Tasteless, salty, too rich, boiled beyond the recognisable: British food has kept its bad reputation for longer than we care to admit. This is due to several factors, one of which being the practices of the Victorian era, when food which was too spicy or at all “exciting” was considered indecent. After many years of rationing during and after World War II, during which supplies were few and variety of cooking thus limited. Former French president Jacques Chirac even went as far as to say : “We cannot trust people who have such bad food”
If we look into some of these 'traditional' British dishes, which few know the origins of, the truth is fascinatingly complex...
Fish & Chips
If you’ve never had the pleasure of encountering this rather dull-looking meal face to face, this traditional British dish consists of a breaded fish and large chips, a carbohydrate symphony. Its origins, though, are intriguing...
During the Victorian era, trains became more widespread and allowed the rapid transportation of goods hitherto restricted to their local area, including that most perishable resource: fish. Arriving to the big cities in the interior, the fish became popular, but the problem remained - how to store it? Frying it was found to be the best solution to the conservation problem, where the outer layer of batter would protect the fillet and allowed for easy re-heating at home. Alongside its staple fellows mushy peas (favourite of all foreign students) and vinegar, Fish and Chips is especially popular on Fridays, following an age-old christian tradition.
Full English Breakfast
Also called a “fry-up” for those in the know, the stereotype English Breakfast consists of one or more of each of these elements: Toast, eggs, sausage, bacon, the infamous baked beans, roasted tomatoes and mushrooms. This hearty breakfast choice was originally enjoyed by night workers after their shift and allowed them to compensate for the calories lost: The Full English weighs in on an average of 1200 calories per plate. Thankfully for the health of all England’s arteries, most will only consume this intermittently at weekends.
The British and their Tea – now that’s a story. English colonists occupied India, adopting parts of its culture with it., including tea. Before seeing mass production, tea was a luxury product and people would collect the used tea and re-sell it. To offset the loss in taste and the discolouration, a variety of substances were added, sometimes various leaves, sometimes colourants. The wealthy began to organise tea ceremonies to show off their wealth, and served it with delicate morsels to savour between sips. This tradition continues today with the afternoon tea, which includes tiny cucumber sandwiches, cheese are salmon (the bread is invariably crustless,) scones with clotted cream and jam and other cupcakes. The only remaining “rule” is that each appetiser must be small enough to be eaten in a few bites using fingers only.
Chicken Tikka Masala
The origins of dish, recently dethroned in the polls of favourite British dishes by Fish and Chips, is a true history lesson. The dishes brought home by the Indian subcontinent by immigrants from the colonies and the Commonwealth were originally intended for other immigrants. However difficulty in sourcing similar ingredients as well as lack of interest in spicy food resulted in a little cream being added, and an odd mix of condiments later Chicken Tikka Masala was born: an Indian dish which never existed in India.
This traditional British Christmas dessert originated in the middle ages, when it was eaten on Christmas eve. A mixture of beef and mutton with raisins, prunes, wine and spices, this “light” food allowed the stomach to prepare for the festivities ahead. The meat later disappeared from the recipe. Banned by Oliver Cromwell’s Puritans who thought the dish far too decadent, the pudding seems to have been reintroduced by King George I to firmly establish itself as the Christmas Dessert extraordinaire in 1714. Charles Dickens did pen one into “A Christmas Carol,” proof of its wide spread through all layers of the population in Victorian times. This dessert is related to many superstitions: it contains 13 ingredients, representing Christ and his disciples, the holly traditionally decorating it is a symbol of his crown. A coin is also traditionally hidden in the pudding, and the individual finding it is supposedly guaranteed a whole year of luck.
The British kitchen is currently undergoing a culinary revolution. Aided by charismatic personalities presenting new versions of traditional dishes, which are often lighter, healthier and full of foreign influence. Jamie Oliver is on a mission against junk food in school meals and Heston Blumenthal (part chef, part mad scientist) are the faces of new British cuisine: young, curious, experimental, both traditional and outward-looking. The new TV programmes encourage new generations to experiment in the kitchen: Master Chef, The Great British Bake Off, and Come Dine With Me have all had a positive effect on British cooking by democratising the dining experience and encouraging the public to take risks in the kitchen; perhaps Britain will one day leave its bad culinary reputation behind?