Feeling peckish for a spot of nosh? Try some British food. Leeks, potatoes, sausages and pies, both savory and sweet. What’s not to like?
English food is like a gorgeous woman with a bad reputation. Personally, I adore it. I know second- and third-generation immigrants who have no interest in the food of their parents or grandparents. Not I. Although it has been several generations since any of my ancestors claimed British citizenship, I remain forever fascinated with the food, in spite of its sorry reputation for being bland and heavy, and in spite of my not having spent much time on British soil.
My last visit was 29 years ago, and I want to go back to the land of my roots, very badly. I remember loving the much-disparaged banger, a sausage that is more bread crumb than meat. I cannot remember any better dish I ever had than fish and chips in a newspaper, drizzled with malt vinegar, its batter coating fried into a hot, crispy crust that encased the sweet, flaky fish flesh within.
Since England is surrounded by water, fish is abundant: think Dover sole. When not fried into fish and chips (usually haddock or cod), you may find fish in preserved form, like the little smoky kippers or lush Scottish salmon. A recent trip to Maine, a state whose British heritage is evident in the names of its towns, like Bath and Belfast, offered “finn + haddie,” a home-done smoked fish (actually spelled finnan haddie) that we flaked into home fries and into scrambled eggs – heavenly. The English have more imaginative treatments for this smoky golden wonder, like kedgeree with curry, rice and bits of hard-boiled egg, or in cream sauce over toast points.
So many English dishes have the ring of familiarity for us. Although what we call “American food” is an amalgamation of world cuisines, much of it has been founded on what the English brought over when they settled here.
Land of silly names
Besides the soothing familiarity of English dishes, I adore the humor in them, the pure whimsy of the silly names that add character to quotidian ingredients: bubble and squeak, stargazy pie, singin’ hinnies, spotted dick, toad in the hole, cock-a-leekie, rumbledethumps, bashed neaps and cullen skink. (Bubble and squeak is cabbage and meat, so named for the noise it makes while cooking, stargazy pie has fish heads sticking out of it, singin’ hinnies are savory cakes baked or fried on a griddle, spotted dick is a dessert based on suet and currants, toad in the hole is puffy eggy Yorkshire pudding studded with sausages, cock-a-leekie is a soup of chicken, leek and prunes, rumbledethumps is a cabbage-and-potato dish much like the Irish colcannon, bashed neaps is mashed rutabaga, and cullen skink is a smoked fish-and-potato soup.)
Some names are not as silly, but just delightfully euphonious to the ear, like bath chaps, Scotch broth, boxty and flummery. (Bath chaps are cured pork cheeks, Scotch broth is a mutton-and-barley soup, boxty a potato pancake, and flummery a sweet whisky-spiked oatmeal pudding.)
In England you’ll find many a joint and chunk of roasted meat. Our American traditional of roasted and often stuffed poultry comes from England, where they do it to duck and goose, chicken, grouse and woodcock.
There are unlimited varieties of sausages, often on the same plate for breakfast next to the toast, eggs, beans, mushrooms and tomatoes, like black pudding, white pudding and Lincolnshire, plus rashers of one of many varieties of bacon from lean to “streaky.” You’ll find savory meat pies of all stripes and sizes, from teeny Cornish pasties to Melton Mowbray pork pies to potato-topped shepherds pies to heaping hearty steak and kidney pies.
The British love sweet curried stews and soups with apples and raisins thrown in. In Scotland and northern England they love the mighty haggis, which I have always wanted to try, a sort of giant sausage of organ meats and oats stuffed into a sheep’s stomach. In Olde English Traditional Country Style Recipes published by the authors, 1984), Norma and Gordon Latimer offer two, a traditional haggis and a quick haggis of seasoned liver and oats baked without the stomach.
Although meat and fish reign, veggies are loved well by the gardening nation, far beyond chips and mushy marrowfat peas. Although English veggies are rumored to be always overcooked, these days you’re more likely to find them freshly harvested, quickly cooked and served with a hint of butter and fresh herbs; think peas and mint or carrots and dill.
Shaking a reputation
Sweets are loved for “afters.” Many desserts we wouldn’t call such are named puddings, the word being a generic term for dessert (and also savory sausages and pies). My own favorite is the trifle — I love the complexity and varied textures and flavors that go into it: the fruit, the custard, the jelly, the sherried cake. It’s fun to make and even more fun to eat.
After the afters is the odd-to-us custom of serving savories after dessert, like cheddar cheese straws or mushroom pate with port.
No mention of British food is complete without mention of British bevies. While you’ll find squash and pop for the kiddies, the adults couldn’t live without the ubiquitous tea (don’t forget to pour the milk in first) and those famous British ales and lagers, bitters and porters, served warmer than we Americans prefer. Shandy is a combo of lager and what they call lemonade and we call Sprite, something I’ve seen in London vending machines.
The long and fascinating history of English food is enough for a whole book, or even a whole library. The food of centuries ago, especially what the royals dined on, is the stuff of yet more study: birds flying out of pies and other elaborate concoctions designed to impress.
In between then and now the quality of British food in general went into a decline, caused by a dip in quality due to war rationing. But now with the help of famous chefs like Gordon Ramsay, Nigella Lawson and Fergus Henderson, British food is far better than it used to be, albeit still trying to shake that bad reputation.
For your own British food fix you can go to Mr. Jolly’s, on Route 212 in Saugerties, a grocery carrying all manner of goodies. Or travel across the river to the excellent Union Jack Pub in Wappingers Falls for authentic English fare, with real ales to go with it. I can attest that this eatery is excellent, run by the very competent and sociable David and Jeanie Bean, of the late-lamented Jeanie Bean’s in Clinton, Dutchess County.
To me, English food is a cuisine as worthy of exploration as any other, varied and full of delights both exotic and familiar to discover — as much as Italian, Thai or Brazilian. There are so many British dishes I want to cook and eat. Or better yet, travel to England to eat.++
E-mail Jennifer Brizzi with questions, comments or recipe requests at email@example.com, via her web site at www.jenniferbrizzi.com or by posting on her blog at www.tripesoup.com.