Yesterday I discovered this excellent essay by George Orwell talking about the joys of English food. Many people will tell you that British food is terrible but actually that’s not true at all, and George Orwell mounts a spirited defense of the English culinary tradition in this article. What is true is the slightly different statement, “food you buy in England is terrible.” And it is certainly the case that since Britain opened its borders to the EU food culture there has improved immeasurably (this also owes no small debt to the antipodes). But this is more to do with Britain’s moribund business culture and society of low expectations than it has to do with original British cooking, which is actually quite diverse and interesting, and in many ways unique. I think Orwell sums up the difference between a tourist’s experience of British food and the reality with this pithy moment:

If you want, say, a good, rich slice of Yorkshire pudding you are more likely to get it in the poorest English home than in a restaurant, which is where the visitor necessarily eats most of his meals

This isn’t to say that British home-cooking is good: I have met many a Japanese person whose home-stay family cooked their food by “pressing a button.” But the fact that good British cuisine is a dying art doesn’t mean it isn’t great when it is done well. Here are some of my favourite British foods:

  • Portobello Mushroom steaks and burgers
  • Smoked fish in all its diversity, and especially the way English people treat eels
  • Rhubarb
  • Horseradish
  • A good cornish pasty, three days’ worth of food for about a pound if you buy it down Southwest way, my dahling my love
  • A good ploughman’s lunch, with the bread that Orwell approves of and a fine selection of pickles and cheeses
  • Ciders and ales, which are truly diverse and astounding in their range

I have to disagree with Orwell about the faggots[1], and in the next few days I think I should post on my experience of this most uniquely disgusting British food[2], but he’s right especially about the bread. When I returned to London in September I was all over the bread! Sadly in the two weeks I was there I only managed to eat one really decent British meal in a pub, for exactly the reason Orwell gives – British restauranteurs undersell their own cuisine and instead do a shit job of trying to cover continental stuff. But if you are looking for British food I think I can give a few recommendations:

  • Put on your stab vest and visit the Old Dairy in Finsbury Park (near where I used to live). They always have good food and usually it is representative of British stuff (though their non-British food is usually excellent)
  • Visit the store in the Borough Markets that sells ales. The borough markets are overpriced and over-rated but they are still good and the ale store is excellent
  • If you are in Devon, go to any pier during late spring and summer, and buy pickled cockles and mussels (alive! alive-o!)
  • If you are in Devon, there is a little village in the middle of Dartmoor (I forget the name) where the pub does a truly awesome pie. Order one for your whole family, and you will still feel the weight packing on when you leave. Follow it up with a visit to the local post office so that you can experience the joys of British service at its worst
  • Visit the Hartland Quay hotel in Hartland, Bideford Bay, Devon. The hotel itself is built on an old port where wreckers and smugglers used to be active, and is exactly the place you imagine when you’re reading the opening chapters of Treasure Island. Don’t park your car on the seaward side of the car park though, or it will get salt-damaged
  • Fifteen, Jamie Oliver’s restaurant in London, is excellent and although the staff are all antipodean, the food always has a British inspiration. Jamie Oliver may be a complete wanker but he is a really, really good cook and he gets the basics right every time. The breakfast is also excellent
  • The smallest pub in Bath, the Coeur-de-Lion, does an excellent Ploughman’s Lunch. Bath itself is an absolute shithole and under no circumstances should you go into a tearoom, but if you do happen to find yourself stranded in this hellhole of British tourism, the coeur de Lion is your ticket to nirvana. Make the most of it, because at some point you are going to have to get on a Great South Western Train[3]

So, if you’re in Britain, do your best to find out what British people used to eat, and do your best to eat it. And make the most of the ales while you’re there – some of them are truly excellent. I recommend Otter, anything by Prince Charles’s company, the Wychwood brand (which I think is related to Prince Charles, and has the added benefit of being all dark and RPG-ish), and anything by the Hall and Woodhouse company (Badger Ales, the Fursty Ferret, etc.) Usually also ales with honey in are fun. And do try the cider when you’re in England (though obviously not strongbow). There are a wide range of locally-brewed ciders, some of which are truly monstrous and some of which are great.

If you do a culinary tour of Britain properly, when you leave you will never again have patience for the ancient adage, “all British food is shit.” Though, if you spend any time in Britain, you will know without a doubt that for 99% of Britons and 99.9% of visitors, it is undoubtedly true.

I would like to finish this post by observing that reading Orwell truly is a joy – he is one of the great exponents of the English language in its purest and most powerful form. And I would like to add – imagine if Orwell were blogging now, what a wonderful contribution that would be to the internet.

fn1: haha. I wonder what his view on homosexuality was?

fn2: Actually the most uniquely disgusting British food is my paternal grandmother’s pasta sauce, made entirely from one tin of tomatoes and one tin of steak and kidney

fn3: I once watched a Korean couple miss their stop because no one could figure out how to open the train door, so I will tell you this for nothing: the door handle of Great South Western Trains is on the outside, and even though there are big signs on the door telling you not to open the window and not to lean out of the window, this is in fact the only way to open the door. Also, when your ticket gives a seat number and a letter, ignore the letter. It is always A and it always means “airline.” This is the type of chair you will be sitting in while you travel in the train, except it doesn’t recline, doesn’t have a call button, doesn’t have a life jacket and doesn’t have an entertainment system so in fact is nothing at all like an airline seat. Only the number is relevant to where your chair is. It’s shit like this that makes foreigners understand why Britain lost its empire.

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