If you think British fare is bland, think again! We look at some top traditional eats -- and delicious recipes you can enjoy at home.
British cuisine often gets a bad rap for being bland and ordinary, and is overlooked in favour of other European cuisines like that of France. Sometimes we dismiss it as “pub grub” — though there’s something to be said for a good plate of fish and chips or an artery-clogging English breakfast.
Like its culture and history, British cuisine comes from a place where traditions collide and both high and low classes take pride in their food and make the most of local ingredients. Some classics have made their way around the world as people share their traditions — and the internet makes it even easier to master new recipes.
All eyes are on Great Britain this year with the recent Jubilee celebrations and the upcoming Olympics — and we can find some inspiration for our travels or our kitchens.
Here are a few selections to whet your appetite.
For a picnic: Jubilee Chicken
Still hoping to savour the flavour of the recent Diamond Jubilee celebrations? This traditional salad featuring cubed chicken in a creamy, curry-spiced dressing seems to make the menu at many a royal event. For the Queen’s coronation back in 1952, chefs Constance Spry and Rosemary Hume invented this creamy salad as a nod to the Jubilee Chicken dish served at King George V’s Silver Jubilee in 1935.
Fast forward 50 years and Jubilee Chicken is back on the menu. The royal chef reinvented the dish for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebrations. The recipe wasn’t just for the elite at the Queen’s celebrations — the recipe was published on the Official Website of the British Monarchy. Not surprisingly, this classic recipe made its way into many celebratory five-course picnic hampers at the Diamond Jubilee Celebrations too.
While the official Jubilee Chicken recipe is no longer live on the royal website, you can find a reprint on the Food Network UK or view a cached version of the website. Of course, there are countless variations of Jubilee Chicken or Coronation Chicken on food websites — like this version of Coronation Chicken on BBC Recipes. The spices vary according to which recipe you use, and some use simpler methods and healthier ingredients like yoghurt instead of crème fraîche.
Whether you’re packing a picnic or serving guests at a garden party, experts say to serve Jubilee chicken over rice or with a pasta salad. Coronation Chicken can also be used as a sandwich filling or served with leafy greens.
(If you’re curious what else went in those picnic hampers, check out the feature on the Mail Online.)
On the road: Cornish Pasty
Once fare that graced royal tables in the 16th century, it was the peasant class that turned this humble food into an art form. These portable D-shaped pastry pouches filled with meat and vegetables were cheap to make and easy to pack for lunch. (The crimped edge served as a portable handle that could be discarded after eating — no dirty hands need touch the meal.)
To enjoy the true Cornish pasty, you’ll have to travel to Cornwall. In 2011, the European Union granted the dish ‘protected status’ — only pasties made in Cornwall can bear the title, and they must contain certain ingredients. You won’t have to look hard to find them: this popular street food can be found throughout Cornwall for a modest sum.
However, the pasties aren’t without controversy. In nearby Devon, residents claim the pasty originated there. (Devon pasties having similar fillings but are crimped on top rather than the side.) You may just have to try them too for the sake of comparison.
If you want to sample them at home, try versions of these recipes from The Cornish Pasty Man and the BBC or look to Lonely Planet’s World’s Best Street Food. To stay true to tradition, remember that your pasty must contain swede (turnip), potatoes, onion and at least 12.5 per cent beef. The pastry should be glazed, crimped on the side and able to stand up to cooking and cooling without flaking.
For a sweet social occasion: the Victoria Sponge
If you’re looking for a regal treat, you can’t go wrong with this simple sponge rumoured to be Queen Victoria’s favourite treat to enjoy with tea. No complicated ingredients or techniques: just butter, flour, sugar and eggs.
However, there’s some debate as to what goes between the two layers of this light and airy cake. Some sources say it’s traditionally enjoyed with a filling of raspberry jam and whipped cream or vanilla, while the Women’s Institute states the traditional Victoria Sponge or “Sandwich” only contains the jam. (More recent versions bend the rules even more with lemon curd or vanilla cream and fresh fruit.) Regardless, this cake isn’t iced all round like the layer cakes we’re used to. Instead, the top is dusted with caster sugar.
When trying it at home, beware that the recipes aren’t always as simple as they seem. Experts warn that the sponge can be sensitive to baking times and temperatures. Once you’ve found the ideal balance, the sponge is a good standard cake to dress up or down for a variety of occasions. Both the BBC and the Telegraph have good overviews to get you started.
A tea time treat: Scones
What would afternoon tea time be without the famed quick bread known as the scone? Flakier than biscuits but not so sweet as cake, scones come in a variety of sweet and savoury varieties. Traditionally, they were cooked in a skillet and the scored dough was cut into wedges after baking, but modern bakers also pre-cut the dough or use cookie cutters. No one knows where the term scone comes from, but these golden on the outside, soft on the inside morsels are believed to be Scottish in origin and once made with oats and cooked in griddle or over an open fire.
Today, you can find scones in just about any British bake shop, or make them at home using your favourite ingredients. Raisins or currents are common ingredients, but you might enjoy a savoury herb scone with a meal. For a few recipe ideas, try a traditional Cream Scone served with clotted cream (you can find a mock Devonshire cream recipe on the Joy of Baking website).
A hearty high tea: Steak and Kidney Pie
The name may sound upper class, but high tea was actually the after work meal of the working classes. “High tea” gets its name from the height of the main dining table at which it is served. (In contrast, afternoon tea or “low tea” was typically enjoyed by the leisure classes at smaller, lower tables.) High tea traditionally includes heartier fare such as bread, cheese and meat dishes.
While the choice cuts of meat were often reserved for the upper classes, smart cooks knew the slow cooking process of traditional meat pies turned cheaper cuts and organs into savoury fair. The steak and kidney pie may have humble origins, but there’s an art to the perfect pastry and making sure the kidneys are cooked just right.
While you won’t want to nosh on a rich meat pie every day, the dish pairs well with vegetables for a special treat. While you won’t want to nosh on a rich meat pie every day, the dish pairs well with vegetables for a special treat. Some good places to start include the Great British Kitchen and BBC GoodFood. You can even find healthier makeovers, like this make-over version from the BBC.
The perfect end to a meal: English Trifle
Cake, fruit, custard, cream… What’s not to love? Despite its name, this layered dessert is anything but insignificant. Trifles have been appearing on tables and in recipe collections since the 17th century, say some sources. Austen fans take note: during the writer’s lifetime, this “pudding” was a popular treat for guests and assemblies, according to the Jane Austen Cookbook.
Today, there are two many versions of this popular dessert to count, but the earliest trifles simply included a cake or biscuit moistened with alcohol (often sherry or brandy) layered with custard and topped with syllabub (a concoction similar to sweetened whipped cream). The dessert was then decorated with fresh or candied fruits, as the finishing touch on the different colours and textures of its layers.
Over the years, jam found its way into the dessert and many a dispute ensued about what kind of cake or biscuit should be used, what should be used to moisten it, what kind of creamy filling should be used and what toppings should go on it — including crushed cookies and nuts. Served in its traditional deep dish or in individual glasses, trifle can be as easy or as complex as you like.
Need a little inspiration to get started? Try this Traditional English Trifle or Nigella Lawson’s Boozy British Trifle. If you want to go dairy-free, try a recipe that uses a dairy alternative like almond milk in this Almond Fresh Berry Trifle.
Of course, this list is but a small selection of the many delicious British eats to choose from. To find more tasty ideas, try:
BBC GoodFood: British Recipes
The Great British Kitchen
About.com: British and Irish Food
The Very Best of British (a glossary of foods and terms)
Additional sources: The Diamond Jubilee official website
Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ John Peacock