Essential English food

Roast beef

Experiencing a nations food is a key part of any travelling experience. Here, therefore, is my guide to some things you will want to try out if you are wandering around England. This isn’t going to be a list of gastronomic delights, rather it’s an overview of your more classic (read: unhealthy) English dishes.

English food had a bit of a reputation, once upon a time, for being a bit, well, shit. Meat and two veg, generally seriously overcooked, with no real flavours or zest. This, I am pleased to report, is largely no longer the case, and usually wherever you go you can find decent food at reasonable prices.  What, therefore, are my top five foods to try out when in England?

#1. Fish and Chips.

This has to be one of my favourite English classics. A battered piece of white fish, usually cod, with accompanying pile of chips, smothered in salt and vinegar. Health food, this is not. Tasty, it is. Yoda, I have become.

Even Yoda would probably agree that the setting is absolutely key. For the full experience, you really need to be sitting somewhere near the sea, ideally with the sound of an amusement park nearby. Donkeys may parade in front of you. Seagulls will battle with you for errant chips. If you’re after the full experience, take the portion from the new fangled polystyrene container and let it stew in some old newspaper for a while, absorbing the inky goodness. A tough one to beat.

Vera models fish and chips

#2. Pie and Mash.

Well, I never claimed this was going to be a gourmet experience. I like a simple steak and ale pie, with creamy mashed potatoes, although the myriad flavours of pie on offer are quite endless. For an authentic English pie experience, I’d recommend finding a decent local pub in the countryside, and accompanying your pie with a tasty real ale, served in one of those pint glasses with a handle. A handlebar moustache is entirely optional.

#3. Roast Dinner.

Where would a list of English meals be without the classic roast dinner? There is a reason that the French nickname for the English is rosbif, a title dating back to the 18th century, and generally descriptive of the sort of food the English were known for even back then.

So, with over two hundred years of food roasting tradition behind them, you’d think that the English on the whole would be pretty good at roast meals.

And indeed, for the most part, they are. Head to most any pub or restaurant on a Sunday lunchtime, and you’ll be almost guaranteed to have your pick of a variety of roasted meats, ranging from chicken to beef to pork to my personal favourite, lamb. Nuts can also be roasted, if meat is not your particular cup of tea.

And of course, it’s not just about the meat. The trimmings are a necessity, and usually include a good portion of roast potatoes, some roast parsnips (honey drizzle optional), possibly some sausages wrapped in a blanket of bacon, a hint of stuffing and maybe some Yorkshire pudding (roasted batter from what I can tell).

All of this should be happily drowned in gravy, a brown sauce made from the meat juices and thickened with flour. Some people may attempt to foist sprouts upon you, an invention from Brussels that resembles a tiny cabbage. Vigorously resist.

#4. BBQ.

This isn’t a specific dish, as you can put pretty much whatever you want to on a grill over a smouldering pile of coals, but the BBQ is certainly an English summertime tradition. As unpredictable weather is also an English summertime tradition, one never quite knows how damp ones BBQ is going to be. Which adds to the fun.

BBQ with a view

There’s nothing quite like watching someone standing in the rain, furiously charcoaling some bits of chicken drumstick, whilst everyone else hides inside, bemoaning the lack of English summer, and wondering what this climate change thing is all about.

#5. Bread and butter pudding.

Ah, pudding. That sweet tasty thing you wait throughout the rest of the meal to eat, and then wonder if you are too full to get it down. Also known as dessert.

Bread and butter pudding is an absolute classic English dessert. I had a theory that it came about after the war as a means of using up left over and possibly slightly stale bits of bread, but a hint of research has brought to my attention the fact that is in fact over three hundred years old.

Not bad for what is essentially old bread baked with eggs, milk and cream. Oh and sugar. And raisins. To be served with either custard, cream, or if you are feeling particularly decadent, a heart attack inducing dollop of clotted cream. Lovely.

Those were my top five English dishes. Some dishes did not make the top five list. One that is worth mentioning is the English tradition of afternoon tea, scones and jam, served with Cornish clotted cream. Or, the same, minus the tea and served with Pimms. There’s nothing quite like sitting on a lovely bit of lawn, smothering a hapless bit of scone with a goopy blob of clotted cream and a dollop of strawberry jam.

I know I have missed out on a number of other classic dishes, (giant fried breakfast anyone?). I focused on English, rather than Irish, Scottish or Welsh cuisine. Haggis jumps straight to mind as something you really need to think about having a go at if you are up in Scotland, assuming the thought of sheep offal simmered in its own stomach is something you think you may like. It is, I assure you, far nicer than it sounds. Let me know if I’ve missed your favourite English food off the list!

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