Let’s be honest – British food does not get a good rep. Many words may come into your head when you think of the cuisine of the United Kingdom, but not too many of them are equivalently laudatory as one might give to say, its rival across south across the channel whose name rhymes with “Prance”. But like any good stereotype or assumption, it deserves a thorough smashing upon the rocks of widening gastronomical perspective. So, let’s get to smashing, shall we?
The thought of food of the British Isles (English, Scottish, and Irish food) as at best bland and worst boring, is one that may come from a revolutionary pride within the American psyche. As the American food writer Bill Marsano quipped, “The British empire was created as a by-product of generations of desperate Englishmen roaming the world in search of a decent meal.” But end of empire may allow us a new perspective on mushy peas, fish and chips, and meat pies. This food above all provides, beyond a hefty serving of fried calories, comfort. Comfort from the grey skies and drizzling rain perhaps which the islands are so famously known for. But what is wrong with comfort? Who said food has to be pain or for that matter, complicated? Occam’s Razor is not a myth which requires disproving. The simplest solution is often the best, and the simple balance of starchy, salty, and savory flavors, with a tinge of earthiness that harkens to some indefinable authenticity, is not something to snub your nose at.
From the wind-swept plains of the Scottish moors to the white Cliffs of Dover to the south, or the emerald rolling fields spanning from Dublin to Galway, there is something real and uniquely historical about the landscapes of these countries which is translated to its food. Take Shephard’s Pie – the story goes it came about as Irish and northern English housewives struggled to turn leftovers into another meal for their husbands and children at the end of a long day of work. Irish Soda Bread was similarly innovative, as baking soda was supplemented into recipes as a leavening agent due to the lack of well rising yeast locally available. Further down the historical tree, Beef Wellington, another pastry ensconced meat dish, was named in honor of the Duke of Wellington after his defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, a dish made to honor the triumph of the British empire. An empire which, after colonizing over 26% of the world (the largest in history), had at its disposal a dazzling array of spices and ingredients, which it could incorporate into its daily life, as it did with curries from India, a dish now so important the UK celebrates a National Curry Week each October. But it doesn’t stop there; sloshing in a tall glass beside these meals may be a Guinness, the dry stout first produced 262 years ago in a Dublin brewery (which he leased for 9,000 years at an annual rent of £45) as a healthier alternative to whiskey and gin, widely consumed as alcoholic drinks were preferable at the time to water due to lack of municipal sanitation. By 1866 it was the worlds largest brewery, and today still remains one of the most successful alcohol brands worldwide.
Of course, the British Isles are known for their dreary skies, harsh landscapes, and ever persistent rain. But rather than seeing the food of these great nations as mirror to those landscapes, we must look at them as a reaction, a natural antidote to the harshness of life which birthed some of the most successful cultures the world has ever known. All told these are hearty meals, made to enjoy inside and away from the harshness of a cold evening, warmed by a crackling fire and the coziness of hearth and home. That is not something to put down – it is something we must hold on to recognize in our deepest hearts is a comfort we cannot and should not deny ourselves. So, as they say, keep calm, carry on, and raise a pint in salute to the glory of the warm and hearty cuisine of Ireland and the UK.