Sh*t and Chips – Is British Food Really Bad?

Delicate, flaky cod, panéed in a golden breadcrumbs, served with sautéed, julienne potatoes and a stew of haricot beans and tomatoes. Fish fingers, chips and beans, in other words. Possibly the kind of thing people would associate with ‘British Food’ but any passable home-cook would recognise this for the lazy café fare it truly is (Credit: bob walker CC-BY-SA 2.0)

I have realised that in all of the time I have been doing We Lack Discipline I have not touched upon what is probably my only other true specialty besides biology, which is food.

Now to me food is primal. It’s up there with fucking, sunshine and good music as things that are just innately enjoyable. I know not everyone feels like that and I think it is one of the most horrible aspects of human development and its heavy dependence on environmental conditions that those primalities like food can be effectively decoded, broken and left as little more than unenjoyable necessity.

I am also British, but unless you haven’t picked up from my tone in other articles, I’m about as patriotic as a space nomad. Countries are arbitrary, I am not blessed to be British, I live in an unholy, flag-waving Conservative hell-hole. None of it makes evolutionary sense anyway, one day Britain will not even exist as a landmass, everything that lives on it will be dead, and even if it survives the next 4 billion years or so the sun will consume everything in a fireball, so gripping on to ‘nationality’ as a part of your identity to make you feel safe is like clasping a piece of kitchen towel as a floatation device when you’ve just leapt off a sinking ship. It’s fucking useless.

A topographical map of the British Isles. As far as I am aware the only part that is not considered a territory of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the bit South of the white Line on the Island to the West. I suspect before long the part North of the white line will also leave us! Also the area poking out in the South East corner is technically France but the histories of Britain and that area of France are so intermingled they might as well admit they’re siblings and move on.(Credit: Equestenebrarum CC-BY-3.0)

However there are times that I would shout, scream and defend my nation. When the national sports teams are playing football, cricket or rugby, or when someone makes the blanket statement that “British food is baaaaad.”

Actually fuck off!

Anyone who watches Townsends, the 18th century cooking and lifestyle channel on YouTube – and if you don’t, why not? Check it out they’re great – will know the name Hannah Glasse. Her ‘Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy’ (Link to PDF), from 1747, is one of the first mass available cookbooks to be written in English and do you know what we have a recipe for in there? Curry, the spicy, saucy stew most associated with the Indian subcontinent.

British people have been using heavy spicing in their cuisine for a long, long time.

Do you want to know how long?

Hannah Glasse’s recipe for ‘Currey’ from 1747-1748. (Crdit: Hannah Glasse, Public Domain)

There are recipes from a book estimated to have been first compiled around 1390 (The Forme of Curye) that give details of how to produce rabbit or chicken in a ginger and almond sauce. There is also a recipe for saffron rice.

1390 CE!

A recipe for ‘Rice of Flesh’ – a saffron rice dish from the cookbook The Forme of Curye (here the word ‘Curye’ or sometimes ‘cury’ means ‘cookery’ – not ‘curry’.) (Credit: The John Rylands Library, Public Domain)

A century before Italian cuisine would have tomatoes and British people were already making weird and wonderful spiced concoctions.

Don’t ever step to me and tell me British food is bland, lacks flavour, doesn’t have spice or is just fatty meat and potatoes.

That tradition, the meat and potato, bowl of stew and bread tradition, comes from being poor as fuck and living in an agricultural feudalism. Effectively what people farmed and had surplus of they would eat. They would wake up at the crack of dawn to work the land, had little more than a hearth with an open flame to cook on, and had to make do and mend. Most of so-called ‘traditional’ British cuisine stems from this peasant cooking.

Often most peasants would have a permanently rotating stew constantly on the boil, a perpetual stew. They would add leftovers, surplus, vegetables, meat, potatoes, grain – forming a thick stew or pottage and this would be available to eat all the time. It was necessity, and a lot of what people perceive as ‘traditional British food’ is out of that same necessity. They are cheap-and-cheerful comfort cooking for people who would have to go out and work in driving rain and miserable, icy drizzle. You don’t want a delicate salad of fennel bulb and onions marinated in delicate, sweet vinegar and oil, maybe with a little hint of fresh herbs. You needed thousands of calories of whatever-the-hell!

A typical hearth, from Germany. However it is likely typical across much of Europe. Most cooking would have been done in a suspended pot such as the one seen in the middle – with bread often having been baked in a communal oven. (Credit: HOWI CC-BY-3.0)

In fact most European cultures, indeed most cultures around the world who adopted hearth cooking and boiling pots, have some variation on simple, tough cuts of meat boiled with vegetables. Forming a rudimentary stew one would look at this dish of bland, blanched, grey, boiled ingredients and definitely proclaim it ‘British’. Except the French have their pot au feu, the Italians their bollito misto. I have seen both of these dishes raved about by chefs from those nations like Raymond Blanc and Gennaro Contaldo, this simple dish of seasoned meats boiled in simple stock, yet if someone saw it on a British bowl they would immediately proclaim it horrid and bland!

Let’s talk about France, shall we? People like to talk up their cuisine as being the finest in the world but what they are talking about is the traditional school of French cuisine popularised in the court of King Louis XIV and the Ancien Régime, an opulent and indulgent use of only the finest of ingredients in the most obnoxiously complex of recipes for some of the most bloated, over-indulgent Kings and Queens in the land who so pissed off the peasantry (who were probably busy eating little more than dense bread and thin soup) that they attempted to kill them all not too many years later!

Normal people didn’t eat like that and it was only the popularisation of a fine dining tradition, and an admiration of that tradition, that made it seem like French cooking was in some way ‘better’ than everyone else’s. It’s nonsense. Their poor people were still eating, and still eat, much the same humble fare – your coq au vin, your cassoulet, your onion soup.

Shepherd’s pie usually begins with finely diced celery, onions and carrot (the same base the French miré poix, or an Italian soffrito, cooked until soft and then adding and browning some finely chopped or minced lamb. The sauce is made by adding flour and stock and thickening. It is topped with a layer of mashed potato that is textured (usually with a fork these days) so that you obtain furrows of browned potato. A cheddar cheese topping is optional. Done badly it is a dull, brown soup covered in stodgy, gluey starch. Done well, however, it is a humbling, comforting dish. A cottage pie is similar but made with minced beef. This specific one is made with beef and lamb, so a sort of shepherd’s cottage pie! (Credit: Dennis Wilkinson CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In fact I have a far greater respect for Italian cuisine which I think, owing to the Latin spirit of indulgence, mixed with a heavy dose of paucity and necessity, has found a means of balancing both the finery of a French traditional with an unpretentious peasant base.

If British cuisine was judged only on the strength of their most opulent recipes none would call it bland! Instead people look at humble peasant dishes like shepherd’s pie or a simple stew of meat and potatoes and think it reflects the entire culinary history of Britain. It’s ridiculous! Every nation, every supposedly great food nation, has those same simple recipes.

And it is simplicity that Britain does best. If someone wants to suggest to me that a classic British dinner of delicate, pink-hued roast beef, Yorkshire puddings (an oven-cooked pancake batter that rises into crispy towers of toasted joy), seasonal vegetables, probably a lot of greens, beans and peas through spring and summer and a lot of root vegetables, swede, carrot, parsnip in the autumn and winter months, crispy, meat-fat cooked roast potatoes all drenched in a rich, thick flour-based sauce made with the meat juices, that the French might call a ‘velouté’ but the British just un-pretentiously call ‘gravy’, if anyone wants to suggest to me that that is a bland dish they haven’t eaten a well-cooked one.

Anyone can pop to a shitty carvery and get overcooked meat, soggy potatoes, over-boiled cabbage and then moan that British food is shit, but it’s like eating a puddingy, stodgy risotto and saying Italian food is rubbish. It’s like having a thin, stinky bouillabaisse and saying French food is rubbish. Just because you’ve eaten a shit version of it, doesn’t mean it’s a shit recipe, or a shit dish.

What Yorkshire puddings ought to look like. The one at the bottom is what most of them look like, a sort of crispy batter cup. However, when made perfectly they obtain such a rise and crispiness they end up looking like these crunchy boulders of deliciousness. There is no better medium for beef and gravy. (Credit: Trussrod, Public Domain)

The British Isles are home to some of the finest foods in Europe. Our fish is second to none and so regarded that most of it gets exported to much more fish-appreciating nations like Spain, Portugal and France! We do not have areas that are permanently around 12°C or above, we don’t have a south-of-France, we don’t have a southern Italy, so seasonality is absolutely huge, especially as far as herbs and vegetables are concerned. I doubt you will find a nation with better tasting carrots when they are well selected, from a good farm and in season. British carrots are unbelievable.

Fruits – Don’t even talk about it, British strawberries in season will not be beaten, and we have some divine desserts that make use of them, from simple fools (literally strawberries mixed with sweetened whipped cream) to Eton mess (whipped cream, strawberries and meringue) or heaven forbid a dish so good even the Italians nicked a piss-poor version called ‘zuppe Inglese’ or English soup – The trifle! Layers of fruit (either compote or jam, or possibly if you’re poor, jelly), custard, cake or biscuit and whipped cream.

I live in the county with the best cherries in the world. You can fight me on that one. We can have a food-fight, Kentish cherries versus any other cherry in the world will not compare. Again, with fruit that good why complicate it? Make a cherry crumble with a delightful, light, crispy buttery topping, the parts of it that interact with the fruit become this thick, sweet mouth-clinging brilliance. Or add a scone-like topping and turn it into a cobbler, serve that with custard, again a sauce so good the French had to nick it and call it crème Anglais, or English cream.

Blossoming cherry trees in Faversham, Kent. These are likely ornamental cherries, however the history of cherries in England (and specifically Kent) is believed to date back to their introduction to the country by Romans. Whilst cherry recipes can be found much earlier (including in the aforementioned ‘Forme of Curye’ – King Henry VIII is credited with their renaissance in British cuisine, introducing sweet varieties from Flanders to the UK, particularly Kent where he had several homes. As a result Kent became his ‘Garden of England’ and the Kentish cherry is now possibly one of the finest in the world, albeit one with a ridiculously short season of only a few weeks! (Credit: © Copyright pam fray CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Apples, pears, gooseberries, raspberries, greengages, damsons and plums – We have some of the greatest fruit in the damn world. No, we can’t grow a decent orange, banana or mango, but without the Great British climate I bet your plums would be insipid little humps of sweet purple, compared the contrasting glorious sweet-and-sour bursts of juiciness we grow here!

Our fish is incredible, from cockles and muscles, through pollock, sardines off the Southwest coast are probably as good as anywhere in Spain or Portugal, simply cooked, a little seasoning, a spritz of lemon juice, served with a simple salad of lambs lettuce, pea shoots, maybe some mustard leaves for a peppery hit. We are an island nation so we have seafood that’ll knock your socks off and, sadly, an ever-dying tradition of cooking and eating it, so much so that, as mentioned, most of the seafood caught in British waters is exported – Things like sole and mackerel are so unappreciated yet so abundant and so good.

A seafood platter from the Crab and Winkle restaurant in Whitstable. Whitstable is famous for its oysters (a British staple, much associated with wealth and status now but once a peasant food) but the Kent coast also has other tremendous seafood. I can see crab (incredible food, Britain has some of the finest crab in the world, with the Dungeness and Cromer crab being named after British locales) I can see whelks, winkles, cockles, what looks like langoustine tails, prawns, a herring roll-mop (pickled herring with onions, popular in Britain but also across Northern Europe) – It’s incredible. (Credit: Ben Sutherland CC-BY-2.0)

As for our meat, have you seen this green and pleasant land? We are nothing if not glorious pasture, but we also have some truly unique habitats, the harsh but lush hills of Yorkshire and the flat, salty marshlands of Kent and East Sussex produce some absolutely delightful lamb, our beef is fantastic, we have breeds of pig that date back hundreds of years that make some of the most insanely delicious pork and we have recipes associated with all of them! Never mind the wild game! Duck, venison, pigeon – we’ve learned how to make amazing stuff with all of it.

The Romney Sheep – here on their native Romney Marsh. These hardy grazers gain a characteristic flavour and salty tang from grazing on these lowland salt-marshes near the coast. It is an important breed, a hardy long-wool sheep that was exported to Australia and New Zealand. The origin of all that quality lamb and wool comes from Kent! (Credit: © Copyright N Chadwick CC-BY-SA 2.0)

This is before we’ve even got on to the centuries old colonial-era imports to Britain that shook the world of our cuisine so much that the quintessential curry, tikka masala, was invented not in some humid kitchen in Kerala, Punjab or Bengal, but likely somewhere in Britain by a Bangladeshi chef. It clearly has its roots in Indian subcontinental cuisine, and whether it originates from Britain or Bangladesh it has become one of our favourite dishes and exported worldwide thanks to that popularity. There is much to regret about Britain’s colonial past, the exceptional foods we have acquired is not a part of it and is a great boost to the notion that multiculturalism can be a success, that through sharing cultural experiences like arts, foods and music we can successfully mingle as nations!

I am a firm believer that bread broken with enemies leads to more positive outcomes than blood spilled with friends. War can fuck off, solve your geopolitical crises with dinner!

A big, glorious, orange pot of chicken tikka masala. Debate rages as to the true origin of this food but, like India itself at one point in history, Britain’s nicked it! This is a dish more associated with Britain than India. There are apocryphal tales as to its creation, my favourite being a grump man in a Glasgow restaurant who was shocked he didn’t have ‘gravy’ to go with his chicken tikka, a dry-spiced, oven-cooked chicken dish – leading the Bangladeshi chef to create a sauce of yoghurt and spices to go with it. (Credit: Quadell CC-BY-SA 3.0)

There is so much more to British food than soggy-battered cod and wilted chips from some overworked, uncaring, profiteering seaside chippy. There is more to British food than a petrol station Ginster’s Pasty. Whilst people want to create an idol in the cuisines of other nations it is a feckless, ill-informed stereotype that British food is ‘bad’. Whilst everyone probably has a story of a grandmother, a mother or an aunt who overcooked her cabbage for their roast, we also have friends and relatives who put it all together so well that the effect is sublime. Properly made, the humble peasant-tradition food associated with Great Britain reflects the comforting necessity of a high-calorie, worker’s diet and British food’s greatest strength is in that satiation.

Fish and chips, served with tartare sauce and mushy peas. Good fish and chips should have a large, boned fillet of flaky fish (cod or haddock traditionally, although some places are beginning to use pollock due to sustainability reasons) in a crunchy, glassy batter, served with thick, crunchy-on-the-outside, fluffy-in-the-middle chips preferably cooked in beef dripping. The mushy peas should be a vibrant green, well seasoned, particularly with black pepper and the tartare sauce should be a tangy, salty, caper-filled delight. Anything less and you’ve been to a shit chippy. (Credit:
Charles Haynes CC-BY-SA 2.0)

No, British food is not ‘bad’. It is not ‘bland’ either. If you have experienced either of those things I feel truly sorry for you, because where you went to eat was what was bad, the chef was bad – but the food? Done right it truly is some of the best in the world.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

One thought on “Sh*t and Chips – Is British Food Really Bad?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: