British food is called every name under the sun. Boring, bland, basic. It gets a bad wrap and it’s rare you’ll come across a non-Brit who’s a fan. But why? These days it seems British food is bad and in the rest of Europe it’s good and that’s the end of that. Goodbye, you enjoy your fish and chips now, Britain. So we thought we’d explore the history of British food, as well as where it’s at today.
British food of old: a different story
British food hasn’t always had a bad reputation. Before the start of WWI it was some of the world’s best. Look at books from a hundred years ago and you’ll see recipes using lobster cutlets and stuffed pheasant, with decadent souffles for dessert. Wealth, trade and diversity meant British food was tough to match anywhere else in Europe.
Roots of the stereotype?
The aforementioned stereotype of British food stems from war. For around 30 years until the beginning of the 1960s, rationing in Britain was strict. Controlled consumption of everything from ham and eggs to milk and cheese meant no room for creativity in the kitchen and basic meals in homes across the country.
Rationing saw a whole generation grow up not being able to cook what those before them had enjoyed. Not knowing what good British food ought to taste like. For them, boring, bland and basic was normal. Their children, in turn, were the same. They had neither the skills present nor any kind of market to get excited about food.
Standard British dishes thus became the ones that have the bad reputation today: spotted dick, cottage pie, cold meat pasties, corned beef fritters, toad in the hole, potato soup, apple crumble and custard. If these dishes sound boring and similar it’s because they are.
A gradual reinvention
Low expectations of food remained until the mid-80s thanks to the rise of low-quality convenience food. Because most adults were hard at work rebuilding a post-war economy, supermarket ready-meals and takeaways boomed.
But in the 90s people had more time and more money and Britain’s attitude to food began to shift again. Emerging British chefs started to look at old recipes and see that British food no longer had to suck. They said modern British food, made well and slow, isn’t bad at all.
What to expect from British food today
British food has gone from strength to strength since the 90s. In fact, there’s never been more hype around British food than today. It lends itself to the modern food trends of slow, local, fresh and organic, thanks to rolling countryside and a vast coastline.
Head to a gastropub these days and you can expect dishes like bourbon roasted pork belly with buttery mash, kale, bacon chutney and pickled Granny Smith apples; pan-seared English duck breast with potato fondant and anise jus or roasted venison haunch with hasselback potatoes, confit carrots, baby onions and gravy.
Meanwhile, steamed cockles with cream, barbequed local squid and sea bass are popular on the Isle of Wight. Salmon from the Scottish coast is world-famous, just like Morecambe Bay potted shrimp or lobster from the English channel.
Quite alright indeed
Modern British food isn’t fancy and unless you’re in a high-class restaurant it’s rarely too technical. It’s a reinvention, sometimes a reimagination of tried and tested classics. People are right when they say British food is simple, but these days that’s what makes it so great.
British chefs are once again making the most of the high-quality ingredients available and London is now home to some of the 50 best restaurants in the world. Anywhere you look in Britain (or the Michelin Guide, for that matter) the popularity of new gastropubs is clear to see as well.
None of this is to say that Britain has forgotten fish and chips and the Sunday roast. It hasn’t, and these are national dishes that Britain is very proud of. The point is that the boring picture of British food that still seems to linger is outdated. Modern British food, actually, is quite alright indeed.
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