A brief illustrated introduction to popular English food
English food in the past was influenced by the ancient Romans in AD43, who introduced a variety of fruit and vegetables, including apples and pears, plus turnips and carrots. The Norman (French) invasion in 1066 brought spices, including sugar and Sir Walter Raleigh brought back the potato from the South Americas in the 16th century, which replaced wheat and oats as the staple English diet. During the Victorian era, access to the colonies of India and China also produced the traditional drink of tea and Indian curry (Tikka Masala), which is the most popular dish today.
Yet traditional dishes remain; old fashioned favourites like meat pies and pasties, Yorkshire pudding, plus fish and chips still retain their popularity despite a proliferation of fast food outlets. The humble sandwich takes pride of place, two slices of bread with an in between filling. Originally concocted by the Earl of Sandwich, a late 18th century noble and prolific gambler who designed the sandwich eaten with one hand, whilst continuing to play cards with the other!
The English have four meals a day, although not compulsory.
Breakfast – ‘fast’ means a period without food, hence breaking a fast. Lunch – sometimes referred to as dinner, the midday meal. Dinner – sometimes referred to as tea, the evening meal. Supper – sup means to drink, a pre bedtime light snack.
The full English breakfast, arising during the 19th century Victorian era and sometimes referred to as a ‘Full Monty’ named after the English WW2 general Montgomery, or a ‘fry-up’ and comprising a cocktail of high fat calories and cholesterol, leading to heart attack blocking arteries! Now eaten only occasionally in all regions of the British Isles, but usually on Sundays and a big favourite of all major supermarkets offering a cheap and rather plastic looking microwaved version.
Lunch or dinner
Roast beef is still the national pride. Sometimes referred to as a ‘joint’ and served at midday on Sunday with roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, two types of vegetables and gravy. This practice arose during the middle-ages period, when Sunday was the day of rest and the serfs would first attend Church services and be rewarded for the weeks labour with beer (ale) and roast meat, a luxury for peasants. Although beef is the preferred favourite on Sundays, Goose or Turkey takes its place during festivities, such as Christmas.
Tea or dinner
Dinner or tea. This could include favourites such as Bangers and mash (sausages and mashed potato), or meat pies (pork pie on Sunday), or bubble and squeak (left-over fried vegetables from Sunday lunch). The brown sauce (pictured) is unique to Britain, called gravy and made from the juices of cooked meat, or in powder form, the most popular known as ‘Bisto’. Meat Pies also include the regional variations of Cornish pasties and scotch pies.
Supper is a light meal often comprising just biscuits and a hot drink, yet sometimes a more hearty and filling meal such as fish and chips. English chips are the original version of ‘French fries’ and always with added salt and occasionally vinegar, depending on taste. Previously cooked in lard and sold in newspaper wrapping, today’s version is cooked in vegetable oil and comes in a polystyrene container.
Condiments (flavourings) are also very popular and aside from the usual salt, pepper and tomato sauce (ketchup), the traditional variety are often still used.
From left to right:
Colman’s traditional mint sauce, often used with roast lamb. Branston Pickle relish, generally with cheese. Sarson’s vinegar, with salt or on its own on chips (French fries). Colman’s mustard, traditionally spread on meat and more rarely, cheese. Marmite, strong yeast based meat extract, spread on bread.
Around the British Isles – Regional favourites
England – The (Melton Mowbray) pork pie. Usually eaten on Sundays, pies come in various shapes, sizes and fillings.
Scotland - Haggis (mince) with ‘neeps and tatties’ (mashed potato and turnip), traditionally with a whisky drink. Ireland - Traditional Irish stew, often eaten with soda bread. Wales – Rarebit. In its basic form, toast (lightly burned bread), with melted cheese, although often with a selection of toppings.
From sampling French bouillabaisse in Laos, to Russia’s beet and cabbage red soup and onto Turkish kebabs (no resemblance to the English variety), traditional English food remains my favourite, simply for the simplicity of ingredients and taste.