British food has a bad reputation for years and British eating habits were regularly lambasted by other nations, especially from nearby neighbors on the European continent like France and Belgium. Not really fair, when considering how far it has come in the 20th century. Today, it’s not surprising to find Britain it the top ten list of countries with the most Michelin stars. London boasts 67 of the country’s “starred” eateries and three of its five three-star restaurants.
Beyond the geographical limitations of being an island, the British limited their own culinary growth themselves. During the 16th and 17th centuries, English Protestants formed a group called the Puritans, who were averse to strong flavors and bold ingredients (actually, anything pleasurable). This led to a distinct simplification of English cuisine. As the Puritans moved between England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, they took their conservative ideas with them. This continued into the 20th century only to continue with the legacy of World War II and the years of rationing that followed. That all finally changed in the 1970’s as North Americans, Indians and Chinese immigrants flooded across the border and introduced the locals to garlic, chilies, exotic sauces, and much more. Today, Thai, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and French influences have also been incorporated British cuisine.
Traditional British cuisine includes the combined cuisines of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. The cliché of British food is meat and two vegetables is mostly true. Traditionally British cuisine has a base of meat or fish – beef, lamb, pork, chicken and fish – served with potatoes and other cooler-weather vegetables. Each of the cuisines of the United Kingdom have their own distinctive dishes and many have been around for centuries, a testament to their appeal and staying power.
The traditional food of England has long been recognized for its simplicity of ingredients and flavor. However, England has a complex history as a major global player. This has meant that people from all over the world have settled in this country, bringing with them flavors and techniques. Their colonization of India led to the introduction of each country’s foods and culinary rituals to each other. Over time, these foreign influences have permeated the English cuisine, creating a more vital and multifaceted food culture than ever before.
Notable Dishes – Sunday Roast (prime rib of beef with Yorkshire Pudding), Yorkshire Pudding (puffy savory pastry), Toad-in-the-Hole (sausage in Yorkshire pudding batter), Fish and Chips (fried codfish with French fries), Ploughman’s Lunch (pub lunch of cheeses, cold meat, gherkins, and breads), Cottage Pie (minced meat and mashed potato pie), Bubble and Squeak (vegetables from leftover Sunday roast mixed with mashed potato and pan fried), Full English Breakfast (fried eggs, sausage, bacon, tomato, baked beans, mushrooms and toast), Scones (biscuits with fruit jam and clotted cream), Bangers and Mash (sausages and mashed potato with onion gravy), Trifle (layers of sponge cake, jelly, cream, jam and custard), Toffee Pudding (sponge cake soaked in a caramel sauce).
MHT English Recipes:
Scotland has distinctive attributes and recipes of its own, but also shares much with English and Europe as a result of local, regional, and continental influences – both ancient and modern.
Scotland’s natural larder of vegetables, fruit, oats, fish and other seafood, dairy products, and game is the chief factor in traditional Scottish cooking, with a high reliance on simplicity and minimal seasoning without the rare and historically expensive spices found abroad.
Scotland, with its temperate climate and abundance of indigenous game species, has provided a cornucopia of food for its inhabitants for millennia. The wealth of seafood available on and off the coasts provided the earliest settlers with their sustenance. Once agriculture was introduced, oats quickly became the staple.
During the late Middle Ages and early modern era, French cuisine played a role in Scottish cookery due to cultural exchanges and especially during the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots. Upon her return to Scotland, she brought an entourage of French staff who are considered responsible for revolutionizing Scottish cooking and food terminology.
Notable Dishes – Haggis (sheep stomach stuffed with offal, oatmeal, spices, and whiskey), Scottish Eggs (fried sausage shelled hard boiled eggs), Cullen Skink (“Finnan Haddie”- soup of smoked haddock, potatoes, and onions), Scotch Pie (small savory rolls filled with mutton), Porage (cooked oats), Tattie Scones (potato pancakes), Shortbread (Butter biscuits), Dundee Cake (fruitcake with almonds, whiskey, orange peel).
MHT Scottish Recipes:
Irish cuisine has evolved from centuries of social and political change and the mixing of the different cultures and religions in Ireland. The cuisine is founded upon the crops and animals farmed in its temperate climate and the abundance of fresh fish and seafood from the surrounding waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
The development of Irish cuisine was altered greatly by the Tudor conquest of Ireland in the early 17th century, which introduced a new agro-alimentary system of intensive grain-based agriculture that led to large areas of land being turned over to grain production. The rise of a commercial market in grain and meat altered the diet of the Irish populace by redirecting these products abroad as cash crops, which were used to feed soldiers and civilians alike throughout the British Empire. Consequently, potatoes were widely adopted in the 18th century and essentially became the main food for the vast majority of the population, mostly poor. The quality of life in Ireland was directly tied to the success of their staple foods. When successive annual crops failed, The Irish Potato Famine (“The Great Hunger”) caused many Irish to sink deeper into poverty, die, and led to millions fleeing the country.
Notable dishes – Irish Soda Bread (hearty loaves), Irish Stew (beef and vegetable stew), Irish Breakfast (“Fry” in south; “Ulster” in north, similar to Full English or Scottish Breakfast), Smoked Salmon (over earthy peat), Colcannon or Champ (mashed potatoes with cabbage or scallions), Irish Bacon & Cabbage, Boxty (fried potato pancakes).
MHT Irish Recipes:
The food of Wales is generally associated with simplicity. Welsh cuisine is similar to English cuisine. There are few written records. Instead, recipes were passed down orally between the women of the family. Despite being poorly recorded, the traditional cookery of Wales does exist. It finds its roots in the day to day meals of peasant folk, unlike most other cultures where the meals would start in the kitchens of the gentry and then be adapted for poorer plates.
Notable dishes – Welsh Rarebit (broiled cheese over toast), Shepherd’s Pie (baked ground lamb topped with mashed potatoes), Cawl (meat and vegetable stew), Glamorgan Sausage (fried skinless vegetarian sausage with cheese and leeks).
MHT Welsh Recipes:
The British Table
The British have a unique way of eating through the day. At least they did traditionally. Nowadays, the three meals a day style shared with much of the western hemisphere prevails, with the added tea time and early evening visit to the local (pub). Traditionally, it was very different. So, here’s what a day of eating looked like:
8.00 am – Breakfast – Traditionally, the British get up at seven o’clock, in time for breakfast at eight. Breakfast is in no way a light meal. It started with a small bowl of cereal with ice-cold milk, before moving on to toast with jam or marmalade or honey and coffee or fruit juice. Then the main course – the masterpiece of British cuisine, the “Full” English (or Irish or Scottish) breakfast.
10.00 am – Second Breakfast – Believe it or not, another breakfast was eaten at ten o’clock, thankfully much smaller than the first. It usually consisted of fresh fruit or pastry with coffee. *Note that tea and coffee must always be served fresh and hot. Tea should never be drunk before noon, and coffee (with the exception of coffee at dinner) should never be drunk after noon.
11.00 am- Elevensese – Aptly named, elevenses are another chance for a light snack, usually just a biscuit or shortbread with coffee or tea. This is what is called the coffee break elsewhere.
12.00 pm – Lunch – This is a cold meal, consisting of foods like sandwiches or salad. Nothing sweet is eaten and cold fruit cordials are drunk.
2.00 pm – Afternoon Tea – This is the first of three meals called ‘tea’. Afternoon tea consists of tea (obviously) and sweet scones with clotted cream and with jam. This is known as “cream tea”.
4.00 pm – High Tea – This is the real tea party. Even more tea is served along with lots of cold food like sandwiches or quiche. In fact, anything that can be eaten with fingers may be served. After the cold savoury finger food, the cake (generally a sponge cake like a like a Victoria sandwich is brought out along with – more tea.
5.00 pm – Tea – More tea, but this time served not in cups, but in beakers! A light, hot meal is served, but it is not “snack” food, and is eaten with proper cutlery.
8.00 pm – Dinner is a very large meal, usually consisting of at least three, but more often five or seven or more courses. These courses are (in a much debated order): starter, soup, sorbet, fish, meat, dessert and/or cheese, coffee and chocolates. Water is drunk until the main course, at which point wine is drunk (red or white depending on the meat). Sweet dessert wine is served with dessert.
11.00 pm – Supper is quite simple, but one of the favourite “meals”. Biscuits and a hot, creamy, chocolate drink.
By 11.30 pm, you have finally made it – you can go to bed now to get ready to do it again!