Abigail Fenton 22nd May 2018
English food has a bad reputation. Despite gifting humanity with delicacies such as the Yorkshire pudding, mushy peas and mince pies, English cuisine receives a lot of criticism for being “bland” or just plain weird.
Americans ridicule English gravy-based dishes, while Europeans joke that English cuisine is overcooked. In fact, it’s hard to get through a diplomatic meeting or an episode of Frasier without someone mentioning how unbearable it is.
Granted, English people have an odd penchant for eating stuff that patently isn’t meant to be eaten — I mean, who came up with black pudding, and what twisted Stephen King novel did they crawl out of? Someone have a stern word with that person, pronto.
Still, like all countries, there are both bad and good foods to be found across England.
Let’s start with the obvious: baked goods. No one does cakes and biscuits quite like the English. Is there anything more delectable than a still-warm scone with clotted cream and homemade strawberry jam? I think not, and Mary Berry probably agrees, which is all the validation that theory needs.
The English also excel at all kinds of pies, puddings and roast meats, and produce 750 different kinds of cheeses. That’s 350 more cheeses than France — at least, according to 2016’s International Cheese Awards, which is a real ceremony and not something that has been made up for this article.
So what’s up with everybody slagging off English food?
According to Hertfordshire-based chef and social media star Ben Churchill, there are a lot of prevalent myths about English cooking that stem from how people lived in the post-war 20th century.
After two world wars, people got used to living frugally. This meant eating cheap food that was either boiled or stewed, and the resulting dishes were sapped of taste and visually unappealing.
Our stews are actually delicious, but not much to look at
Not to be tin-hatted about it, but George Orwell even argued that disapproval of British food was rooted in 20th century prejudices in his 1945 essay In Defense of English Cooking.
It’s a misconception that English food is all boiled, these days, says Churchill.
“I think our history of stews and root veg is definitely where the image came from. We used those methods because cheap meat needs to be boiled or stewed to make it tender. Our stews are actually delicious, but not much to look at. Nowadays, our methods match those of both Australia and Scandinavia. There’s a mix of preserving and fermenting, along with stripping dishes back to just the ingredient.”
He adds that England needs to start embracing its history of game and cheap cuts. It has already started embracing the seafood around it and that is world famous.
It’s no secret the English have historically eaten a lot of meat. English beef, in particular, has basically been a symbol of national pride since the early 1700s when the ballad The Roast Beef of Old England was first popularised. (Not The Boiled Beef of Old England, you’ll notice.) It’s very traditional. Very English.
We produce excellent beef and lamb here, mainly off the back of the climate
Sam Wass, director of Great British Meat, says: “The UK’s climate is perfect for growing grass, which in turn makes it great for producing meat. We produce excellent beef and lamb here, mainly off the back of the climate.”
However, this is where one of the most common criticisms of English food lies. Cold climate countries tend to grow fewer vegetables, herbs and spices. This means that selection and choices were once quite limited.
But, England does have lots of cows and sheep. As a result, it was once almost a point of British culture to use every part of the animal available. Black pudding, white pudding and steak and kidney pie are prime examples of traditional English dishes that might, understandably, sound questionable to anyone else.
And while Scotland and Wales also have their share of weird offal-based dishes, at least haggis has character. People have respect for haggis that they don’t have for steak and kidney pie. (Plus, the Scots really woke up one day and thought, “What can we deep fry next? I know, a Mars Bar,” so they’ve already won the food game.)
Having a traditionally meat-based diet with few spices is especially problematic because people care more about what their food is made out of these days, says chef Hansa Dabhi, who has a restaurant and runs a cooking school in Leeds.
“They care about what goes into each dish. They care about what black pudding is made out of. They’re also more health conscious, and a lot of English food like that isn’t good for you.”
Dabhi, who says she sometimes puts as many as 20 spices in a dish, claims that English food just isn’t as flavoursome as the food found in Asian, African, and South American countries.
“Other countries cook with a lot of herbs and spices, and the English don’t,” says Dabhi, who came to the UK with an outside perspective.
“I grew up eating Indian food. English food was new to me when I came to this country, 30 years ago. I did take a liking to a few English dishes, but a lot of them lacked the spices and textures found in food from other countries.”
I think because everyone always called our food bad or bland the UK was scared to show off
Still, even if it could use a touch of cumin on occasion, Churchill maintains that the myth of bad British food is just that.
“Whatever people used to think of us, nowadays we have such a huge range of ingredients both native and flown in that we can use in our dishes. Look at the seafood being used down in Cornwall and the vibrant veg and game being used all over the country.
“I think because everyone always called our food bad or bland the UK was scared to show off but now we’ve realised that we’ve got stunning produce, well-trained chefs, and a rich heritage and food history.”
So, maybe your low opinion of English food is based on misconceptions of what it actually is. Or maybe you just think that “spotted dick” sounds like a disease, not something you should voluntarily put in your mouth. That’s valid, too.
There’s not an English person alive whose gears don’t grind when Americans talk shit about beans on toast (an underrated, five-star dish) or the chip butty (better than sex), but perhaps it’s time to concede a lot of English food doesn’t look as good as it tastes. Also, jellied eels were probably a mistake. We’ll give you that one.
But, before you write off English food altogether, you should consider trying crumpets, Oxford marmalade, Devonshire cream, Stilton, Wensleydale, Cox’s Orange Pippin apples, trifle, Eaton Mess, sticky toffee pudding, toad in the hole, a Cornish pasty or a proper home-cooked Sunday roast.
You might just reconsider.
Abigail Fenton 22nd May 2018