This week is British Roast Dinner Week – and is there anything more British than the Roast Dinner?
But the image of British food isn’t so flattering! In fact, if the world were a playground then British food would probably be the fat, spotty kid in second hand clothes who got bullied by the “cool” kids. Yet just as the quarterback jock who called Bill Gates a nerd at school is unlikely to be quite so boisterous today, it rings equally hollow when people ridicule a cuisine which has now totally outgrown its former reputation.
Historically, the blame lay with the industrial revolution and Second World War food rationing. Fresh produce became a distant rural memory and food shortages meant the plucky Brits had to get inventive with potatoes. Food became more of a practical consideration than an epicurean extravagance and with synthetic custard, smash and margarine masquerading as butter as staples, Britain was a culinary bedlam. Tinned mushy peas anyone?
The problem wasn’t helped by that other blight on the UK cooking scene: the so-called traditional British pub. Every year millions of tourists go in search of “traditional British Food” and wind up eating a frozen pie with cold lumpy gravy in a grotty backstreet pub that claims to have once harboured Jack the Ripper. Inevitably, the experience is a dire one and the resultant PR even worse.
In the last twenty years, our culinary landscape has transformed. With the likes of Jamie Oliver and Heston Blumenthal at the helm, there is some seriously respectable grub crossing the pass. If those same tourists had stumbled across one of the many great restaurants or ubiquitous gastro pubs now on offer, how different their reviews would be.
At its best, British fayre like roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and treacle sponge with custard is pretty hard to beat. Nobody is going to claim it has the finesse of delicately prepared fugu but it would take a tough audience not to leave the table with a belly full of warmth and a satisfied smile.
Yet the image of Britain as a culinary wasteland still persists. The British government, naturally, keen to dispel the idea that British hodgepodge is inedible, launched the Love British Food campaign in conjunction with the Olympics, bursting onto the scene with suitable patriotism. With farmers markets sprouting up across the land, a smorgasbord of foodie festivals and our supermarkets offering more variety than ever, the thrust of British cuisine seems to be variety of ingredients. Prime Minister David Cameron said that “British food showcases our heritage, openness, creativity and diversity.” After all, where else would you find steak ‘n’ kidney pie, pasties, chicken masala and roast beef on the same menu? It’s not a static heritage either, with each wave of new Brits adding something of their own to the pot. Once fish and chips was a novelty, taking the Jewish fried fish tradition from the East End and adding the fried potatoes beloved of the Huguenots to make something that now is as British as say, Lancashire hotpot.
As a celebration of our culinary foibles, we’ve decided to delve into some of our top quirky facts about British cuisine.
1. Most of us know that the ubiquitous sandwich, the champion of convenience foods, was invented by the Earl of Sandwich. But did you know that he was a raving gambler? Legend goes that he was too busy frittering his money away to stop for a meal and to ensure that he didn’t have to stop playing (and we like to think that he wanted to keep his hands clean for the cards), he asked his servant for meat to be put between two slices of bread.
2. Ah, the homely lasagne. Italy may hold claim to the invention of the Ferrari and the pizza, but not apparently the lasagne. Yes, this layered pasta masterpiece is in fact British. Researchers studying a medieval cookbook, The Forme of Cury, in the British museum noted that the 14th century tome, popular during the time of Richard III, features a dish called “Loseyn”, made up of pasta sheets topped with cheese.
3. Strawberries are thought to be one of the earliest British packaged foods – in the 16th century, cone-shaped straw baskets were the preferred method of sale. In medieval times, they were regarded as an aphrodisiac so soup made of strawberries, borage and soured cream was traditionally served to newly-weds at their wedding breakfast.
4. Marmalade is a uniquely British food. For many Brits, from Paddington Bear to Churchill, this preserve spread thick on toast is the best way to begin the day, whilst others are repulsed by its tongue-numbing bitter tang. Originally made in Portugal with quinces, the first shipments of this “marmelada”, arrived in 1495 and sold at a fabulously expensive price, it was a popular gift among noble families. In the 18th century, the Scots pioneered the switchover to orange from imported Seville oranges.
What is your favourite British classic?
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