According to Joanna Blythman, an award-winning investigative food journalist and author of Bad Food Britain: How a Nation Ruined Its Appetite, England lives in a fantasy food world. Although cookbooks line kitchen shelves and Jamie Oliver products permeate the grocery stores, this façade obscures reality. Blythman offers some staggering statistics:
In 2003, the British ate more ready-meals than the rest of Europe combined.
69 percent of British people are confused about which foods are healthy.
Only one in five Brits will go out of their way to buy British-produced food if it means paying more for it.
There’s a definite link between the nation’s health and its dependence on ready-made food. The shift from cooking homemade meals to defrosting microwaveable dishes compounds the problem—if the British themselves no longer prepare their own traditional dishes, how can they combat their cuisine’s bad reputation?
In the course “Food, Society, and Culture” that I took in London, I discovered traditional British cuisine. During an in-class tasting, I sampled savory items like pork pies and Cornish pasties, pickled onions and finally sweet treats including digestives, Bakewell tarts, and mince pies.
The classic British crumpet kicked off the sampling. Piping hot and soaked with butter, this breakfast staple resembled a bland pancake. My instructor said the Brits either love or hate crumpets; there is no middle ground. Some of my classmates piled on orange marmalade to add flavor, but this sweet spread still couldn’t compensate for the crumpet’s rubbery texture.
Next up were the pork pies. Their flakey, golden brown pastry shells act as a sealant and preserve the moist meat inside. With this contrast in mind, it’s simple to see why the Brits favor pork pies. To intensify the flavor, most add a dollop of sauce—sweet mango chutney, tomato chutney, or Coleman’s mustard, for example.
Marmite was the curveball of the tasting. High in vitamin B, the sticky spread is made of the waste products (primarily yeast) from brewing beer. Although it looks like thick soy sauce, don’t be fooled. This versatile paste that’s spread on crackers and toast is a bitter, acquired taste. To state it bluntly, I felt like I was ingesting gasoline.
Fortunately, the desserts saved my taste buds. After sampling a sliver of mince pie—which conjured holiday tastes and smells like cranberries, currants, and spices—I realized the British have mastered the art of pairing flavors and textures to complement each other. In the case of mince pies, the pie crust’s understated and rough texture accentuated its sticky and sweet filling.
Two types of digestives—plain and chocolate-coated—came next, and finally, I tried a Bakewell tart. Although small and seemingly angelic, this cherry treat packed a punch. Buried between layers of plain pie crust, the thick confectionary icing and tiny cherry pieces satisfy both sweet and tart cravings.
Based on this sampling, I think some British dishes suffer from undeserved bad reputations—I loved the cockles (small saltwater clams) and pickled onions. Because cuisine is such a crucial component of a country’s culture, I went on to try a variety of traditional Britsh foods, from the sandwiches and scones of a leisurely high tea to a Sunday roast. And I’ve formed my own—favourable—opinions of British cuisine.