English cuisine encompasses the cooking styles, traditions and recipes associated with England. It has distinctive attributes of its own, but also shares much with wider British cuisine, largely due to the importation of ingredients and ideas from places such as North America, China, and India during the time of the British Empire and as a result of post-war immigration.
In the Early Modern Period the food of England was historically characterized by its simplicity of approach and a reliance on the high quality of natural produce. It is possible the effects of this can still be seen in traditional cuisine.
Traditional meals have ancient origins, such as bread and cheese, roasted and stewed meats, meat and game pies, boiled vegetables and broths, and freshwater and saltwater fish. The 14th-century English cookbook, the Forme of Cury, contains recipes for these, and dates from the royal court of Richard II. In the second half of the 18th century Rev. Gilbert White, in The Natural History of Selborne made note of the increased consumption of vegetables by ordinary country people in the south of England, to which, he noted, potatoes had only been added during the reign of George III: “Green-stalls in cities now support multitudes in comfortable state, while gardeners get fortunes. Every decent laborer also has his garden, which is half his support; and common farmers provide plenty of beans, peas, and greens, for their hinds to eat with their bacon.”
Other meals, such as fish and chips, which were once urban street food eaten from newspaper with salt and malt vinegar, and pies and sausages with mashed potatoes, onions, and gravy, are now matched in popularity by curries from the Indian subcontinent, and stir-fries based on Chinese and Thai cuisine. French cuisine and Italian cuisine are also now widely adapted. Britain was also quick to adopt the innovation of fast food from the United States, and continues to absorb culinary ideas from all over the world while at the same time rediscovering its roots in sustainable rural agriculture.
Daily Food Products:
There is a wide variety of traditional breads in Great Britain, often baked in a rectangular tin. Round loaves are also produced, such as the North East England speciality called a stottie cake. A cottage loaf is made of two balls of dough, one on top of the other, to form a figure-of-eight shape. A cob is a small round loaf. There are many variations on bread rolls, such as baps, barm cakes, breadcakes and so on. The Chorleywood bread process for mass-producing bread was developed in England in the 1960s before spreading worldwide. Mass-produced sliced white bread brands such as Wonderloaf and Mother’s Pride have been criticised on grounds of poor nutritional value and taste of the loaves produced. Brown bread is seen as healthier by many, with popular brands including Allinson and Hovis. Artisanal baking has also seen a resurgence since the 1970s. Rye bread is mostly eaten in the form of Scandinavian-style crisp bread, such as that produced by Ryvita in Birmingham. Malt loaf is a dark, heavy and sweet bread. The popularity of Indian cuisine in Britain means that Indian breads such as naan are made and eaten there. Continental varieties, such as baguettes (also known as “French sticks”) and focaccia are also made. The consumption of bagels is no longer restricted to the Jewish community.
The English Cheese Board states that there are over 700 varieties of English cheese. English cheese is generally hard, and made from cows’ milk. Cheddar cheese, originally made in the village of Cheddar, is by far the most common type, with many variations. Tangy Cheshire, Sage Derby, Lancashire Cheese, Red Leicester, creamy Double Gloucester and sweet Wensleydale are some traditional regional varieties. Cheddar and the rich, blue-veined Stilton have both been called the king of English cheeses. Cornish Yarg is a successful modern variety. The name ‘Cheddar cheese’ has become widely used internationally, and does not currently have a protected designation of origin (PDO) under European Union law. However, West Country farmhouse Cheddar has been awarded a PDO. To meet this standard the cheese must be made in the traditional manner using local ingredients in one of the four designated counties of South West England: Somerset, Devon, Dorset, or Cornwall. Sheep and goat cheeses are made chiefly by craft producers. Cottage cheese is a generic soft cheese style, originally homemade, but now bought ready-made. An Indian relative of cottage cheese, paneer is readily available, as is philadelphia cream cheese. Soft processed cheeses, such as dairylea triangles are made as a sandwich filling. Continental styles such as Brie and Camembert are sometimes also manufactured. Popular cheese-based dishes include macaroni and cheese and cauliflower cheese.
Fish and Seafood
Although a wide variety of fish are caught in British waters, only a few species are widely eaten. Cod, haddock, plaice, huss, and skate are the fish-and-chip shop favourites. (The unadventurous approach and the tendency to eat fish battered were mocked by Keith Floyd with the phrase “unidentified frying objects”). A few other species, such as coley and pollock are found in the anonymous form of breadcrumbed fishcakes and fish fingers. Currently, however, other less-known fish such as ling, gurnard and turbot are becoming more widely available in an effort to preserve dwindling stocks of heavily fished species such as cod and haddock. These sustainable fish are more readily available in independent fishmongers than in supermarkets. Pilchards (large sardines), feature in the Cornish speciality, stargazy Pie. Otherwise, a typical fish pie consists of white fish and prawns in white sauce topped with mashed potato. Whitebait, the young of a number of species, are traditionally eaten fried as a starter. Sardines, pilchards and mackerel are often seen in tinned form, as are imported species such as tuna and anchovies. Sea bass, lobster, scallops and monkfish are among the expensive and highly esteemed species that may be found in fine dining menus and fishmongers. Cheap fish species and fish offcuts are made into a hearty fish soup, recipes of which vary widely. Salmon, haddock, mackerel or herring may be smoked, the last in the form of kippers, buckling or bloaters. Herring may also be served pickled as rollmops. Salmon and trout are the most popular freshwater fish. Eels were once baked into pies and served with a herb sauce or “liquor” at pie and mash shops in urban working-class areas, but the dish and the shops are now both near extinction. Popular non-English fish dishes include Scottish cullen skink soup, Spanish paella, French fish soup, Thai fishcakes, moules frites and various Asian prawn dishes.
A kipper is a whole herring that has been split from tail to head, gutted, salted or pickled, and cold smoked. They are often eaten for breakfast.Smoked haddock is also eaten for breakfast in kedgeree, although this dish is now eaten at other meals as well. Other widely eaten smoked fish include salmon, mackerel, trout, haddock and eel.
Many seaside towns have shellfish stalls located at the beach, harbour, or seafront. Traditionally these sell snack-sized pots of cockles, mussels, jellied eels, shell-on or peeled prawns, crab meat, whelks, winkles (small and large sea snails) and oysters. The shellfish are served cold and the customer adds condiments — salt, pepper, lemon juice, malt vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, cocktail sauce or tabasco — to taste. Many stalls make their own chilli vinegar by infusing chillis in malt vinegar. In recent years, surimi and Mediterranean squid and octopus preparations have been added to the menu. Mobile shellfish stalls sometimes set up near inland pubs, particularly in London’s East End.
Oysters, once a mainstay of the poor, were baked in a savoury pudding with beef. As they became more expensive, they were replaced with kidneys to form the traditional dish steak and kidney pudding. Oyster bars are now an upmarket variation on the seafood stall. Whitstable in Kent is noted as a source of good quality oysters. Oysters are now almost always eaten raw, fresh from the shell. Crab is traditionally eaten cold in salads or sandwiches, or cooked with cream, onion and herbs and served hot in its shell. Cromer in Norfolk is a famous exporter of crab. Morecambe in Lancashire is renowned for its potted shrimps.
Pies, Pastries and Savory Puddings
The English tradition of meat pies dates back to the Middle Ages, when an open top pie crust was used as the container for serving the meat and was called a coffyn. Since then, they have been a mainstay of English cooking. Different types of pastry are used, including shortcrust and puff. Lard-rich hot water pastry is used for cold, raised pies, such as the pork pie, with the Melton Mowbray pork pie being the archetype. Cutting pie is a very large raised pie eaten cold in slices, which generally contains two or more meats such as chicken, ham and game. Traditional fillings for hot pies include chicken and mushroom, steak and ale, minced beef and onion, lamb, mixed game or meat and potato. In recent years, more exotic fillings, such as balti curry have appeared. Pasties are pies made by wrapping a single piece of pastry round the filling. The Cornish pasty is oval or crescent shaped with a stiff, crimped rim, traditionally filled with beef, and swede, although many variations are possible. Other pasties may be rectangular and filled with beef, cheese, or vegetables. Another type of pie is topped with mashed potato instead of pastry – cottage pie (made with minced beef), shepherd’s pie (made with minced lamb) and fish pie using a choice of several fish in white sauce. Open pies or flans are generally served for dessert with fillings of seasonal fruit. Quiches and savoury flans are eaten, but not considered indigenous. Savoury puddings are made with a soft suet casing, the most famous being steak and kidney pudding (originally steak and oyster). For these, a pudding bowl is lined with suet crust pastry, a filling is added and a lid of pastry tightly seals it in. The pudding is then steamed for three to four hours. In addition to steak and kidney, numerous fillings can be used, including rabbit, chicken or game.
English sausages are colloquially known as “bangers”. They are distinctive in that they are usually made from fresh meats and rarely smoked, dried, or strongly flavoured. Following the post World War II period, sausages tended to contain low-quality meat, fat, and rusk. However, there has been a backlash in recent years, with most butchers and supermarkets now selling premium varieties. Pork and beef are by far the most common bases, although gourmet varieties may contain venison, wild boar, etc. There are particularly famous regional varieties, such as the herbal Lincolnshire, and the long, curled Cumberland with many butchers offering their own individual recipes and variations often handed down through generations, but are generally not made from cured meats such as Italian selections or available in such a variety as found in Germany. Most larger supermarkets in England will stock at least a dozen types of English sausage: not only Cumberland and Lincolnshire but often varieties such as pork and apple, pork and herb; beef and stilton; pork and mozzarella, and others. There are estimated to be around 400 sausage varieties in the United Kingdom. Sausages form the basis of toad in the hole, where they are combined with Yorkshire pudding batter and baked in the oven. This can be served with an onion gravy made by softening onions on a low heat then mixing with a stock, wine or ale before reducing to form a sauce or gravy used in bangers and mash. Sausages can also be wrapped in pastry to form a sausage roll, which can be served hot or cold. Slices of cold sausage roll are a popular snack food served at parties.
Salted, smoked, pickles, preserves and condiments
Northern European countries generally have a tradition of salting, smoking, pickling and otherwise preserving foods. Kippers, bloaters, ham, and bacon are some of the varieties of preserved meat and fish known in England. Onions, cabbage and some other vegetables may be pickled. Meats other than pork are generally not cured. Pickles and preserves are given a twist by the influence of the British Empire. Thus, the repertoire includes chutney as well as Branston or “brown” pickle, piccalilli, pickled onions and gherkins. Pickled eggs are traditionally sold in fish and chips shops and pickled walnuts are traditionally served with an English blue cheese such as Stilton or cooked in with beef. The Asian influence is also present in condiments such as tomato sauce (originally ketjap), Worcestershire sauce and “brown” sauce (such as HP). Because Britain is a beer-drinking nation, malt vinegar is commonly used. English mustard is strongly flavoured and bright yellow; served with meats and cooked with cheese; internationally noted for its pungency; and particularly associated with Colman’s of Norwich. Pickles often accompany a selection of sliced, cold cooked meats, or “cold collation”. This dish can claim to have some international influence, since it is known in French as an “assiette anglaise”.
England can claim to have given the world the word “sandwich”, although the eponymous John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich was not the first to add a filling to bread. English sandwiches are made with two slices of bread, or some kind of roll. Fillings such as pickled relishes and Gentleman’s Relish could also be considered distinctively English. Common types of sandwich are roast beef, chicken salad, ham and mustard, cheese and pickle, BLT, egg mayonnaise, prawn mayonnaise, tuna, Marmite, and jam. Robust sandwiches made from thick slices are called “doorstops” and are often served in pubs.