What do you think of when someone says British cuisine? For other nations culinary exploits it can be a lot easier to define: France has perfected the technical aspects of cooking and can produce exquisite dishes in complex fashions, Italy has a rich tradition of pastas and sauces, India is a melting pot of delicious and potent flavours powered by pungent spices and rich curries. But what about Britain?
What is British cuisine?
The stereotypes about British cuisine are hardly flattering: bland, basic and boring are common descriptors with some people going as far as to say Britain doesn’t even have a national cuisine. However these stereotypes are outdated and inaccurate. British cooking has a long and rich history that has been shaped by everything from politics to war. Often described as a “magpie” culture of cooking, British cuisine has adopted and adapted techniques and dishes from around the world into a diverse and distinct cuisine. Much of this is due to immigration of various peoples from the colonies of the British empire who brought ingredients and recipes which permeated into the national identity and cuisine. That said, modern British cuisine has become recognised for its innovative approach and today the UK hosts a wide range of excellent restaurants with first class chefs.
British Herbs & Spices
Historically the UK has been a major importer of spices, with huge amounts of money being poured into the spice trade. Even today many of the country’s favourite herbs and spices like Coriander, Cinnamon and Chilli powder are often exclusively grown overseas.
This might make you think that the British Isles are lacking in native spices, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The most versatile and familiar spice, garlic, can be found growing wild in nearly every nook and cranny of the British countryside. The pungent and ever popular Mustard plant is another homegrown source of powerful flavour.
Britain is particularly fond of herbs like Rosemary, Sage, Thyme and parsley, which make up the essential flavourings of many hearty British meals.
A historically important but at risk spice is the Juniper berry, the main flavouring of Britain’s favourite spirit: Gin. Centuries ago Juniper trees grew widespread across the country and their fruits were used to flavour a wide array of sweet and savoury dishes, particularly in early Scottish cooking. Unfortunately due to the loss of most of the UK’s forests and poor management of what remains, there are now very few remaining British Juniper trees, although charities like Plant Life are fighting to rectify this through replanting efforts.
British Spice blends
One of Britain’s favourite spice blends is the warming combination found in Mixed Spice, a traditional mix of warming and sweet spices like cinnamon, cardamom and cloves. Mixed spice forms the essential festive flavours of many of Britain’s favourite yuletide desserts like Christmas pudding and Mince pies.
Here at Hill & Vale we’ve developed a delicious Roasted vegetable blend combining some of those quintessentially British herbs sage, rosemary and thyme.
History & Origins
Kings and Peasants
The roots of British cuisine are split primarily between what the rich and poor used to eat as is the case in many countries around the world. In medieval Britain the opulent feasts of the aristocracy were in stark contrast with the subsistence level cooking of the peasantry. Feasts served as an opportunity for nobles to demonstrate their wealth to one another, often involving lavish spreads of exotic meats such as peacock served with dozens of accompaniments from jellies to the elaborate sugar sculptures known as “subtleties”. Desserts were dyed with saffron and sandalwood to bring vivid colours to the already eye-catching tables. Herbs and spices from across the world were seen as a status symbol and so were liberally used.
The peasants and the serfs on the other hand had much more functional diets. The staple food of the time was thick soup or stew called Pottage. Pottage never had standard ingredients as it was made with whatever was available, usually a base of grains which were simmered for hours until homogenous to which vegetables were added. Meat was added when available, but this was a luxury. High calorie puddings made with suet and offal were also commonly eaten, utilising much more of the animal that we tend to eat today.
One common thread between the classes was the belief that fruits should be cooked before consumption for safety. This tradition perhaps led to many of the delicious desserts we still enjoy today from mince pies to fruit crumbles. Following the English civil war and the Establishment of Puritan religious values many dishes were banned including rich cakes and biscuits. The Eccles cake was created to avoid these restrictions and remains a favourite sweet pastry to this day.
Rationing and the Second world war
So why do people think British food is so bland? Despite all of the diversity of British food most of the stereotypes about British food were formed due to the negative effects that WW2 and rationing had on the supply chain. In some cases the lack of ingredients led to innovation and rediscovery, using carrot as a sweetener in cakes for example was a near forgotten technique but was revitalised by the need for alternatives for sugar. The disruption of trade meant that many of the spices and ingredients that British people had enjoyed for centuries were not readily available, those which couldn’t be grown in the country were near unobtainable.
Rationing meant that what was available to eat was standardised, resulting in a homogenous wartime cuisine designed to help as many people stay fed as possible. British cheese production nearly collapsed due to rationing, the government required the only cheese to be produced be Cheddar due to its long shelf life and ease of production. The effect of this decision can still be seen today with Cheddar being by far the most widely eaten cheese in the country.
This lack of diversity in ingredients combined with the exhaustion of surviving the war meant British families had little time, energy or materials to cook flavorful food. With scarcity always looming, making sure your family was fed was more important than whether the food tasted good. This culture of frugality carried on until after rationing ended in 1954, nearly a decade after the war. The idea of not wasting food became so ingrained that experimentation with flavour was not seen as an option for the average person as they lacked the skills and the confidence.
The post war revival
It took some time but following the end of the war and rationing there was a revival in British cooking. Much of this revival can be credited to the cookbook authors of the time who became the prototype for the celebrity chefs of today. Elizabeth David’s “A book of Mediterranean Food” has been lauded as the start
of this revival, first published in 1950 it marked a return to interest in cooking for the general public. The ingredients for many of the recipes were still unattainable to many but the book sparked the passion that many had suppressed for the previous decade. The bright cover and detailed illustrations made David’s book a bestseller and helped bring the techniques and flavours of the Mediterranean to Britain for the first time in an accessible way. Following the example set by David, celebrity cooks like Fanny Cradock and Delia Smith became the teachers helping Britain unlearn its wartime habits.
The prosperity of the 1960’s allowed more British people to holiday abroad, giving them first hand experience with the foods and flavours of the world. This in turn led to the establishment of restaurants inspired by the cuisines of the world set to cater to the newfound palate of the British public.
The British Empire and Commonwealth
Perhaps the greatest boon to Britain’s culinary resurgence was the wealth of flavour and knowledge brought to the country by immigrants from former colonial territories. Throughout the 20th century immigration brought large numbers of people from India, Pakistan, The Caribbean and Hong Kong as well as a multitude of other countries. This influx of people with new palates, new recipes and new ingredients slowly began to integrate into British cuisine.
By the 1970’s Chinese food had become a firm favourite and today there are over 4,000 Chinese restaurants feeding the British public. Indian cooking has perhaps had the most lasting and significant effect on the British palate, a true fusion cuisine has developed combining the punchy aromatic flavours of the Indian subcontinent with the preferences for thick creamy sauces of the UK. Dishes like the balti and the tikka masala are authentic Anglo-Indian dishes, as much a part of Britain's culinary history as Fish and Chips.
Modern British cuisine
Modern British cuisine has succeeded and evolved in spite of the negative stereotypes surrounding British food. Part of this has been an increased appreciation for the quality of ingredients found in the British Isles, high quality fish and meat being made the centrepiece to re-imaginings of traditional dishes. The work of Heston Blumethal has been incredibly influential in recent years, his recipe for triple cooked chips becoming standard in gourmet eateries and pubs across the country as well as his runny-in-the-middle scotch egg. Aside from the molecular gastronomy of Blumenthal the British public has become increasingly interested in the story of their food, whether that be the history of the recipe or the sourcing and sustainability of the ingredients. In a time increasingly filled with anxiety about the environment, this change in eating habits represents an opportunity to educate and inform the public about the wealth of flavour right on our doorstep. If you’re looking to join this flavour revolution why don’t you check out our range of authentic and delicious spice blends.
Food holidays and celebrations
Britain has a long tradition of holidays and celebrations marked by delicious and specific foods. The foods of Christmas are perhaps the nation’s favourites, Roasted Turkey, pigs in blankets, a barrage of roasted vegetables all topped with lashings of gravy followed by a yule log or Christmas pudding. What could be better?
Britain doesn’t just celebrate the eating of food though, the growing of vegetables of exceptional quality or enormous size has long been competition at village fêtes. Another enigmatic and peculiar celebration of food comes in the form of the risky sport of Cheese Rolling! Once a year in the spring hundreds gather on Cooper’s hill in Gloucestershire to chase a wheel of cheese down a worryingly steep slope, all for the glory and of course the cheese.
A Scottish favourite celebration is that of the Burns supper, a traditional Scottish meal venerating the great poet Robert Burns where many of Scotland’s most famous dishes are served including haggis, neeps and tatties and of course Scotch Whisky.
Traditional British cooking is characterised by a love of roasting, stewing and baking. The peasant traditions which led to many of the UK’s favourite dishes were cooked over the course of the day while people worked, letting meats and vegetables stew to infuse their flavours or roasting them all together to save the flavourful juices of meat. Baking has become a British pastime and point of pride, from hot cross buns to pork pies if it can be baked Britain loves it!
Heston Blumenthal- Taking a scientific approach to cooking, this molecular gastronomist has repeatedly shocked and delighted with both his revolutionary cooking techniques and his outlandish presentation.
Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall- A celebrity chef with a deep respect and focus on sustainability and rustic cooking. From his self-sufficient farm River Cottage he has hosted numerous tv programmes showing the public the benefit of sustainable agriculture.
Josh Eggleton- A former protege of Gordon Ramsay, Josh Eggleton is the proprietor of one of the only Michelin starred pubs in the country, the Pony and Trap. A Bristol local, in 2017 he opened the restaurant ROOT which focuses on putting locally sourced vegetables at the forefront of flavour and nutrition.