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English Food - Good or Bad?
Traditional English Food - Toad in the Hole
Standards in Restaurants Then and Now
We English have a reputation for bad cooking and this has made us a real joke in France where food is of paramount importance.
We are improving, though, and some of our traditional food is good when cooked properly using good quality ingredients even if some of it, like black pudding, is an acquired taste.
After the World War II much of food served in restaurants was abysmal. Probably caused by wartime and post-war food rationing but things didn't improve after rationing ended and food was plentiful. Caterers seemed to have got into bad habits because, as a nation, the English are not good at complaining and people were accustomed to poor food when eating out.
“The British Empire was created as a by-product of generations of desperate Englishmen roaming the world in search of a decent meal.”— Bill Marsano
Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons
Now England Has Award Winning Restaurants
Things have changed, though. People go to other countries and experience good food at reasonable prices in restaurants. Additionally, many foreign chefs have come to Britain and opened restaurants and takeaways. The last thirty or forty years have seen new generations of keen, English chefs too.
Nowadays, world famous chefs and restaurants can be found, not only in London, but also the rest of the country. Think of Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, Rick Stein and his Cornish fish restaurants, Michel Roux and the Waterside Inn, Bray, Berkshire, to name just three.
There are many less expensive restaurants and takeaways where you can buy good food, well cooked, although there are some that are still terrible but that's the same pretty much anywhere in the world.
Pork Pie - Another Traditional English Dish
"On the Continent people have good food; in England people have good table manners."— George Mikes
Great British Cooking: A Well-kept Secret
What a great selection of traditional British recipes! From fish and chips to pork pies, Mulligatawney soup to Coronation chicken. There are starters, main courses, fish, meat, desserts and much more...
Cooking in the Home Today
Cooking in the home seems to split into three categories. The first is that nobody in the home can or is willing to cook and they live entirely on take-aways, ready meals or snacks. In the second category, they cook as a hobby and can produce high standard cuisine at the drop of a tablespoon - this is the smallest group.
In between these two extremes are the people who can produce what is described here as 'good plain cooking'. This is food that we all remember from our childhoods and really like. This group is usually made up of older people who learned to cook as a matter of course so it gets smaller every year as people die.
I left school in the late 1960s and all girls (yes, it was that sexist) learned to cook at school and usually at home too. By the time we were 16 years old, we had usually mastered basic cooking skills. Children have not been taught to cook at school or at home for many years now and so there is a whole generation who can't cook although they can use a microwave.
The future for home-cooked food doesn't look bright.
A Sunday Roast Dinner
The English Sunday Roast
The 'Sunday Roast' has been a longstanding tradition in English homes but home-cooked roast Sunday lunches are much less common nowadays.
Families often don't eat together anymore so a roasting a large piece of meat is no longer popular when most of it won't be eaten when it's freshly cooked. The lack of cooking skills also mean there are fewer people able to successfully produce a good roast meal.
Twenty or thirty years ago, Sunday lunch was the best meal of the week and would have been the most expensive meat affordable, usually a 'joint' roasted in the oven. The quintessential Sunday roast was beef served with separate Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, two different kinds of vegetables, like cabbage and carrots for example, and gravy.
It would be followed by a pudding (dessert), perhaps treacle pudding, jam roly poly, apple pie or fruit crumble. All these would be served with custard. If you didn't like custard (like me), then you had it with 'top of the milk' or dry.
Post-War Frugality and the Sunday Roast
In postwar years, even after rationing ended but frugality was a way of life, a Sunday roast would be expected to last for several meals.
It was served hot and delicious on Sunday, as cold meat with potatoes and vegetables on Monday, as minced meat on Tuesday and as something like rissoles or shepherd's pie on Wednesday. If the cook was really careful and bulked out the meat with plenty of carrots and swede, the shepherd's pie might do two days so you'd eat it Thursday as well.
No wonder we loved our Sunday roast when it was fresh and we weren't fed up with it!
Although beef was thought to be the best Sunday roast, it could also be pork, chicken or lamb. Whatever it was, it was supposed to last for several days. The different meats, except for chicken, had their own special sauces: beef was served with horseradish and/or mustard, pork with applesauce, lamb with mint sauce.
Roast Pork with Crackling
The Sunday Roast Today
Nowadays, a real Sunday roast dinner or lunch is a treat because so few people cook this kind of meal regularly. Some pubs offer a 'Carvery' Sunday lunch. This means roast meat which is carved for each customer. It's a 'serve yourself' buffet, you take your plate round and help yourself to vegetables, roast potatoes, gravy and sauces. You choose what kind of roast meat you want and a server carves it for you and puts it on your plate.
These Carvery meals are hugely popular and in the best pubs, you have to make a reservation or arrive early to make sure you get served.
How to Cook Roast Beef for Sunday Lunch
Cooking from Small Towns, Big Cities, and Country Villages...
We are used to watching the famous chefs like Jamie Olivers and Gordon Ramsey but there is great cooking going on all over the UK. Here is a selection of recipes from those chefs who are unsung heroes of good food.
Fish and Chips
When writing about English or British food, fish and chips must make an appearance because it's one of our most famous meals and one that most people here eat from time to time.
It was part of our childhoods and a great treat when our mother or father brought fish and chips home, hot and wrapped in newspaper in those days. Not only did we have a lovely meal to eat, we had something to read too. Most people just unwrapped their food and ate it out of the paper. In fact, the same thing happens today except now it's wrapped in nice, clean, white paper to keep it hot.
We also eat it walking along the street or sitting on a public bench somewhere.
A good fish and chip shop can have long queues (lines) stretching out the door of people waiting to buy. You can get served in a few seconds in a bad fish and chip shop because their reputation will have driven customers away.
Watch the video below to see what a good example is like and how it's cooked.
Traditional Fish and Chips
The Michelin Guide 2015
The famous Michelin Guides to hotels and restaurants lists only the best of the best. If you love fine dining, this is the guide you need when visiting the UK and Ireland.
So is English Food Good or Bad?
My feeling is that it's both, depending who is cooking or producing it. Like many industrialised countries, here in England we suffer from lack of time or inclination for home cooking as well as loss of skills to do it at all.
This isn't universal, though. There are many young people who love cooking and do it well. Some love it so much they choose it as a career and eventually open their own restaurants producing excellent food.
Too many people still use the microwave for 'cooking' or buy ready meals that only require the addition of boiling water to make them edible - although the definition of edible in some cases might be a bit loose or even inaccurate.
As for eating out, restaurants, hotels and many cafés provide excellent food and range in price from very affordable to extremely expensive.
Bad food isn't an English problem, it's a modern life problem and perhaps the growing emphasis on healthy eating will encourage more people to make sure the food they eat is good and well cooked.
© 2014 Carol Fisher