9 Great British Foodstuffs You Must Try
Britain has a reputation for bad food.
It is – dare we say it – not wholly ill-deserved. It’s still possible to get some very bad food in a number of places, where much of the rest of the world doesn’t seem to struggle. For instance, you can go into a restaurant quite late at night in Spain and be served something delicious. Similarly, pick an empty French café with a bored waiter and you’re likely to get excellent food with fresh ingredients. From Morocco to Japan, the rest of the world is studded with towns and cities where street food is outstanding. Yet in Britain it remains possible to go into a coffee shop, order a menu staple and receive something that looks quite woebegone.
However, there are two reasons why things aren’t quite as grim as they’re painted. First, the state of affairs is improving, and fast. Impressions of British food that date from the 80s or even the 90s are likely to be misleading about how very good it can be today. And second, while your choice of savoury dishes in your run-of-the-mill café might be uninspiring, there is some food that Britain does spectacularly well. Not for nothing is this the country where the most-watched television event of the year was the finale of a cosy baking competition. You can be quite confident that your café with the underfilled sandwiches and the depressing jacket potatoes will also offer – for example – some really outstanding carrot cake, sticky toffee pudding, lemon drizzle cake, millionaire’s shortbread, rhubarb crumble and so on.
Given all this, it turns out there are more than enough exceptional British foodstuffs to make a lengthy list. If you’re visiting Britain, here’s what we suggest you try.
1. Cheddar cheese
It’s said that Britain has a greater number and variety of cheeses than France, and once you get acquainted with British cheese, this isn’t hard to believe. There are more than 700 named types of British cheese according to the British Cheese Board (who ought to know). We could probably have filled this list with types of cheese alone, and cheese plays a starring role in traditional British dishes like Welsh rarebit. There’s Stilton, Crumbly Lancashire, Wensleydale, Dorset Blue Vinney, Caerphilly, Red Leicester, Cornish Yarg, Stinking Bishop – and yes, much of the joy of British cheese is in the wonderful names.
But if we had to pick just one type of British cheese, it would be cheddar. Cheddar, particularly the kinds that get exported, can be exceptionally dull, and sometimes British people too fall into the trap of thinking of cheddar as just a standard white cheese. Yet cheddar in its innumerable varieties can be fantastic. One of the best cheddars that you don’t need to go to a specialist cheese counter to buy is Marks and Spencer’s Cornish Cruncher, which is matured for three years and is all the better for it.
2. Scones with clotted cream
Scones are a subject of much debate in the UK. First there’s the question of how the word is pronounced. There’s a poem, sometimes attributed to John Betjeman, which runs:
“I asked the maid in dulcet tone
To order me a buttered scone.
The silly girl has been and gone
And ordered me a buttered scone!”
Pronounced so that it rhymes, this illustrates neatly the great sconn/scohne divide. Rest assured that no one really cares how you pronounce it; pick one and stick to it.
The second question is what you put on top of your scone, and in what order. There might be butter, jam and clotted cream. Is it too indulgent to use all three? (No.) And should the clotted cream go on top of the jam, or the jam on top of the clotted cream? Here it’s best to be guided by the solidity of both the jam and the clotted cream and choose whichever one you think will hold the whole lot together most effectively – scones are crumbly. And then enjoy. The crumbly, comforting scone, not quite sweet, the tart jam and the smooth clotted cream are a match made in heaven.
3. A full English breakfast
If you’re used to a bowl of cereal or a pastry for breakfast, a full English can be daunting. It ought to contain bacon, sausages, baked beans, eggs (usually fried), fried mushrooms, fried tomatoes and toast or fried bread. Sometimes there might also be included black pudding (usually a good sign about the overall quality of the breakfast) or hash browns (usually a bad one). There are variations with white pudding, oatcakes or bubble and squeak.
This whole lot is obviously not all that good for you on a regular basis, but it’s very rare that anyone has a daily full English anyway – that would be exhausting. But if you’re staying in a B&B, or near to a café that offers it, it’s worth trying a full English at least once for the sake of tradition and indulgence. If it’s too much for breakfast, the American tradition of the all-day breakfast has made it across the pond, so you might be able to try it for dinner.
4. Fish, chips and mushy peas
As with lots of traditional foods, when it comes to fish, chips and mushy peas it depends on how traditional you want to be. You could get this from an overlit takeaway that smells of chip fat, wrapped in paper (which would have been newspaper twenty or thirty years ago), and eat it while it’s searingly hot.
Alternatively, you could get it from a gastropub, where you’re more likely to know what kind of fish you’re eating (cod or haddock is traditional, but becoming less common as fish stocks dwindle), your chips might be described as triple-cooked and your peas might just be steamed, not mushy, or flavoured with mint, or some other innovation. Both variants are genuine staples, particularly for Fridays. Vinegar is the traditional condiment, but no one will be upset if you choose ketchup instead.
5. A 99
Some of the items on this list are redolent of aristocratic indulgences – a perfect scone lathered with cream, or a sharp cheese to crown a sumptuous meal. A 99 is at the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s a cheap ice cream – often costing around 99p, though that’s not where the name comes from, and inflation is taking its toll on that harmonious arrangement – that’s soft serve and not particularly high quality, in a wafer cone with a Cadbury’s Flake stuck in it.
Is it an amazing gastronomic experience? Not really, and this is perhaps where the British do themselves no favours as far as that reputation for bad food is concerned. Britain does have some outstanding ice cream, particularly when you get to Devon and Cornwall and can enjoy the richness of the cream that’s been used to make it. But it’s 99s and similar that are the classics. They taste like treats on childhood seaside holidays, and that’s the important bit.
6. A roast dinner
Like a full English breakfast, this is one of those traditional dishes where the whole is more than the sum of its parts. A roast dinner consists of a roast meat (typically beef, though lamb or chicken are alternatives), roast potatoes, vegetables like peas or carrots, Yorkshire puddings and gravy. Of course, the key ingredients of this – meat, veg, potatoes, gravy – are the core of most traditional meals across a sizeable chunk of Europe. Perhaps, then, it’s the Yorkshire pudding we should focus on.
“Pudding” is a bit of a misnomer – a Yorkshire pudding is more like a little bowl made out of batter. Usually people fill it with gravy, which then seeps slowly through the bottom so that the base is soft and gravy-soaked while the top of the pudding stays crunchy. Very few people bother to bake their own, so anyone who does can feel very proud (and be forgiven for telling everyone about it). Like all traditional dishes, the best way to make each part of a roast – like whether anyone can really tell whether or not the potatoes have been roasted in goose fat – is hotly debated.
7. Cornish pasties
There’s a certain theme in great British foodstuffs: Cornish cream, Cornish ice cream, Cornish Yarg and now, the great Cornish pasty. Cornwall is a county of only about half a million people, a 20th of the population of London. Nowhere in it is more than 8 miles from the sea, so they could be forgiven for resting on their laurels and enjoying wonderfully fresh seafood without worrying about much else. But Cornwall was also traditionally a county of tin mining, and it’s tricky to eat a portion of mussels when you’re halfway down a mineshaft.
The Cornish pasty was the solution to this problem. It’s a complete, portable meal: beef, diced potato, diced swede and onion mixed together in a shortcrust pastry semi-circle, crimped along one side. The same qualities of speed and portability that made it an ideal lunch for tin miners make the Cornish pasty still quite handy if you’re rushing for a train today. For those who don’t care so much for tradition, many shops will now sell Cornish pasties with fillings other than the traditional beef, potatoes and swede, but still in the same handy shape with the same delicious pastry.
A difficulty with writing about the best of British food is the danger of repetition. It would be possible to write a list entirely made up of tray bakes, or (as we saw above) cheeses. Similarly, pies make up a huge and delicious part of British food culture. Clumping them all together feels sacrilegious, but covering all of them individually would risk being overwhelming.
There are savoury pies, such as Melton Mowbray pork pies (which have a European protected designation of origin) and steak and kidney pies. A fish pie might have a topping of mashed potato rather than being entirely encased in pastry, and cottage pie is similar. There are a plethora of sweet pies as well, though the line between – say – an apple pie and an apple tart is a little blurred. It’s a good rule of thumb, though, that if it’s wrapped in pastry, the British will appreciate it. Usually, the more homemade, the better.
The British would like to claim tea for our own. That being said, we can’t grow it, and we don’t even drink more of it than anyone else in Europe (that honour goes to the Irish). All the same, tea is inextricably part of the national character, and stereotypes about tea solving all problems are thoroughly grounded in fact.
Most British people form their tea preferences at an early age. Why someone takes the amount of milk or sugar that they do is likely to be based on what their parents or grandparents preferred. So, while some might insist that it’s a rational choice based on the reaction of lactic acid to boiling water or the build-up of tannin, it’s probably a lot more to do with a cup of hot milky tea – or hot black tea, depending on preference – being inextricably associated with comfort. The essential rule for a good cuppa is for the water to be boiled fresh, and for it to be poured on to the teabag or tea leaves as soon as possible after it’s boiled. If you end up noticing that tea in the UK is much better than in most of Europe, it’s most likely to be because everyone follows this rule with the strictness of religious doctrine.
What food and drink do you think it’s essential to try when you’re in the UK? Let us know in the comments!