Sunday, 30 August 2009

Real British food: up with the best

The problem with comparing national cuisines is that too often people just miss the point. The great foods of the world aren’t the banquets; they’re not the restaurant dishes. Rather, they’re the peasant dishes, the street food, the things Mama made when you were small.
On that count, British food is up with the the best of anywhere. But you have to be selective with what you choose.
Ask your average Joe “what is the quintessential British dish?” and you’ll get “Roast Beef and Yorkshire pudding” trotted out time and time again. The problems with RB&YP are manifold. For a start, it’s not universally eaten. These days it’s more often served in pubs than at home (more on pub grub later); Yorkshire pudding isn’t always served (and when it is, its usually out of a packet); and it’s not particularly unique (Britain isn’t the only place roast meat is eaten). Far more importantly, perhaps, it’s just not a great dish. Yorkshire pudding itself is both unique and delicious, and therefore a British classic, but the most British aspect of a Sunday roast is, perhaps, the traditional appallingness of the vegetables. Putting RB&YP to one side and considering the “Sunday roast” more generally (a tired, middle-class tradition if ever there was one), apart from some accompaniments, there’s nothing British about it.
It’s the “veg” part of the “meat-and-two…” that strikes fear into the hearts of the Frenchies, and practically anyone else who drums up clichés of awful British cooking. Boiled carrot. Boiled sprouts. Boiled cabbage. Boiled peas. Boiled broccoli. You get the trend? All served with no seasoning whatsoever, cooked to within an inch of their lives and sitting, limply and sadly, swamped in gravy. Only the mighty roast potato can hold its own.
As a side note, the exception to the “boring roast” rule is Christmas dinner which is a world-class affair, but even then it thrives from occasion rather than cuisine. The sprouts-and-chestnuts combo perks things up, but it’s all a prelude to Christmas pudding (of which more later).
I swore to myself that when I wrote this I wouldn’t get bogged down with the Sunday roast, so instead I wanted to think about what THE great national dish would be. There are some criteria which I think are vital for something to be a truly national dish:
1. It must be unique to that country, or at least have an association so strong that when the name is mentioned, the country instantly leaps to mind.
2. It must be accessible. The ingredients have to be easily obtainable, not over-expensive, and perhaps most importantly, it must be easy for unskilled cooks to concoct.
3. It must be universal – geographically (not a speciality so regional that only a couple of counties consume it) and it must be something that’s eaten regularly by young and old, working class and middle class.
4. Ideally, it should be a dish to be proud of and worth celebrating.
There’s only one obvious answer that fits all these criteria, for me. It’s the BREAKFAST. Our true national dish is surely the fry, the “full English”, the all-day breakfast. It’s universal across Britain and Ireland, eaten regularly by all (the Breakfast transcends class divisions), easy to do at home, indeed it’s a highlight of many people’s weekend. Whether it’s (apologies in advance for resorting to clichés) working men in a caff having an all-day fry on their break from the site, or 2.4 children family having their breakfast with the Sunday papers, it remains an institution.
One of the great things about the Breakfast is that it can be as simple or elaborate as you like. The basics: bacon, fried eggs, toast (preferably white, and usually out of a packet…bread isn’t a British speciality) and a drink, normally tea; coffee just doesn’t go with grease.
Then there are the sundries, which it would insult the reader’s intelligence to go into in detail, but for the record must be listed. Sausages – unlikely to be of great quality, but the next-most-essential participant after bacon and eggs; fried mushrooms; grilled tomato; baked beans; black pudding (a truly magnificent dish on its own but sadly less common these days); hash browns; chips; orange juice.
I’m not well travelled at all, but when I go abroad what I like best is to ignore the flashy places, the tourist traps and the gourmet stuff, and head for the local joints and the market stalls. In Marrakech, my second favourite meal was at a market stall on the main square, the Jamaa el Fna.  This square (it’ll be the one on the postcard from your sister) is heaving with stalls selling excellent ranges of meatballs, sausages and so on – but not a single Moroccan to be seen eating there. My girlfriend and I picked out a stall populated exclusively by Moroccan men – there were only two dishes on offer: a bowl of bean gruel, or cow’s head. I regret to report that neither of us had the stomach for the head and opted instead for the gruel – an uplifting, warming dish, served with the ubiquitous mint tea – which had a ratio of one large box of sugar cubes to every pot.
In a similar way, it’s the caffs of Britain where our culture really lies, and the Breakfast is the dish of choice there. My weak efforts are shameful in comparison to Russell Davies’s wonderful eggsbaconchipsandbeans blog which says all that has to be said. Whether chips have a place in a Breakfast is a mater of debate, but it’s a minor quibble with such a fantastic piece of work. It’s a labour of love and the enthusiasm he projects is something to die for.
The sandwich
Again, it ticks all the boxes: universal, accessible and definitely British. It’s so universal, in fact, that it’s easy to wolf one down without noticing that you’re eating it; I mean, when was the last time a sandwich was the highlight of your day? (I know the answer to that one actually – it was the last time I had a roast lamb sandwich, with Yorkshire pudding, roast spuds and mint sauce as well as various other trimmings, at Fuzzy's Grub).
The twin pillars upon which the reputation of the sandwich stands are the ham sandwich and the cheese. Not being a huge Cheddar fan, cheese sandwiches have never appealed to me personally – but I’ll never underestimate their importance. Throw in a bit of pickle, and you have the Ploughman’s. The ham sandwich has become terribly debased but a good thick slice of ham with a touch of mustard – sandwich heaven.
Spare a thought for a couple of sandwich oddities: the cucumber – part of that bastion of the bourgeoisie,  Afternoon Tea, of which more later – and the jam sandwich, sadly a dying breed.
Then, of course, let’s not forget the bacon sandwich. As Nigel Slater points out, you need white bread from a packet for this one. Margarine, bacon, a small squirt of ketchup or brown sauce and there you go. It’s a distant cousin of the Breakfast. The all-day-breakfast-sandwich is a bit contrived for me and gets marked with a big Fail.
Britain is a country that loves carbs in general in serious quantities. In Ireland it’s the same with an even heavier slant towards the potato, but this side of the water, we get through a load of bread, rice, pasta, and potatoes in various forms. The execrable boiled, the glorious roasted, mash (especially with sausages), and of course chips. Fish and chips isn’t a dish eaten at home but is an institution. Crunchy fluffy chips, light batter on the fish, please. Oh, and can I have mine from Edinburgh, with sauce. If you don’t know what I mean, then get up to Edinburgh. But I’m at the risk of drifting into regional specialities here. Whilst on the subject of carbs, another fatty way to get our calorific intake is through…
The pie
The pub classic. Now pub grub is a relatively recent phenomenon; pubs used to be for drinking (and smoking) in, and if you could get hold of a pickled egg or packet of pork scratchings you were doing just fine. For better or for worse (better, I reckon) you can get a meal in most pubs, although most places reckon they can get away with charging restaurant prices for distinctly under-par food. Central to pub food is the pie & pint. Meat pies are as English as you can get – everything from the Cornish pasty through to the pork pie. All are gluttonously decadent. None are healthy. All are enjoyable. A special mention to something which I’ve never tried but is next on my list – the classic East End “pie & mash” with liquor on the side. Manze is acknowledged as the best place in London to get your pie & mash – need to take a trip there soon.
Many countries don’t “do” desserts. The Italians manage pannacotta and panettone. The Germans have various tasty pancake things. Even the French struggle, with tarte tatin, crème brulee and a handful of others. But I don’t think any cuisine celebrates sweet things as much as British.   Puddings! Cakes! Pies! Sweetmeats! Visions of tea parties and picnics, of jelly-and-ice-cream birthdays, of chocolate decadence. British desserts are simple and delectable. The plain cake is the cornerstone of our desserts: good old-fashioned Victoria sponge, from which so many good things stem. Then there’s apple pie. Scones with jam and clotted cream. Talking of cream, there’s strawberries and aforementioned. Bakewell tart. Lemon meringue pie. The list goes on, and on, and on. Other countries may think that cheese is a sophisticated end to a meal, but that’s only because their desserts are rubbish. Long live the British dessert.

What of other classics? Many are bastardised versions of foreign dishes. Our huge immigrant population makes this country one of the most exciting places to live in the world, but sadly our acceptance for low standards means that those immigrants don’t always produce great food themselves. Tikka masala may be hailed as “the true national dish” but ultimately tikka, Chinese takeaways and rubbery pizzas are just poor imitations of great dishes from elsewhere.  Debased versions of foreign cuisine are not British cooking at its finest. Rather, the old traditional dishes, the universal home-comfort favourites, are timeless and on a par with any bouillabaisse or paella.