British Food — an appraisal of the middle

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ORT_Logo   Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, May 2015

In Britain or in far-flung outposts around the world in what either used to be the British Empire or in countries influenced by Britain, one meets the British. And when the conversation turns to food, the Brits inevitably bore you about how their food ‘din’t used to be much good’, but now — with the new wave of chefs, money, culinary interest, etcetera and etcetera — the food in Britain has changed and become as good as ‘the best in the world’.

Now any Australian on hearing that phrase ‘the best in the world’, which is sadly used far too frequently in the Antipodes, knows that what is to follow is a ‘lie’ and can be best described as the matter, which is extruded from the rear end of a non-female cow.

Ability to judge

Christ Church Gate, Canterbury, Kent
Christ Church Gate, Canterbury, Kent

We spent two months (62 days) in central England from mid-July to mid-September 2014. We were house-sitting in Buckinghamshire near Marlow and Great Missenden for five weeks, but still ate out frequently. Our hosts in both places gave us advice on their favourite local restaurants. Elsewhere in the UK we stayed in AirBNB accommodation and similarly our hosts (usually ‘foodies’) gave us good advice on local restaurants and places to eat. We spent over AUD $2000 (Australian dollars) in eating out in the UK. We also utilised the main supermarkets, Sainsbury, Waitrose and Tesco regularly while we were house-sitting.

As I had lived in Derry in Northern Ireland for 14 months around thirty years ago and had frequent visits to Britain during this time, and Denise had lived in the UK at about the same time. We felt that we were in the position to objectively assess the situation and to make a comment.

Experience of food in Britain in 1980/81

 My impressions of British food in the early 1980s were mostly negative. Although I did go to one excellent restaurant in Clapham, it had a Winnie the Pooh on the cheap paper table mat and was a precursor to the change that was about to happen in British food. Denise’s impressions were relatively similar.

(I went to stay in Brixton a night or so later and stayed in a yuppie apartment with some very nice people, also a precursor of economic changes — like Surry Hills in Sydney a decade earlier. I was in the midst of the Brixton riots at the time, which I found scarier than in Derry where they knew how to riot.)

Otherwise, I have distinct memories of fast food: scotch eggs and pork pies in pubs; a meat pie, as being almost unfit for human consumption. Maybe I was unlucky, but my few experiences of fish and chips were woeful. And sandwiches, blecch! I think I might have had one or two Indian curries and they were only to be eaten drunk. (I went to India for the first time shortly after.) I remember a person of my parents’ age cooking us steak once and boiling it. I don’t like ‘bloody’ meat, but even medium or pink in the middle was almost unheard of.

Experience of food in Britain in 2014

Canterbury, Kent
Canterbury, Kent

In the current trip, we travelled more widely in the UK than I ever had and apart from a brief time in London we were mostly in rural settings, regional towns and small cities in Central England. We went as far north as Leicester, as far west as middle Wales and Bath, as far south as Devon (Exeter and Dartmoor) and as far east as Canterbury.

Our house-sitting was in the Chiltern Hills, in good commuting range of London in relatively wealthy communities.

Some prevarications

When I was in England in the 1980s the food of the working class or ‘lower classes’, as they were still called by anyone over 45, was probably more nutritional and available, but in gourmet terms not much changed from George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. In 2014 I had little experience to make an impression, but I have watched Jamie Oliver’s campaign in schools, viewed takeaway cafes and have my suspicions.

Also whilst in Britain in 2014, we had no experience of the top end of British cuisine, except in hand me down comments on Master Chef and in the style of food display practiced in middle and upper range English Pubs. We weren’t tourists on a short-term visit; hence we weren’t that interested in sampling the best restaurants in the UK on this adventure. From food reviews and watching Heston Blumenthal, the delicious but slightly pornographic Nigella Lawson and other celebrity chefs, I suspect that International Cuisine has hit Britain with a vengeance over the last thirty years and that any comparison between the UK and top restaurants worldwide would be similar.

The celebratory chef phenomenon is as immense in Britain as elsewhere since the 1980s. Everyone has heard of Heston Blumenthal, Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay.

Sissinghurst, Kent
Sissinghurst, Kent

You will also know or have heard of some of the following and others I don’t know of: Adam Simmonds and Adam Byatt from Master Chef, Delia Smith, Donna Hay, Iain, James Tanner, Keith Floyd, Kenny Atkinson, Madhur Jaffrey, Rachel Khoo, Sophie Dahl. Bill Granger the Australian chef also has a strong profile in Britain. A more extensive list would not be difficult to create.

I don’t think that there is any question that Britain has a broad range of top end cuisine, that is, world class restaurants that have stepped hand in hand with globalisation. Hence we have narrowed our range to the food that the middle classes and moderately affluent British eat regularly.

Some more prevarications and perhaps an attempt to define an approach

Now I need to make a disclaimer. The tourist wandering around Australia picking restaurants at random might easily think that Australian food is awful and uninteresting. I need to claim some expertise in finding better than average restaurants anywhere (partly because I care what I eat) to make our comparison worthwhile and I need to say and point out as part of our survey that occasionally one does have to pick random restaurants and sometimes they are excellent.

Compared to Denise and others I know, including experts, my nose and tasting ability for wine is atrocious. I can tell a good wine, but I cannot tease out the individual ingredients to save my life. Similarly, my holistic nose is excellent; unfortunately for both good and bad smells. Whilst travelling, I am reliable at sniffing out good restaurants and rejecting the bad on smell alone (this is extremely useful in India). Not always, sometimes you can’t smell the kitchen.

Sissinghurst, Kent
Sissinghurst, Kent

Randomness and smell are aids, but in Britain we were predominantly, by house-sitting and through staying with hosts through AirBNB, recommended good local restaurants by middle class hosts, who predominantly liked food and eating. Hence in any area we were pointed towards the better restaurants on offer. I should mention that when not house-sitting (and we cooked ourselves often when we house sat) we usually asked for middle of the range restaurants, because when you have been doing touristy things you are usually tired at the end of the day and don’t want to go to an expensive restaurant, because you won’t really appreciate the food and we were on a budget.

 Pubs in Britain

In Britain the local pub is still the defining institution of British culture. However, changing fashions and lifestyles have meant that the demand for pubs has declined over the past fifty years. Nevertheless, even though we were told repeatedly that many had closed down, there are still a hell of a lot of pubs in every town, village and hamlet in Britain and even outside them.

On our last night in Britain, a Nigerian told us a sad story about pubs closing down near Greenwich and London City airport, because the local population has changed to a majority of immigrants predominantly Muslims. He said that people sat down and cried when their local closed, because it was part of their history and they’d been taken there as children. When we did our TEFL course in Southampton one of the participants said that he came from a small village, where everyone knew everyone, but it still had seven pubs.

Royal Welsh Show, Builth Wells, Powys, Wales
Royal Welsh Show, Builth Wells, Powys, Wales

What has this got to do with British food? Well, outside of large towns and cities often the only place to get an evening meal and even lunch is a pub. British pubs are the primary eating-place outside the home in Britain. When you are travelling, you end up eating many pub meals and if they were varied and unique, each pub restaurant a new experience, you probably wouldn’t notice especially that they were pub meals.

When we arrived at Gatwick we picked up our hire car (an upgrade to a nice diesel SEAT) and drove to the historic village of Elham (pronounced Eel ‘am) in Kent. We stayed here for two nights while we visited Canterbury, which was fifteen minutes down the road. Our host Stephen recommended two pubs in the village.

The first was 15th century with an impressive 15th and 16th century interior. It was the more up-market, where we ate on our first night. We were satisfied with the meal, though we thought it over-priced. It was our first night. Main courses in pubs were expensive in the UK compared with Germany (but our Dutch hosts said the same was true of the Netherlands) because of VAT. In the UK main dishes in most pubs varied from £15 – 20, with some cheaper pub dishes around £12.

On the second night, we went to the working class pub in the village, which was more cheerful and slightly cheaper or enough to make it worthwhile, though no longer really working class. The food was similar at both places but a little better presented at the first one. Then we had pub meals at Bath (unmemorable), Llandrindod in Wales (very ordinary, 2 nights), the Chiltern Hills (OK), etcetera. Near Exeter our host Clair recommended the Blue Ball and the first night we were really impressed. It was the best so far and though we didn’t know it then, the best we’d ever get. Next night we tried for the places above the water at Topsham, but it was a perfect summer’s day in August and the pubs were too crowded. We had a drink, but the food looked ordinary and we’d have had to wait forty minutes. We went back to the Blue Ball, which was again good but less impressive (as is almost always true on the second visit).

Hambleden, Buckinghamshire
Hambleden, Buckinghamshire

In Marlow we cooked for ourselves frequently, despite difficult arrangements in a summer kitchen. The Aga wasn’t appropriate in summer and the portable ceramic plate only had two pots. We did use the electric oven too. The cooking arrangements at Great Missenden were better, but the range of pots and pans was also limited (they’d only just moved in).

One night in Marlow we went specifically to the Kings Inn out of town on the common, which supposedly had superb ambience and good food, but the menu was similar to what we’d had before. It was OK but that was it. The Topsham pubs that were too crowded were for the ambience also, but the food looked ordinary. When we stayed in a superb 1880s house out of Leicester, on our host’s recommendation we drove for half-an-hour to the Badger’s Sett also for the ambience but for the supposedly excellent food. For us ambience never outweighs mediocre food.

By chance, we’d gone with our hosts in Great Missenden to the local pub down the road on our first night and again by ourselves. The food there was OK but nothing special. Unfortunately, the Badger’s Sett was owned by the same company and had exactly the same menu. The food was OK but nothing special, and we’d driven half an hour in the rain to get there.

In desperation, a couple of times we tried to break the cycle. In Cambridge, though staying in Bottisham, a village out of town, we went to a pub in Cambridge that served Thai food and was very popular, but the food was ordinary and paying £13.50 for a basic Thai dish seemed expensive. We had another good but uninspiring pub meal near Bottisham. We persisted with Thai (which we like), however, and went to an absolutely excellent Thai Restaurant in Great Missenden and also twice to a really good Thai restaurant on a barge in Peterborough. We were in Peterborough to attend Burghley Horse Trials on the Burghley Estate, more of which later.

Priory Park, Bath, Somerset
Priory Park, Bath, Somerset

In Cambridge again, we went to a Sushi train restaurant to meet the prospective in-laws of Denise’s nephew, which was pleasant.

But we are getting away from pubs. In general and because we ate at more pubs more regularly than the locals do, we were probably less impressed. Nevertheless, pub food in England, even its best, is stodgy, predictable and unimaginative. Though the food is often well presented, the influence of celebrity chefs and Master Chef.

We passed many Indian Restaurants in our travels but ate at none of them. I’m sure that there are good ones, but the ones we saw weren’t tempting and without trying tended to support my mean-minded prejudices. Any nation that prides itself on inventing a new Indian cuisine — Balti, initially from Bangladeshi chefs in Birmingham — without understanding the range of Indian cooking, is up itself. Madhur Jaffrey even lived in Britain for years and they don’t get it. This is from a person who travels to India regularly and professes not to like or tolerate Indian cuisine. I think you should ignore my comments on Indian food as quite prejudiced. I did not test my suspicions empirically. I’m sure there are equally deplorable Indian restaurants in Australia, but not as many of them.

Chawton, Hampshire
Chawton, Hampshire

The Chinese restaurants we sampled were universally awful. Australia was at the same stage, when I was a child. The Chinese restaurant in every town served up food that was quite remote from genuine Chinese cuisine. Again I’m sure there are good Chinese restaurants somewhere in the UK.

Apart from the Thai, I have been almost completely negative. Let me outline the positive.

The good food that we ate in the UK

I haven’t mentioned lunches. We did eat many sandwiches mostly at National Trust properties which were OK but rather ordinary. But in general, the lunches were better than the pub food (except at pubs). When we were in London, we went to Waterloo Station and ate at a franchise eatery called Benugo (award winning London caterers), which had the most marvellous sandwiches and salads. Brothers Ben and Hugo founded Benugo in 1998. We later found that they supplied the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum (also the Natural history Museum and Edinburgh Castle) and are a huge operation. The food is obviously prepared off site. Benugo food is marvellous. The sandwiches and salads better than any similar food I’ve had in Australia. (Our friend Ed in Berlin worked in a similar central commercial kitchen supplying five Vegan restaurants — by the way neither he nor we are vegetarian.)

The beach at Sidmouth, Devon
The beach at Sidmouth, Devon

This leads into pre-prepared foods a huge new industry in Britain since the 1980s. The main supermarket chains in particular Waitrose and Sainsbury’s (and to a lesser extent Tesco) have a vast range of sandwiches, salads, fruit and sushi that are ready to eat and often very good. In another section you can buy such things as pre-cooked packaged chicken thighs and breasts and many other things that are actually really very good. Even pre-prepared meals and couscous with dried tomatoes and many other easy make-a-meal selections are available and good. These are infinitely superior to anything pre-packaged in Australia. Because of our limited range of cooking utensils, available in both our house-sitting assignments, we often bought couscous, pre-prepared salads and the pre-cooked chicken, as a useful adjunct to extend our limited cooking apparatus. We even used simple pre-cooked rice dishes e.g. basmati and lemon on occasion.

This area of food in Britain is really good. We got the feeling that even affluent British families use these pre-cooked foods as an alternative to cooking. This is a growing trend in Australia and most western countries, particularly amongst younger people and has been practiced in Thailand forever. Nobody makes curry pastes or many other Thai ingredients, when they can be purchased fresh each day in the local market in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Indeed, in Bangkok, many less affluent people, especially transient workers, don’t have kitchen facilities at home.

Sainsbury cafes across Britain had a mix of foods of varying quality, but virtually their only hot meal: a middle-eastern chicken and couscous dish, was extremely cheap and really good too.

Sissinghurst, Kent
Sissinghurst, Kent

It is time to reveal some other highlights of British cuisine.

After leaving Elham village and Canterbury we drove to Sissingurst. I don’t know why we didn’t eat there; perhaps we were concerned about the long drive to Bath. At 2.30 pm having passed nowhere that looked good for lunch we stopped at a largish pub in an unknown village not far from Royal Tunbridge Wells. It was a beautiful sunny day and almost hot. People were enjoying the beer garden and the view. We were desperate, unused to English prices or the time taken to deliver, so we ordered a scotch egg each with salad: a simple lunch. The food came quickly. The Scotch egg was ‘to die for’ light, tasty and the piece de resistance was that the egg yoke was runny. We don’t know how the chef did that. We had other Scotch eggs, never as good but infinitely superior to my memory of scotch eggs in the 1980s. This Scotch egg reminded me of my first brilliant arancini (stuffed fried rice balls) in Sicily in the grounds of the Greek Temples at Agrigento. It was equally as good.

Burghley House, Cambridgeshire
Burghley House, Cambridgeshire

At Burghley Horse Trials (the cross country three-day, 4-star event, one of two in Britain and 6 in the world) that we attended over four days, we bought ingredients from tents to make our lunches. This is an event, which has an up-market audience and the Elizabethan Burghley House as a stunning backdrop. We bought fresh rolls, slices of top-notch leg ham, beautiful English cheeses and pork pies also ‘to die for’. This was really gourmet food (not that expensive) and available around the UK, but you would have to know where to find it.

Our assessment of British food is that at top-end restaurants with known chefs; and with fresh local produce grown or produced for the ‘foodie market’, you can get superb food.

William Fox-Pitt and Bay My Hero at Burghley, 2014
William Fox-Pitt and Bay My Hero at Burghley, 2014

There are always good choices, if you know them, in big cities.

We also lucked onto two examples of the bottom-end or traditional food available to all. After a tiring day exploring Dartmoor we headed for the nearest town an uninspiring place called Newton Abott, with rather seedy fast food places in the main street and lucked upon a fish and chip shop called Jacksons, which had been there for many years. It was completely unpretentious, but we noted that the staff all had frying certificates from the local technical college and the oil smelt fresh. I had a cod fillet and chips. The cod was supposedly fresh from Dorset. This finally told me that the British might have a point about cod. The chips were not reconstituted but from local potatoes. Denise had the special: plaice and hake, which wasn’t as nice as the cod. Nevertheless we were both impressed.

HayTor, Dartmoor, Devon
Hay Tor, Dartmoor, Devon

The other charming place we discovered was on a day we went from Marlow to London via High Wycombe on the train. On the walk from Southwark tube station to the Tate Modern we saw two places that looked good amidst the office worker trendy food bars, such as Prêt a Manger.

For lunch I encouraged (forced) Denise to walk back to Pickles Cafe in Great Suffolk Street. When we actually walked in, I thought we’d made a mistake because it was tiny, crowded and smelt strongly of frying. But we persisted and sat outside.

The food when it came was basic but excellent. I had the British all day breakfast bacon, sausage, boiled eggs, baked beans (I chose) and a lovely mug of tea. The toast was white bread, but when it came it was straight from the toaster, well-browned with melted butter and it was hot, something you dream of but never get outside of home. Denise had the best egg and bacon sandwich of her life.

The owner was an Italian and had run restaurants in Italy. Our waitress was working class British but knew the area and was full of gossip. We went to a similar place in Lyme Regis where the food was also good. I also had an excellent crab sandwich at Lyme Regis too to make up for an ordinary one a few days before in Sidmouth, half of which was stolen by a seagull. The seagull by the way was a huge ravenous Dracula of a bird, more like a pterodactyl than a modern bird, nothing like our tiny Australian seagulls that are also a nuisance. It had chosen its moment and target well. There were signs of course not to feed the seagulls, but they didn’t warn you that the seagulls might feed themselves and take your hand by mistake.

Public Gardens, Sidmouth, Devon
Public Gardens, Sidmouth, Devon

We also had another excellent lunch at a place called the Savoy on our way back into London after dropping off our car (not that Savoy). We arrived at Liverpool Street Station and were headed for the London Overground a few blocks away when we saw it across the street. Despite the name, the Savoy was a middle-eastern cafe, quite ordinary, like a 1950s Greek cafe, but with fresh and tasty food at a cheap price. Just good food!

We stayed near the famous Rotherhithe tunnel. Our AirBNB host was a young man from Belfast working in finance in the city. He was knowledgeable about the area and helpful. He sent us to a Thai Restaurant in a pub, which was OK but nothing special. He also sent us to a French bar/bistro, which was good, getting close to the top-end of dining, but probably normal for well-off young Londoners going out instead of eating at home. Hence not really top end. It was one of the most expensive meals we had and it was very good.

Food in Ireland

Before concluding and ruining my chances forever of returning to Britain, I need to take a slight diversion into Ireland. In the early 1980s the Republic of Ireland was a poor country and the six counties (Northern Ireland) a war zone.

Coming to Ireland from Britain in the 1980s one’s first impression was that the food was similar, but the ingredients were much fresher. The meat was better and the vegetables were wonderful. The potatoes and root crops were really special.

Coming to Ireland from Britain in the 2014, we heaved a huge sigh of relief. The food was similar but the ingredients were much fresher. The meat was better and the vegetables good. The potatoes and root crops were also good.

The verdict

Lyme Regis, Dorset
Lyme Regis, Dorset

So what is the final verdict? British food has come a long way since the 1980s, especially at the top end and even some of the basics, such as cheese and delicatessen meats and British staples, such as pork pies and scotch eggs have probably improved in general; specifically, some have improved markedly and some were good to start with.

‘Foodie items’ are more available. The supermarkets are actually fulfilling a need for good food.

However, the major source of cooked meals outside the home is the British Pub, and also local restaurants. Whilst pubs appear to provide much better food than previously, it is merely well displayed food, masquerading as good food. The meals at British pubs are in the main similar, stodgy and unimaginative.

The food eaten by the average middle class Brit is probably much better than it once was. But, to compare British restaurants and eating habits — other than at the top and the true ‘foodie’ end of the spectrum — as equivalent to those of nations that care about food, such as France and Italy, is laughable. Britain is a long way from being the ‘best in the world’.

Afterword

Wendover, near Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire
Wendover, near Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire

In Florence, I wonder why I cared enough about British food to write this. I didn’t even mention the coffee. It is unmentionable. Denise said the equivalent of bilge water.

We did a food tour for three-and-a-half hours yesterday near Santa Croce. Wine, bruschettas to accompany it; a delicatessen at the market supplying us tastes of endless cold meat and cheeses; and then three types of pasta to taste for lunch. This was followed by one of the best and most innovative Gelateria in the city (most places that cater for tourists sell commercial gelato).

(One of my first girlfriends, who has now lived in Paris for nearly forty years, is quite ‘sniffy’ when I say I like Italian cheese and compare it favourably with the French: ‘Tony,’ she says, ‘Italy only has twelve cheeses — France over one thousand.’ However, we were impressed by the varieties of pecorino Toscano — they are treated and aged differently — we tried in one small delicatessen.)

I’ve always not-liked prosciutto as much as I should, because the fat is often chewy and sticks in your teeth. In Italy it doesn’t, because it is fresh and just cut.

No more commentary! In Italy and France they really care about their food. I’ve realised with this critique of British food that I’m not so certain of Australian food anymore.

Australian food began, after the 1950s when meat and three ‘veg’ (vegetables) was the norm, to take on the food of immigrants. Australian food became exciting sometime in the 1960s and kept improving until the 1990s. But, I suspect Australian food has lost its way at the top end and the aspiring end since then; and the hidden juggernaut of the international industrial food industry has continued to roll on over us without enough questioning. I believe this is changing and will change because voices of protest are beginning and the farmer’s markets, fresh food, slow food, food miles and the idea of ‘small, local, fresh and sound practices are beautiful’ will continue. But I think the process will be very slow and there will be many dead ends or trendy sidetracks pursued in the interim. The outrageously rich and over-salaried will pursue their ‘larks tongues’.

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Key words: British food, UK, Britain, house-sitting, Buckinghamshire, Marlow, Great Missenden, AirBNB, Sainsbury, Waitrose, Tesco, Clapham, yuppie, scotch eggs, pork pies, fish and chips, sandwiches, Indian curries, regional towns, small cities, Central England, Leicester, Wales, Bath, Devon, Exeter, Dartmoor, Canterbury, Chiltern Hills, George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Jamie Oliver, British cuisine, Master Chef, English Pub, Heston Blumenthal, Nigella Lawson, celebrity chefs, International Cuisine, restaurants worldwide, Gordon Ramsay, Adam Simmonds, Adam Byatt, Delia Smith, Donna Hay, Iain, James Tanner, Keith Floyd, Kenny Atkinson, Madhur Jaffrey, Rachel Khoo, Sophie Dahl, Bill Granger, Australian chef, world class, globalisation, middle classes, moderately affluent British, London City airport, Southampton, Dartmoor, Newton Abott, Jacksons, Pret a Manger, Pickles Café, Great Suffolk Street, London, crab sandwich, Lyme Regis, Sidmouth, Savoy, Liverpool Street Station, London Overground, Topsham, Irish food, Australian food, Santa Croce, bruschetta, gelato, prosciutto, farmer’s markets, fresh food, local food, food miles, slow food, larks tongues

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