England (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
Since the 1970s, English food appears to have undergone a transformation. A postwar cuisine of plainly cooked meat and vegetables supplemented with baked goods and puddings has apparently given way to multiculturalism. Restaurants serve fusion food. Supermarkets sell chilled meals based on Italian or Asian recipes. The cookery sector of publishing is buoyant. This seems astonishing for a country whose eating habits evolved little between the
England has an unpredictable but generally benign maritime climate, without extremes; relief is low, the highest mountain standing 3210 feet (978 meters). A basic topographic division runs from northeast to southwest, along the watershed of the Trent and Severn rivers. North and west of this, the land tends to be higher, and the climate colder and wetter. To the south and east, hills are generally low, and summers warmer and drier. Annual rainfall ranges from about 97 inches (2,500mm) in the hills of the northwest to about 23 inches (600mm) in the driest parts of the east; winter temperatures rarely drop more than a couple of degrees centigrade below freezing and the summer maximum is about 86°F (30°C).
England's political and cultural dominance of the United Kingdom makes it difficult to disentangle English food habits from those of the Welsh, Scots, and Irish. Successive waves of settlers have brought ideas about food, but few attributions can be made until the twentieth century. Foreign trade has been important to English cuisine since at least the late Middle Ages. Spices came from the East Indies; sugar and currants were initially imported from the Mediterranean, and later from colonial possessions. A dependence on tropical cropsea, coffee, chocolate, sugareveloped in the nineteenth century; and the idea of curry came home with the nabobs of the East India Company.
Localized breeds of cattle, sheep, and pigs developed in the nineteenth century. Grass-fed beef from Aberdeen Angus, Hereford, and other traditional breeds is considered best. Most sheep meat is eaten as lamb, under the age of a year; mutton, from older sheep, formerly important, is now almost unobtainable. Fresh pork was and is popular, as is bacon. Wiltshire became an important center for curing meat in the nineteenth century. Bacon provided a relish for the otherwise monotonous diets of the poor. It remains an English favorite, though much is now imported from Denmark. Regional ham cures that became famous include those of York (or, more properly, Yorkshire), Cumberland, Devon, and Suffolk.
Poultry has long been important for both meat and eggs. In the nineteenth century, the counties around London produced Sussex and Dorking chickens; Surrey was famous for capons, and the town of Aylesbury produced ducks. Turkeys and geese were reared on corn (grain) stubble in East Anglia for sale in the capital. Poultry production is now an intensive industry, though small businesses based on high-quality traditional poultry production are appearing. Only geese have not succumbed to intensive systems.
Game has always featured on the aristocratic menu. Venison was most sought after; deer farming has made this more accessible, but it remains a minority taste, as do hares. Rabbits, nurtured in warrens in the Middle Ages, escaped, naturalized, and became pests, and the only wild creatures easily accessible to the poor. Wildfowl of all descriptions were eaten up to the eighteenth century, but subsequently the choice narrowed to about a dozen species, of which pheasants are most common, yet grouse from heather moorlands, and partridges are most prized.
Meat cookery demonstrates a preference for plain roasted (or, strictly speaking, baked) meat. Traditional accompaniments are horseradish sauce for beef; mint sauce (finely chopped mint mixed with sugar and vinegar) for lamb, and sage and onion stuffing and applesauce for fresh pork, which is generally roasted with the skin on to make crackling. Roast potatoes and boiled green or root vegetables are also served. Boiled meat dishes, such as salt beef with carrots, or mutton with caper sauce have almost vanished, though some people still marinate beef with salt, spices, and sugar for several days to make spiced beef. Steaks and chops are used for grilling.
Other meat dishes include pies or steamed suet puddings of beefsteak and kidney; oxtail is made into stews and soups. Skirt of beef is mixed with chopped potato, onion, and turnip in Cornish pasties, popular everywhere but closely identified with Cornwall itself. Northern butchers make a paste of cooked beef beneath a layer of fat; this potted beef is a remnant of an eighteenth-century tradition of potting all kinds of meat. Lancashire hotpot is a traditional stew of lamb or mutton chops with layers of onions and potatoes. It evolved in an area where a high rate of female employment led to a reliance on slow-cooked and ready-prepared foods.
Pork products include fresh sausages of lean and fat meat and some type of grain; the Cumberland type, with a high meat content and distinctive coiled presentation, is considered particularly good. Pork pies, survivors of a great tradition of raised pies, are made with a lard-based hot-water crust. Melton Mowbray in the Midlands is famous for a fine version. Black puddings (blood sausages), highly seasoned mixtures of blood, grain, and cubes of fat, are known everywhere but have a strong association with the industrial towns of south Lancashire (as does ox
Chicken, once an expensive treat roasted for special occasions, is now ubiquitous. It is much used in dishes of foreign origin. Rabbit stews and pies became poverty food, and the taste for them has waned. Hare soup and jugged hareooked slowly with wine and herbs, the sauce thickened with the blood of the animalre classic dishes of English game cookery.
Cod and haddock, though becoming scarce, are staples of fish and chip shops; grilled Dover sole is a standard of English restaurant cookery. Oysters, until the mid-nineteenth century a cheap food, suffered from pollution and disease and are now a luxury. Morecombe Bay shrimps (Crangon crangon), potted in spiced butter, are a traditional teatime delicacy. Eels, until the 1970s, were closely associated with the food habits of the London poor. Eel pie, and mash (mashed potatoes) shops sold them cold as jellied eels (boiled and allowed to cool in their liquid) or hot with mashed potato and "liquor," a green parsley sauce. Herrings were important until a recent decline in fish stocks. Some were eaten fresh, but most were preserved. Red herrings (heavily salted and smoked for long-term keeping) were superseded in the nineteenth century by lighter cures: kippers (split and cleaned before smoking) evolved in Northumberland, while Yarmouth favored bloaters (whole, lightly salted smoked herrings). Salmon, which became expensive when rivers were polluted during the nineteenth century, is cheap again because of fish farming, and poached salmon with cucumber is an English summer favorite.
Bread and Baking
White wheaten (wheat) bread is of primary importance. Traditional oblong tin loaves have become degraded under industrial production, and foreign influence makes it easier to buy croissants, ciabatta (a bread of Italian origin with a chewy, open texture), pita, or nan bread than a traditional cottage loaf (two-tiered round loaf). Historically, bread grains included rye, barley, and maslin (mixed grain). In the northern hills, oats, the only reliable grain crop, were used for flatbreads. By the seventeenth century a preference for wheat had developed in the London area. Variety diminished as the taste for wheat spread and grain imports grew in the nineteenth century. Now, only the oat-bread tradition survives. Haverbread (from Old Norse hafre, oats), flat ovals about a foot long, can occasionally be found in towns on the Yorkshire-Lancashire border. A stronger custom of baking floppy oatcakes about ten inches in diameter continues in Staffordshire. Barley is now grown for brewing.
There are many small regional breads. Kentish huffkins, Cornish splits, and Yorkshire teacakes are all round and flattish, enriched with a little sugar, lard, and dried fruit. Hot plates are used to bake muffins (made from soft bread dough), and also crumpets, and pikelets (both made from thick, yeast-leavened batter). This trio of foods are all eaten toasted and spread with butter for breakfast or tea. Scones, of flour, sugar, egg, and dried fruit, are common. Chelsea buns and Bath buns are rich and sweet. Hot cross buns, marked with a cross on top, are plainer and spiced; formerly made only on Good Friday, they are now produced for several weeks around Easter.
Lardy cakes made from bread dough folded with lard, sugar, and dried fruit are typical of southern England. Currants, raisins, and candied peel feature in yeast-leavened Guernsey gâches, Cornish saffron cakes, and Yule loaves (sweetened Christmas breads made in the north). Rich fruit cakes are related to these breads historically. Modern versions are heavy with sugar, butter, raisins, currants, and candied cherries. Covered with almond paste and sugar icing, they are essential for Christmas or weddings; baked with a marzipan layer in the middle, they become simnels, for Easter.
The taste for dried fruit extends to Eccles, Chorley, and Banbury cakespiced currant mixtures wrapped in puff pastry. Small mince pies, filled with a mixture of dried fruit, spices, and sugar, are eaten all over the country throughout the Christmas season. Originally the mincemeat filling did contain veal, mutton, or beef; now, an enrichment of beef suet is all that survives of this. Such dried fruit and pastry confections have been popular for at least four hundred years.
Ginger is popular in baking. Grasmere gingerbread comes from the Lake District, where local ports were active in the West India trade and a taste for brown sugar, rum, and ginger survives. Parkin is a north-country gingerbread that often contains oatmeal. Cornish Fairings and Ashbourne cakes are also ginger-flavored, and have a crisp, biscuity texture. The diversity of modern British biscuits (cookies) is a product of nineteenth-century industry, but Shrewsbury cakes (related to shortbread) were recorded in the seventeenth century, and Bath Olivers (plain biscuits) in the early nineteenth.
Vegetables and Fruit
The English have never been renowned for sensitivity in cooking vegetables, which were generally boiled and served with butter. Cabbages, carrots, parsnips, spinach, and salads such as lettuce and watercress have a long history of use, as has asparagus: the Vale of Evesham and Norfolk are particularly associated with this crop. One
Apples, pears, cherries, and plums are traditional fruit crops of the southeast and southwest. Cobnuts are grown in Kent; soft fruit is grown across much of the country, strawberries and raspberries being favorites. Historically, the north, with a more challenging climate, relied on gooseberries, damsons, and rhubarb, the latter mostly grown in West Yorkshire, where it is forced as an early spring crop. Traditional fruit puddings and jams are a strength of the English kitchen. One vital item, the bitter orange, is grown in southern Spain and imported specifically for making breakfast marmalade. A taste for sugar confectionery has led to numerous boiled sugar sweets, many using fruit flavorings.
Dairy products were considered food for the poor in the seventeenth century, but have become progressively more important. Cream is mixed with fruit purees for fools, and beaten with wine and lemon for syllabubs. Clotted cream, heated gently to produce a thick crust, is a specialty of Devon and Cornwall. Butter is essential for spreading on bread and toast, as well as in cooking generally. Cheese-making in Britain was centralized during the Second World War, concentrating on "territorial" cheesestilton, Cheddar, Gloucester, Cheshire, Lancashire, Wensleydale, Derby, and Leicester. All named for their areas of origin, they became generic (apart from Stilton, the manufacture of which was restricted to a small area in 1910). A dwindling nucleus of farm cheese-makers was boosted in the 1980s as "new wave" artisans who injected new creativity and energy into the industry.
Meal Times and Names
The British all recognize the early morning meal as breakfast, but after that a division becomes apparent. One pattern is a light midday lunch, perhaps afternoon tea, and a large dinner in the evening. The other is midday dinner and a substantial tea in the early evening. Sometimes this is called high tea or supper, though "supper," confusingly, is also used to indicate a light, late-evening repast. This divide originated when dinner, once a midday meal, slipped first to the early evening and then as late as 8:00 P.M. in the early nineteenth century. Lunch and afternoon tea developed to fill the long hours between breakfast and dinner. Wealthy younger people and southeasterners tend toward the lunch and dinner pattern. Poorer people, older ones, and northerners follow, to a diminishing extent, the dinner and tea pattern.
The "full English" breakfast. There is much nostalgia for the full English breakfast, a meal now mostly encountered in hotels, guesthouses, and cafés. Fried bacon and eggs are essential. Tomatoes, mushrooms, baked beans, fried bread, sausages, and black pudding are often added. Toast and marmalade generally follow. In cafés this meal is often available at any time. Time-consuming to prepare and eat, it is rarely made at home on a workday, when breakfast usually consists of cereal or toast, or coffee and a pastry bought on the way to work. However, cooked breakfasts are often made as a weekend treat.
Other items sometimes found at breakfast are oatmeal porridge (now closely identified with Scotland, but a survivor of a general British tradition of grain pottages) and kippers. In India, the British took khichri, spiced rice and lentils eaten with dried fish, and transmuted it into kedgeree, a mixture of rice, onions, and smoked haddock, still popular. Substantial breakfasts were most fully developed in country houses in the mid-nineteenth century, when huge buffets including such delicacies as deviled kidneys, raised pies, and cold tongue were laid out.
Lunch. Lunch has few special foods linked with it; though large formal lunches are sometimes eaten, a collation of odds and ends is more frequent. Sandwiches are a popular choice. The English have found sandwiches a convenient handheld meal since the mid-eighteenth century, when the Earl of Sandwich is said to have asked for his meat between two slices of bread, so as to avoid leaving the gaming table. Currently enjoying a zenith of popularity and variety, numerous specialty shops sell them filled with anything from conventional cheese and pickles or roast beef and horseradish combinations to chicken tikka or prawns and avocado. For those who want a hot lunch, soup or "something on toast"heese, eggs, fish, baked beansre popular.
Dinner. Dinner is a substantial hot meal, whether taken at midday or in the evening. The traditional pattern is cooked meat or fish with vegetables. A sweet course, usually referred to as pudding, follows. Food may come from the prepared-food counter in a supermarket, and home cooks are as likely to choose dishes from the Mediterranean or the Indian subcontinent as traditional English ones. Take-away (takeout) food, from traditional fish and
Confounding the lunch-dinner division are the special cases of Sunday dinner and Christmas dinner. These phrases still imply a large midday meal. Sunday dinner is often roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, served with gravy made from the meat juices or a commercial mix. Roasted or boiled potatoes and other vegetables, typically boiled cabbage and carrots, are also served. Lamb, pork, or chicken may take the place of the beef. Pudding choices include trifle (sherry-soaked sponge cake covered with layers of custard and cream); treacle tart (filled with golden syrup, lemon, and breadcrumbs), or lemon meringue pie. Steamed suet or sponge puddings are seen as old-fashioned but remain popular, as do fruit pies.
Christmas dinner usually centers on turkey or goose accompanied by sage and onion stuffing. Bread sauce, milk infused with cloves and shallot, thickened with breadcrumbs, is a classic accompaniment and a survival of a medieval tradition of bread-thickened sauces. Brussels sprouts are generally among the vegetables. This is followed by Christmas pudding flambéed with brandy, served with rum or brandy butter. Turkey is now the general choice, a reflection of centuries of great feasts involving various bird species, though roast beef was also a standard Christmas dish until the nineteenth century.
Afternoon tea and high tea. Tea is overlaid with social nuances. Apart from tea to drink (a beverage of primary importance in England since the mid-eighteenth century), afternoon tea is a dainty meal: bread and butter, small sandwiches filled with cucumber, a cake. Cream tea is a variant on this, with scones, jam, and cream. Elaborate afternoon teas are now most often taken in a café. High tea is a substantial meal, for people returning from work, or for children after school. It involves hot food such as kippers, eggs, pies, or sausages, or, in summer, cold ham or tinned canned salmon and salad. Bread and butter is always on the table, together with jam, and a selection of cakesarge ones, such as fruit cake or a Victoria sandwich (sponge cake filled with jam and cream), and small fairy cakes (similar to cupcakes or miniature muffins), jam tarts, and cookies.
A trend toward vegetarianism and concern about animal welfare has become apparent since the 1970s, leading to a growth in consumption of organically produced and vegetarian foods. Another development is a taste for ethnic food. Though imitations of Asian food, such as curry, piccalilli, and mushroom ketchup, have been made since the eighteenth century, in the last hundred years immigrant communities have introduced numerous new ideas. Chinese restaurants were widespread by the 1960s and Italian restaurants soon followed. Indian restaurants began to penetrate beyond major centers of immigration in the 1970s, putting dishes such as chicken tikka masala on the national menu, especially after pub closing time. West Indian, Hispanic, Turkish, and Thai restaurants can now be found in most cities.
London restaurant culture now has a global reputation for excellence, and interest in eating healthily has increased; but London is not England, and the high incidence of cardiovascular disease throughout the country is partially attributed to poor diet. Writers, guides, and chefs have raised the variety and quality of ingredients and of ready-prepared food, and cookery is a popular subject for television. But the best traditional English food remains a specialty found mostly in the homes of dedicated cooks.
See also Custard; Fish and Chips; Pastry; Tea (Meal).
Ayrton, Elisabeth. The Cookery of England. London: André Deutsch, 1974.
Burnett, John. Plenty and Want: A Social History of Diet in England from 1815 to the Present Day. London: Scolar Press, 1979. Newton, Mass.: Biscuit Books, 1994.
Davidson, Alan. North Atlantic Seafood. London: Macmillan, 1979; New York: Viking, 1980. A book that covers far more than just England, but contains much information about fish as used in Britain.
Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. Though this book covers food globally, it contains much information on English food habits and includes a useful article on early English cookery books (cookbooks).
Drummond, J. C., and Anne Wilbraham. The Englishman's Food: A History of Five Centuries of English Diet, with a new introduction by Tom Jaine. London: Pimlico, 1994.
Grigson, Jane. English Food, with a foreword by Sophie Grigson. London: Penguin, 1992. Classic English recipes, updated for a modern audience.
Hartley, Dorothy. Food in England. London: MacDonald and Jane's, 1954; Boston: Little, Brown, 1996. A slightly romantic but well-observed picture of traditional English cookery from information gathered between the two world wars.
Mason, Laura, and Catherine Brown. Traditional Foods of Britain: An Inventory. Totnes, Devon, U.K.: Prospect Books, 1999. Based on information gathered for Euroterroirs, a European Union study of local foods.
Walton, John K. Fish and Chips and the British Working Class 1870940. Leicester, U.K., and New York: Leicester University Press, 1992.
Wilson, C. Anne. Food and Drink in Britain: From the Stone Age to Recent Times. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1991. Still the standard reference on the history of food in the British Isles.
Wilson, C. Anne, ed. Luncheon, Nuncheon, and Other Meals: Eating with the Victorians. Stroud, U.K.: Alan Sutton, 1994. This book contains much information on meal times, patterns, and content as social change affected them in the nineteenth century.