars, honey and fruit juices were the only sweeteners. The few Medieval cookery books that remain record dishes that use every spice in the larder, and chefs across Europe saw their task to be the almost alchemical transformation of raw ingredients into something entirely new (for centuries the English aristocracy ate French food) which they felt distinguished them from the peasants.
During Victorian times British food was mixed with exotic spices from all over the Empire. And today despite being part of Europe we've kept up our links with the countries of the former British Empire, now united under the Commonwealth.
One of the benefits of having an empire is that we did learn quite a bit from the colonies. From East Asia (China) we adopted tea (and exported the habit to India), and from India we adopted curry-style spicing, we even developed a line of spicy sauces including ketchup, mint sauce, Worcestershire sauce and deviled sauce. Today it would be fair to say that curry has become a national dish.
Among English cakes and pastries, many are tied to the various religious holidays of the year. Hot Cross Buns are eaten on Good Friday, Simnel Cake is for Mothering Sunday, Plum Pudding for Christmas, and Twelfth Night Cake for Epiphany.
Unfortunately a great deal of damage was done to British cuisine during the two world wars. Britain is an island and supplies of many goods became short. The war effort used up goods and services and so less were left over for private people to consume. Ships importing food had to travel in convoys and so they could make fewer journeys. During the second world war food rationing began in January 1940 and was lifted only gradually after the war.
The British tradition of stews, pies and breads, according to the taste buds of the rest of the world, went into decline.
In the late 1980's, British cuisine started to look for a new direction. Chefs began to look a little closer to home for inspiration. Calling on a rich (and largely ignored) tradition, and using many diverse and interesting ingredients, the basis was formed for what is now known as modern British food. Game has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity although it always had a central role in the British diet, which reflects both the abundant richness of the forests and streams and an old aristocratic prejudice against butchered meats.
In London especially, one can not only experiment with the best of British, but the best of the world as there are many distinct ethnic cuisines to sample, Chinese, Indian, Italian and Greek restaurants are amongst the most popular.
Although some traditional dishes such as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, Cornish pasties, steak and kidney pie, bread and butter pudding, treacle tart, spotted dick or fish and chips, remain popular, there has been a significant shift in eating habits in Britain. Rice and pasta have accounted for the decrease in potato consumption and the consumption of meat has also fallen. Vegetable and salad oils have largely replaced the use of butter.
Roast beef is still the national culinary pride. It is called a "joint," and is served at midday on Sunday with roasted potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, two vegetables, a good strong horseradish, gravy, and mustard.
Today there is more emphasis on fine, fresh ingredients in the better restaurants and markets in the UK offer food items from all over the world. Salmon, Dover sole, exotic fruit, Norwegian prawns and New Zealand lamb are choice items. Wild fowl and game are other specialties on offer.
In fact fish is still important to the English diet, we are after all an island surrounded by some of the richest fishing areas of the world. Many species swim in the cold offshore waters: sole, haddock, hake, plaice, cod (the most popular choice for fish and chips), turbot, halibut, mullet and John Dory. Oily fishes also abound (mackerel, pilchards, and herring) as do crustaceans like lobster and oysters. Eel, also common, is cooked into a wonderful pie with lemon, parsley, and shallots, all topped with puff pastry.
Despite recent setbacks beef is still big industry in England, and the Scottish Aberdeen Angus is one of our most famous beef-producing breeds. Dairy cattle are also farmed extensively -- England is famous for its creams and butters and for its sturdy and delicious cheeses: Stilton, Cheshire and its rare cousin blue Cheshire, double Gloucester, red Leicester, sage Derby, and of course cheddar.
Some of our more interesting dishes include:-
Beefsteak, Oyster, and Kidney Pudding: Oysters may seem unlikely in this meat pudding, but their great abundance in the Victorian age and earlier eras inspired cooks to find ways to incorporate them creatively in many different recipes. This steamed pudding combines the meats with mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, and Worcestershire, then wraps the whole in a suet pastry.
Black Pudding: invented in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis black pudding is often served as part of a traditional full English breakfast.
Cock-a-Leekie : This Scottish specialty can be classified as a soup or a stew. It combines beef, chicken, leeks, and prunes to unusual and spectacular ends.
Crown Roast Lamb: The crown roast encircles a stuffing of apples, bread crumbs, onion, celery, and lemon.
Eccles Cake : Puff pastry stuffed with a spicy currant filling.
Hasty Pudding: A simple and quick (thus the name) steamed pudding of milk, flour, butter, eggs, and cinnamon.
Irish Stew: An Irish stew always has a common base of lamb, potatoes, and onion. It could contain any number of other ingredients, depending on the cook.
Likky Pie Leeks: pork, and cream baked in puff pastry.
Mincemeat: Beef suet is used to bind chopped nuts, apples, spices, brown sugar, and brandy into a filling for pies or pasties - not to be confused with minced meat!.
Mulligatawny Soup: What this soup is depends on who is cooking it. Originally a south Indian dish (the name means pepper water in tamil), it has been adopted and extensively adapted by the British. Mullitgatawny contains chicken or meat or vegetable stock mixed with yogurt or cheese or coconut milk and is seasoned with curry and various other spices. It is sometimes served with a separate bowl of rice.
Syllabub: In the seventeenth century, a milkmaid would send a stream of new, warm milk directly from a cow into a bowl of spiced cider or ale. A light curd would form on top with a lovely whey underneath. This, according to Elizabeth David, was the original syllabub. Today's syllabub is more solid (its origins can also be traced to the seventeenth century, albeit to the upper classes) and mixes sherry and/or brandy, sugar, lemon, nutmeg, and double cream into a custard-like dessert or an eggnog-like beverage, depending upon the cook.
Trifle: Layers of alcohol-soaked sponge cake alternate with fruit, custard and whipped cream, some people add jelly, but that's for kids.
Welsh Faggots: Pig's liver is made into meatballs with onion, beef suet, bread crumbs, and sometimes a chopped apple. Faggots used to be made to use up the odd parts of a pig after it had been slaughtered.
Welsh Rabbit (or Rarebit): Cheese is grated and melted with milk or ale. Pepper, salt, butter, and mustard are then added. The mix is spread over toast and baked until "the cheese bubbles and becomes brown in appetizing-looking splashes" (Jane Grigson in English Food, London: Penguin, 1977).
Westmoreland Pepper Cake: Fruitcake that gets a distinctive kick from lots of black pepper. Other ingredients include honey, cloves, ginger, and walnuts.