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British Food: from Blah to Brilliant

By Edited Dec 11, 2015 2 1

Being part of the Commonwealth has an Upside!

Food glorious food 
Hot sausage and mustard 
While we're in the mood cold jelly and custard
Pease pudding and saveloys
What next is the question?
Rich gentlemen have it boys

From Oliver by Charles Dickens


 Brits have been the brunt of gastronomy jokes for decades…maybe centuries. Until recently, they were considered less than equal to the French with their spicing and sautéing but, as a Canadian who learned to cook with a British flair for my British husband, I can now acknowledge that British dishes are comfort food at their finest. And, over the past decade, British chefs have slowly simmered to the forefront of celebrity kitchens worldwide and names like Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay are household monikers. They together with countless other whisk wielding wonders have proved that English cooking has risen like cream to the top and should no longer be the target of culinary jokes and jest.

Simple, substantial and hearty is the best way to describe British cooking. A look back shows that British cooking was greatly influenced by many nations including the Romans and later the French. The Frankish Normans are to be thanked for bringing spices to the British Isles including rare sugar and the use of these in cooking boosted the upper class another step above the common man.

With so many nations in the Commonwealth, countries like China with their tea and India with their curries had a great influence on British cooking. In 1809 the first curry house was opened in London by Dean Mohomed and diners could smoke hookah pipes and recline in bamboo chairs while they ate. By the 20th century most people had chefs in their homes, they didn’t enjoy the spicy smells and the curry houses were on the downslide. However, after WW II, enterprising Asian individuals opened up post pub curry shops that cooked with their British customers in mind and they were off to the races. With the influx of Bangladeshis around 1971 curry houses were once again a fast food favourite and today 70-75% of all curry houses and restaurants are owned by Asians with chicken tikka masala reigning as the favourite. 

Mrs. Beeton - First Lady of British Cuisine

Mrs. Beeton
Credit: Wikipedia

Isabella Mary Beeton (12 March 1836 – 6 February 1865), universally known as Mrs Beeton, was the English author of Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, and is commonly known as one of the first and best cookery writers, with her Book of Household Management first published in1861.

When and Why did it all go South?

Prior to WWI, those households with staff knew that a well served, delicious meal was an absolute must for a good hostess. If you employed a good chef or cook then you hung onto her with your life. Historians give great credit to the domestics of the Edwardian era who knew how to bake, boil and create without the benefit of fancy ovens, stoves and refrigerators. British food historian Ivan Day says that the meals back then were, “incredibly sophisticated and the upper-middle classes and the gentry and the aristocracy — they saw food as a way of impressing people.”

Cooks and their assistants were highly skilled and using copper moulds, they created incredible ice cream creations in a multitude of animal shapes like swans and doves. Their pasty making skills had to be up to snuff and getting everything to the table piping hot without microwaves and double ovens was a herculean task.

WWI put a stop to much of that as servants went off to war as did their well to do masters. There were staff shortages and the fancy and elaborate dishes of the past were impossible to cook and create. Add to that were the shortages of foods being imported and many of the delicacies were never given another thought. The Industrial Revolution had also seen a shift in eating habits as so many British country folk turned tail and moved to the city to find work. Regional specialties and cooking traditions fell by the wayside and many vanished. By comparison, French, Spanish and Italians retained their peasant culture and their eating habits and meals remained the same or improved.

Massive social changes after WWI that included crippling estate taxes and a reduction in staff numbers saw the keepers of the kitchen know-how wiped out. British food culture went into decline and the economic crash of 1929 and the 14 years of food rationing that didn’t end until 1954 added to the wave of bland and boring food. After all, how many innovative and tasty things can one do with SPAM day after day?

Happily, that has all changed. An interest in cooking healthier, lighter fare along with the use of herbs, spices and olive oils has put England and especially London on the culinary map thanks in part to the influx of immigrants and their diverse creations. Then, toss in the chefs who are out to make a difference using regional products, British game and new twists on old ideas and the late Mrs. Beeton would be proud as punch!

At the Mercy of Her Ladyship's Cook


The Lady of the Manor knew that a large part of her social reputation lay in the culinary genius of her cook.

Timeline of British Food Firsts

1500 – The Tudor’s (think of fat King Henry VIII) loved their meals which were lengthy affairs and included lots of meat but not many vegetables. They also liked sugar and their teeth were brown, rotten and falling out...not a pretty sight. A plus in the Tudor dating game was inclusion of most of one’s teeth.

1600 – The coffee culture is born and people can’t get enough of their java. Coffee houses are everywhere and cater to socialites, artists, merchants and bankers.

1701 – Jethro Tull (not the singer) invented the seed drill and makes planting and hand sowing a thing of the past. The agricultural Revolution creates many more mod cons that transform Britain’s farming industry.

1847 – Being a vegetarian is nothing new. The Vegetarian Society in England grew up at this time and within 40 years vegetarian restaurants offered cheap and healthy meals.

1850 – Previous to this era diners helped themselves to all the dishes on the table. With Service a la Russe which came from Russia to France and then to England, three course meals were served one at a time. The serving staff then stood back and listened to every word that was said at the table.

1861 – The famous Brit Mrs. Beeton writes and publishes 900 recipes in her Book of Household Management in a manner and format still used today.

1940 – The Second World War brought on shortages enough to make a cook pull her hair out: meat, sugar, eggs, cheese, jam and tea were in short supply and people were encouraged to “Dig for Victory” and to plant their own veggie gardens. Creative cooking using few ingredients was a must.

1960-1970’s – People began to travel and dishes from overseas began to make an appearance like Spaghetti Bolognese (Spag Bol) This was also the era of the fast and quick meals that came in packages and cans.

1980’s – Nouvelle Cuisine is created as a French art and diners find themselves looking at plates with panache and creative artistry but not much to eat. This is a worldwide phenomenon that, happily, doesn’t last forever and a new day is dawning in British kitchens.

Good hearty British Fare

Pub Lunch
Credit: Dennis Crank

A rainy day in England calls for a brolley, a pub, a pint and a plate piled high with fish and chips!

Did You Know?

Some fun British foodie facts.

In 1886 tinned baked beans appeared on the grocery shelves by H.J Heinz but this name is actually incorrect. The beans are not baked but boiled on top of the stove. They were considered a luxury item and sold at the upscale food shop Fortnum and Mason in London. Today the Brits consume more of these little round brown wonders than any other country.

Bisto: Here’s a tip: if you want the best gravy around just add some powdered Bisto to your roast juices, toss in some veg water, thicken it up and your guests will go bananas. Bisto’s name comes from its sales pitch back in 1908 of Browns, Seasons + Thickens in One.

When John Cadbury created his first box of chocolates in 1868 his first model was his daughter holding a kitten. These confections went down a lot better than the original fish fingers that were made out of herring. Understandably people didn’t enjoy picking the bones out from between their teeth and a second attempt by Birds Eye in the early 1950’s using cod became a big hit. The name Birds Eye comes from American Clarence Birdseye who actually invented frozen food back in 1917.

Show a man a meal without a bottle of HP sauce nearby and he’ll stop eating till one is found. The original sauce was actually called Brown sauce and still is in many homes today. The creator of this vinegar, tomato, date and tamarind sauce later changed the name to HP Sauce which stands for House of Parliament when he was told that it was used there in the dining room.

Any article or blog on British cooking is not complete without a word about SPAM! The depression was the reason for the creation behind this spiced ham and it was used widely by American military personal during the Pacific campaign. Some say the name SPAM comes from Special Army Meat and later this was changed to Special Present from America when the popularity of this tinned food took off. Today forty countries produce SPAM and since it is a product of dubious origins, all unwanted email now has the name SPAM.


Upstairs Downstairs Revisited

The Edwardian Country House: A Social and Architectural History
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Hearty, Tasty Fare with British Flair!

The Best of Traditional British Cooking: More than 70 classic step-by-step recipes from around Britain, beautifully illustrated with over 250 photographs
Amazon Price: $75.30 Buy Now
(price as of Dec 11, 2015)
If you've always wondered about Toad in the Hole, Pasties, Jam Roly Poly or Yorkshire Pudding, this book has it all.


Apr 4, 2013 8:00pm
A very interesting read about British food. I really liked the food timeline and the foodie facts. Good job! Thumbs Up!
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  1. Maria Godoy "Why British Food was so Bad for So Long." The Salt. 19/02/2012. 26/03/2013 <Web >
  2. Rumeana Jahangir "How Britain Got the Hots for Curry." BBC News. 26/11/2009. 26/03/2013 <Web >
  3. Elaine Lemm "Introduction to British Food." British Food About. n/a/n/a/n/a. 26/03/2013 <Web >

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