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The Great British Food Myths


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Posted (edited)

Over the years I’ve been on eG, various people have made disparaging remarks about British food, repeating long debunked myths. These I feel I need to re-debunk.

 

The disgraced, corrupt French President, Jacques Chirac, at an international meeting in 2005, said, “One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad. The only thing they have ever done for European agriculture is mad cow disease, After Finland, it is the country with the worst food.”

This is typical of the propaganda that has been levelled at British food for years. Like all stereotypes it is largely untrue.

 

“British food is (in)famous for being unseasoned...“ claimed one member recently, later adding that he was not referring to salt.

 

It has been suggested that British food is bland and boring. Clichés and stereotypes like this are usually invented by people who have never tasted the food.

 

It is my intention to try to debunk these ideas as much as I can. It won't be difficult.

 

 

Edited by liuzhou (log)
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Posted (edited)

1. The British Don't Use Herbs and Spices.

 

In fact, Britain developed herbed stew techniques long before the rest of Europe. Garlic was widely used (Britain still eats more garlic than the south of France, which has what is often considered a garlic laden cuisine - another stereotype.)

British food uses more spices and herbs than most! I live in China now and that cuisine is very low on the variety of spices and herbs it uses. No parsley, sage rosemary or thyme! They do have herbs by the thousand, but they are used medicinally; not as part of dinner.


Wild samphire was widely eaten and later cultivated. Rock samphire was mentioned by Shakespeare in King Lear.

 

Quote

Half-way down Hangs one that gathers samphire; dreadful trade!

—  Act IV, Scene VI, Lines 14-15

 

This refers to the dangers involved in collecting rock samphire from sea cliffs. But people took the risk as the herb was so highly valued.

 

Perce-pierre.jpg.691917fee0691e5e4e9cfba86c48f39e.jpg

Rock Samphire

 

The Romans introduced, among others, coriander, chives, marjoram, stinging nettles, rosemary, onions, spearmint etc., all of which were happily adopted by the British and became part of the cuisine.

 

The British Empire came about partly because of the search for spices and in the 18th and 19th centuries, Britain was among the leading spice trading nations.

Saffron arrived much earlier via the Phoenicians! It is still extensively cultivated in east England near the town of Saffron Walden. I wonder where that town got its name!

 

Mustard had long been grown in Britain before the first prepared English mustard went on sale in 1720. Coleman’s mustard (first produced 1814) from England is sold internationally.

English mustard is one of the strongest flavoured mustards you will find. Far from bland or boring! It is coloured with turmeric.

 

1834477885_HotEnglishMustard.thumb.jpg.d9a2de9fc0074f01ed9c8a573af73ecb.jpg

 

Mint sauce with roast lamb has been widely mocked. In fact it has an interesting history. Queen Elizabeth 1 (1533-1603) wished to encourage the wool industry and decided the people were eating too many of the sheep. In order to stop this, she introduced a law (not banning its consumption; that would have been a step too far), insisting that lamb or mutton could only be cooked with “bitter herbs”. Mint was considered to be such a herb. So the cooks complied and discovered that mint with sheep is actually damned delicious. People 1; Queen 0.

The ubiquitous Brown Sauce, the nation’s second favourite after tomato ketchup is heavily spiced.

 

hp.jpg.42b2ba4f63239d5522e7bdc97c247fa5.jpg

 


Few people can pronounce Worcestershire Sauce (introduced 1837 in England) correctly, but it is used world-wide to add flavour to dishes. I can buy Lee and Perrins Worcestershire sauce here in China, but there are also local versions.

Mention has been made of Indian and Pakistani influences on British food. Incidentally very few of the “Indian” restaurants in Britain are either Indian or Pakistani. They are mostly Bengali. And the curries they serve are nothing like what is served in the Indian sub-continent. The worst Indian food I ever ate was in India!

British food's adoption of Indian spices and making them their own belies any notion that British food is bland and spice-less.

 

To be continued

 

 

 

Edited by liuzhou (log)
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2 hours ago, liuzhou said:

British food uses more spices and herbs than most

I've recently been on a binge of reading Elizabeth David. Grub Street publishes most of her books in really attractive uniform editions. I've been compelled to collect the set. She's didactic, witty, acerbic, practical and a thorough researcher.

 

Her Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen is lighter on history than many of her works but it backs up your views. I'm sure you know it.

 

I too am looking forward to this thread.

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2 minutes ago, FlashJack said:

Her Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen is lighter on history than many of her works but it backs up your views. I'm sure you know it.

 

Indeed I do. In fact, I intend referencing her in a later post.

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Any culture that advocates tomatoes for breakfast is my kind of place.

 

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Perhaps Jennifer and Clarissa of "Two Fat Ladies" gave us a different perspective on the wide range of UK food. What a sparkling pair. 

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Perhaps it is not the _cuisine_ that is underseasoned, but rather just a few iconic dishes lots of tourists experience.  Bangers- not much in the way of spice but white pepper.  Pork pies similarly lightly seasoned.  Not a lot but salt and pepper going on in the Sunday roast or the Yorkshire puddings that go with it. Saying British cuisine is underspiced is just flat out wrong since curry is such a big part of it... But there are iconic foods that are lacking in herbal oomph... particularly to American palates where Italian spices in sausages are ubiquitous and garlic salt is widely used on roasts and such like.     

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Posted (edited)
35 minutes ago, FlashJack said:

I've recently been on a binge of reading Elizabeth David. Grub Street publishes most of her books in really attractive uniform editions. I've been compelled to collect the set. She's didactic, witty, acerbic, practical and a thorough researcher.

 

Her Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen is lighter on history than many of her works but it backs up your views. I'm sure you know it.

 

I too am looking forward to this thread.

Elizabeth David is a personal favorite: her writing, her sensibility and her unique place as an influencer.  Although she is British as can be, her recipes and techniques bring in a lot of Italian and Mediterranean flavors. I guess I am as susceptible as others when it comes to British culinary stereotypes so I don't think of her as being in a classic British tradition.

Edited by Katie Meadow (log)
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Posted (edited)
19 minutes ago, cdh said:

Perhaps it is not the _cuisine_ that is underseasoned, but rather just a few iconic dishes lots of tourists experience.  Bangers- not much in the way of spice but white pepper.  Pork pies similarly lightly seasoned.  Not a lot but salt and pepper going on in the Sunday roast or the Yorkshire puddings that go with it. Saying British cuisine is underspiced is just flat out wrong since curry is such a big part of it... But there are iconic foods that are lacking in herbal oomph... particularly to American palates where Italian spices in sausages are ubiquitous and garlic salt is widely used on roasts and such like.     

 

Yes, tourists generally go to all the wrong places to eat. Not only in Britain. And order bad renditions of every cliché possible. I cringe at some of the videos on YouTube showing people's British food eating experiences and end up shouting at the computer.

 

 "Why are you going there!  Can't you see a tourist trap when you are in the middle of one!? Don't you realise there isn't a single British customer in there?"

Many British sausages are relatively heavily spiced. Not supermarket bangers, I'll admit. And Italian sausages are eaten in Britain just as much as in America. We too have a large Italian population. Few people use garlic powder or garlic salt. We use fresh garlic and salt instead.

Anyway, I'll get to sausages in detail later.

The traditional pork pie is, again, seasoned but not heavily but name me one cuisine where everything is heavily seasoned? Some things just don't need it.

 

Edited by liuzhou (log)
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Posted (edited)

2. Britain Doesn't Have Good Ingredients - Part A

 

Of all the claims, this one is surely the dumbest.

 

British beef has long been considered among the world’s best. Where does Aberdeen-Angus, sometimes just called Angus come from? Yes, Britain, specifically Scotland. Much of that raised today in Britain is shipped to France, with the top Parisian chefs (and customers) paying top prices. Angus beef is America’s favourite, introduced in 1873. Sorry, folks, it’s British. Today, the breed is found worldwide and is prized for its marbled beef. The Japanese love it, too!

Welsh lamb, Queen Victoria’s favourite, is also well regarded, although the French don’t eat so much of that.

 

151230439_lambleg.thumb.jpg.6e00fa6d4df51cc0af7a5cd1d939019a.jpg

Leg of Lamb

 

Rabbit, introduced by the Romans, is still popular. Often cooked with the same herbs the animal feeds on. Rabbit with juniper berries is also a classic pairing.

Tamworth pigs, Gloucester Old Spot Pigs, Berkshire pigs etc. are prized around the world for their meat as are other heritage breeds.

 

Order seafood in Paris and it’s going to have been caught in Scottish waters- some of the best in the world. Langoustines and brown crab are particularly prized. Scottish seafood is exported to the USA, Spain, Italy and Portugal, with growing interest in Southeast Asia.

 

1356437862_saltandpepperprawns5.thumb.jpg.5fa0ff8fdf1eb119742a7cf65a0575d6.jpg

 

Loch Fyne, a sea loch on Scotland’s west coast has some of the most highly prized oysters. I’ve eaten them in Paris, too.

 

Traditional foods such as kippers (cold smoked herring) and Arbroath smokies (hot smoked haddock) may be brown but are far from bland or boring. Yes, ‘brown’ is another complaint levelled against British food right here on these forums. Many, maybe most, foods are brown; not just British.

 

smokie.thumb.jpg.39038da435e348911fe9e6536e37d303.jpg

Smokies

 

Haggis is neither bland, or boring. Instead it is well spiced. The same with black pudding (blood sausage).

 

Haggis.thumb.jpg.95c64c3b165cb9c551f94841ade1767f.jpg

Haggis (centre)

 

Coming next: A surprise!

Edited by liuzhou (log)
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My first experience of British food was school meals as a 7 year old. Every lunch was so bland, I almost cried. At one school assembly I listened aghast as the head master railed against too much spice spoiling the palate. I think he might have been drawing an analogy with too much excitement dulling your experience of life. I was so glad when I discovered mint sauce. Tasted weird, but at least I could taste something!

 

50 years later, I can appreciate the difference between roast potatoes, mashed potatoes, chips, boiled and steamed new potatoes. Bring me the blandest thing on the menu!

 

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Posted (edited)
21 minutes ago, liuzhou said:

2. Britain Doesn't Have Good Ingredients - Part A

 

Of all the claims, this one is surely the dumbest.

 

British beef has long been considered among the world’s best. Where does Aberdeen-Angus, sometimes just called Angus come from? Yes, Britain, specifically Scotland. Much of that raised today in Britain is shipped to France, with the top Parisian chefs (and customers) paying top prices. Angus beef is America’s favourite, introduced in 1873. Sorry, folks, it’s British. Today, the breed is found worldwide and is prized for its marbled beef. The Japanese love it, too!

Welsh lamb, Queen Victoria’s favourite, is also well regarded, although the French don’t eat so much of that.

Rabbit, introduced by the Romans, is still popular. Often cooked with the same herbs the animal feeds on. Rabbit with juniper berries is also a classic pairing.

Tamworth pigs, Gloucester Old Spot Pigs, Berkshire pigs etc. are prized around the world for their meat as are other heritage breeds.

 

Order seafood in Paris and it’s going to have been caught in Scottish waters- some of the best in the world. Langoustines and brown crab are particularly prized. Scottish seafood is exported to the USA, Spain, Italy and Portugal, with growing interest in Southeast Asia,

Loch Fyne, a sea loch on Scotland’s west coast has some of the most highly prized oysters. I’ve eaten them in Paris, too.

 

Traditional foods such as kippers (cold smoked herring) and Arbroath smokies (hot smoked haddock) may be brown but are far from bland or boring. Yes, ‘brown’ is another complaint levelled against British food right here on these forums. Many, maybe most, foods are brown; not just British.

 

Haggis is neither bland, or boring. Instead it is well spiced. The same with black pudding (blood sausage).

Coming next: A surprise!

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9 minutes ago, Kerala said:

My first experience of British food was school meals as a 7 year old. Every lunch was so bland, I almost cried.

 

Institutional food is never great in any country or culture.

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You may have a point, but so far, items 1 and 2 are straw men that you have set up to knock down.

 

Do people actually say that Brits use no spices and have bad ingredients?  I haven't heard this. 

 

And one cannot say "look at all the Indian spices they use". Cultural appropriation doesn't count.

 

But carry-on.

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Much depends on [where are you had] dinner!
 

Given that I left Great Britain in 1958, that I was a teenager at the time and that I came from a working class background in the Midlands, I have been searching my memory with respect to seasonings and condiments that I recall being used by my family. I have no recollection of any cookbooks other than Mrs. Beeton. 
 

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I think one person may have said something negative about British food.  Sort of the same as you saying :

 

8 hours ago, liuzhou said:

tourists generally go to all the wrong places to eat

Don’t you think?

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Posted (edited)
4 hours ago, weinoo said:

I think one person may have said something negative about British food. 

 

 

Come on! People have been being negative about British food for decades.

Edited by liuzhou (log)

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Britain is indeed a producer of world class beef and lamb, as well as superb fish and shellfish.   And for those who can afford it these are prepared with elegance and grace.   I wonder if Britain's reputation for unremarkable food stems from what was prepared by or served to ordinary people in the last centuries.  

 

We spent considerable time in London back in the '80s.    We had an apartment and shopped excellent meats and produce, as well as re-heatable made-foods.   Meals out were often at a lovely French bistro in South Ken.   We ate well.

 

One travel sadness is that we never got to The Sportsman, a goal unmet.   

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1 minute ago, Margaret Pilgrim said:

 I wonder if Britain's reputation for unremarkable food stems from what was prepared by or served to ordinary people in the last centuries. 

 

 

Not really, but I'll get to what I (and many others) believe to be the reason for the false reputation shortly.

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Maybe a little off topic, but my first wife was British, and her family introduced me to bangers (and chipolatas).  Supermarket bangers aren't usually that good, but there was a British foods supplier locally that had very good bangers and when the local supermarket stopped carrying them, he let me buy them direct (albeit a case at a time).  Many years later (and next wife), I went to England for the first time on a business trip.  From Heathrow I got in a traditional black cab at about noon.  Couldn't check into the hotel for several hours so the cabbie offered to show me London, which I agreed to.  First though, I wanted lunch.  Been many years since I had a decent banger, so I asked the cabbie, "Where can I get a good banger?"  He turned back to me with a quizzical expression on his face. After a little back and forth, he finally understood that I wanted a sausage for lunch.  He thought I wanted a prostitute!  He explained that in Brittan they just called them sausages and not bangers.  Later, someone back home told me that the term "banger" was primarily a US term and we called them that here because they had too much breading to be legally called a sausage.  Any truth to any of that?  "Bangers and mash" surely can't just be an American dish?

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Posted (edited)
3 hours ago, mgaretz said:

Later, someone back home told me that the term "banger" was primarily a US term and we called them that here because they had too much breading to be legally called a sausage.  Any truth to any of that?  "Bangers and mash" surely can't just be an American dish?


I think the cab driver was pulling your leg. The expression 'bangers and mash' is well known in Britain, although seldom used other than jokingly. I've neve heard it being used to refer to a prostitute, nor is that meaning listed in any of my many dictionaries.

The origin of the phrase also seems to be Australian, but it's unclear. The earliest appearance in writing is in an Australian dictionary of slang called Digger Dialects, in 1919.

Edited by liuzhou (log)
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Posted (edited)

2B - Cheeses

 

 

According to the British Cheese Board, a trade body formed to promote British cheeses, the country has around 700 named cheeses, some made in huge quantities in factories; the majority made in very small quantities by hand, in farms and dairies. This compares to France and Italy with around 400 each. These 700 include some world famous cheeses. Obviously, I’m not going to list all 700, but here is a small selection, all of which I have tasted.

 

Blue Cheeses

Stilton is probably the best known British blue cheese. This takes its name from the village in what is now Cambridgeshire, England where the cheese has long been sold. The village lies on one of the main routes north from London and villagers sold the cheese to passing travellers. Still do. Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe mentions the village and the cheese in his 1724 book A tour thro' the whole island of Great Britain.

 

Quote

"We pass'd Stilton, a town famous for cheese, which is call'd our English Parmesan, and is brought to table with the mites or maggots round it, so thick, that they bring a spoon with them for you to eat the mites with, as you do the cheese."

 

There were probably no maggots. He is more likely referring to the blue veins.

The cheese has a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status within the European Union (still) which requires that it can only be made in the counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire. You will note that this does not include Stilton itself, but it was probably never made there anyway.

 

Stilton is also produced in a soft white version..

Blue Stilton is exported and is even sold in France, where it has recently become a fashion. I have bought it in China, a country which supposedly doesn’t do dairy.

 

O1CN014yQl5F1rT2tAYWcf8_!!1028475631.jpg_400x400.jpg.39eff464a8b281fa56eb93ef109f245a.jpg

Stilton in China

 

Other blue cheeses include Dorset Blue Vinney (also PDO) made in Sturminster Newton in Dorset. This is a hard, crumbly cheese with a distinct, strong flavour.

 

Dovedale (PDO) is a full-fat cow’s milk semi-soft cheese made from cow's milk and is from the Peak District.

Stilton is made from pasteurised milk, but there is a Stilton-like cheese known as Stichelton which uses non-pasteurised milk and no factory-produced rennet.

 

Not to be left out, Scotland throws its hat into the blue cheese ring with Dunlop cheese and Lanark Blue.
 

Hard and Semi-Hard Non-Blue Cheeses

 

Here is where we find the world’s most popular cheese, Cheddar. Originally produced in guess where – Cheddar, a village in Somerset, England, the cheese has no protected status so can be made anywhere. I buy cheddar cheese made in Shanghai or in Inner Mongolia. I can also buy imported Australian, New Zealand and Irish cheddars.

 

1002881550_kerrygoldcheddar.thumb.jpg.1c443eeff68007b5e332b76f843fb28e.jpg

 

 

In fact "cheddaring" is a technique used in the production of the cheese and there are many varieties. “West Country Farmhouse Cheddar” does have PDO status and can only be made in Somerset, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall from local milk and made by traditional methods. It is delicious.

Sadly many so-called cheeses are sold under the cheddar name, while bearing no resemblance to the real thing. That travesty, American cheese, is often sold labelled as cheddar.

It is certainly the most popular cheese in many countries. Only mozzarella outsells cheddar in the USA. (Did someone mention cultural appropriation?)

Other British hard cheeses include Caerphilly, a cow’s milk cheese from Wales; Cheshire Cheese; Lancashire, which comes in three varieties; Double Gloucester; Sage Derby which is coloured green with sage, which also gives it a mild herbal flavour; Red Windsor, flavoured and coloured with Bordeaux wine or a mixture of port and brandy; the very popular Red Leicester which, in Britain, is Cheddar’s nearest rival; and Wallace and Gromit’s favourite, Wensleydale.

 

306069463_wensleydaleandoatcakes.thumb.jpg.457b558cfd6beb74d37b93de21e8a29f.jpg

Wensleydale Cheese with Oatcakes

 

Soft and Semi-Soft Cheeses

 

Perhaps the most famous of the British semi-soft cheeses is the relative newcomer, Stinking Bishop. This is a cow’s milk cheese which, as it matures, is washed every four weeks in perry, an alcoholic drink similar to cider, made from the Stinking Bishop variety of pear. Many people think the name refers to the smell of the cheese, but although the cheese does have a distinctive smell, few people, if any, would describe it as ‘stinking’. Instead the name comes from a local bishop and landowner who had a stinking temper. The cheese was first made in the 1970s. I first tasted it in 2019.

 

A_slice_of_Stinking_Bishop_cheese.thumb.jpg.ff45a7f602580a29eac63564376a5a48.jpg
Stinking Bishop


As a handmade artisan cheese, this is only produced in small quantities and is not sold in supermarkets, but only specialist cheese shops and delis, although London’s world-famous Harrods does stock it.

 

Scotland’s second oldest cheese is Caboc, an oatmeal-wrapped cream cheese with an interesting story. It was developed in the 15th century by Mariota de Ile, the daughter of the chieftain of the Clan MacDonald. The recipe has remained a secret to this day.

 

The oldest is Crowdie, a soft fresh cheese which was influenced by methods learned from the Vikings, who invaded Britain in 793 AD. There is evidence that it may in fact date back further to the Picts in the early Middle Ages. Much later, the crowdie makers also took to making a variety flavoured with wild garlic, after a bunch of cows accidentally wandered into a field of wild garlic, accidentally flavouring their milk. Traditionally the cheese was made by crofters and small land-holders, using the milk from the family cow. Unfortunately, the name is unprotected and a number of industrial cheesemakers are now producing their variety which has very little in common with the original. A few traditional makers still exist, but they are a dying breed. Efforts are being made to revive the cheese.

 

One more to mentions is the delightfully named Renegade Monk , a soft blue cheese made in England by only one farm in Somerset, England. It won first prize in the 2020 Best British Cheese awards ceremony, held virtually due to COVID restrictions.

This is obviously a ridiculously small sample, but hopefully it gives an insight into the wide variety of cheeses on offer. Visitors to London (when it's allowed) can do no better than visit the legendary Neal's Yard Dairy in Covent Garden, which only sells British cheeses in perfect condition.

 

1797456674_NealsYard.thumb.jpg.0f5c66decf902f1e9597da27133912d2.jpg

 

Edited by liuzhou (log)
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I'm a big fan of sage Derby. It may not be the most exalted use, but I really love it in a grilled cheese sandwich.

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9 hours ago, Margaret Pilgrim said:

I wonder if Britain's reputation for unremarkable food stems from what was prepared by or served to ordinary people in the last centuries.  

 

My guess is that during the 50s, 60s, 70s, and maybe even after, ordinary, working-class British folks (in general, and not necessarily in London) were not sourcing beautiful produce (if they even could) or the best meats.  They were dining at home, and it was probably fairly plain food. Or the kids were eating at school, and the less said about that, probably the better.

 

I mean, in those decades was the restaurant "scene" approaching that of Paris, New York, San Francisco, et al.?

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