Britain has not the best reputation as far as the quality of its cuisine is concerned. The culinary verdicts of the past decades has been that British food is bland, greasy and unimaginative. Extensive ramblings about the topic can be found throughout the internet. I do not want to add to them. Instead, I thought I'd talk about some of the foodstuffs that I particularly liked, and the ones I particularly hated. So here it goes:
Before England, I was a beer man. Probably what growing up in Germany does to you. Now, I am a man of cider. I honestly don't know why the stuff isn't popular in central Europe, as it's easier and tastier than beer, and gets you plastered much quicker. The variety of ciders in England is stunning. Some supermarkets have whole aisles reserved for it, and it comes in all sorts of types: dry or sweet, flat or bubbly, cloudy or clear.
I recommend the one to the left, Weston's Vitage, which stands out as a pretty good supermarket cider and its staggering 8.2% of alcohol make sure you have a lovely evening. Steer clear of Strongbow, that stuff is just awful.
Among the otherworldly goodness that is cheese, among all the hundreds of varieties, you find kings and queens. Cheddar cheese is such a king. The only English cheese that made it to international renown, Cheddar, like cider, is ubiquitous in England's supermarkets. And just like cider, it comes in hundreds of varieties, from bland pizza-quality shreds to crumbly explosions of tanginess. As the national cheese of England it is laden with tradition, and its marketed with associations of abbeys, castles and good old English farmland (like cider).
Cheddar shines when it's mature, and I personally would advise you to skip the younger generations and go straight for the good stuff. Collier's is pretty good, but local farmer's market stuff is even better. You wouldn't have guessed it, but cheddar goes well with cider.
Originally from Cornwall, the pasty is an oversized stuffed dough parcel. Allegedly it was used by miners, who would hold it by the crust and throw it away after eating (because of their dirty hands). The pasty has established itself as a traditionally English version of street food, and several chains can be found all across the island. The dough is a rich and sturdy shortcrust pastry, making pasties an excellent filler and easy to eat while walking. The traditional filling is steak, potato and onions, but contents have diversified into all the common tastes of modern society, including vegetarian and halal options. To be considered an authentic pasty, its contents must not be cooked before being enveloped.
I haven't had the chance to try these home made, but the chain ones are good enough once in a while, and tastes between them are pretty much the same. Go and try one if you fancy a quick meal on the go.
When looking at the sheer amount of conserve varieties in England, one might think that pickling is a national past time. If you want proof of the English talent to incorporate foreign cultures into their own, and indeed the history of the Empire, look no further. It's right here, in the pickle aisle. From venerable pickled onions and gherkins, over the spicy mango chutneys of India to Carribean sauces and back to classic Piccalilly and Branston, Britain's colonial past can be experienced jar by jar in the safety of your own home.
I've tried many different varieties, and found the all to be quite delectable. It may suprise you, but many pickles go well with Cheddar (and thusly with cider). If you want all the good stuff in one go, order a Ploughman's lunch, which contains cider, cheddar and pickles at the same time. Hooray!
Most animals, including humans, are equipped with a certain sense of what should be eaten and what shouldn't. We find all things repulsive that remind us of potential dangers to our health, such as the smell of rotten meat or faeces. Yet some people, whether by conditioning or sensory numbness, lack these vital perception capabilities. For those people, there is Marmite.
A yeast extract spread (i.e. fermented, gone off microscopic lifeforms), it smells of concentrated human exhaust fumes, and its taste is reminiscent of sweaty feet after a week of mountain hiking. It is marketed with the self-ironic slogan of “Love it or hate it”, but the fact that you have to wilfully exclude a majority of the population in a marketing campaign usually shows you're not selling a desirable product. The fact that it was created as a by-product of brewery waste, and needed a time of deprivation and scarce food supply (meaning World War II) to take off as a product doesn't really help its reputation either.
I strongly recommend to try it though, if you manage to get past the smell, as it is the culinary equivalent of visiting the London Dungeon and might give you something to talk about when you're back home.
English Bread and Cake
You might argue that it is somewhat unfair to expect the English to make good bread, when it is quite clear that they have no idea what bread actually is. I will then make an effort to explain: bread is a grain product, baked carefully to have a firm outside and a soft yet chewy inside. Depending on its type (yes, there are several), the outside can be crunchy, or even glazed with lye. By no means is it a fluffy, formless block without consistency or discernible taste. Bread also does not shrivel in your mouth to become a baking yeast chewing gum that dissolves under your tongue. Unlike spiders, humans can chew and have no need to dissolve their food externally.
Now you tell me that real bread can be had in England, in many varieties. I must unfortunately tell you though, that even at the farmers market or at the delicatessen stores, the bread suffers from the same problem, whether they call it “french bread”, “pita” or “naan”: it's too soft, lacks taste and is of poor quality. If you want any of these foreign breads, go to a local foreign restaurant (and cross your fingers).
And then cake. Coming from the Blackforest Gateaux county, I might be a tad spoiled, but British cake suffers from the same problem as the bread. Since we have already established the dough problem above, let's instead talk about icing. It is called icing (or frosting) because it is a layer of something on top of something else much larger. If there is more icing than anything else in your cake, you got the ratio wrong. Following the motto: "the more the better", you will sometimes have trouble finding anything left to eat after you dug yourself through an arm's length of molten sugar. There is no icing in between layers of dough either, that is called filling and is something else entirely. There is actually more taste to cake than sugar with a hint of something else. If you get the dough right, that is....
If you feel you have had enough of Disney-coloured icing in cups or cardboard bread, and you don't feel like oriental bread, head to Aldgate, where you will find a nice German bakery.
Oh the joy! Having likened Marmite to a culinary London Dungeon, this must be the Marquis de Sade's personal bedchamber snack. Pickled eel in itself is already not necessarily an inspiring taste experience, but in jelly, with chili vinegar, it has redefined my idea of what bad food can be. The flavour is somewhere between cold washing up water and lemon juice gone off. And the texture, oh the texture! Let it wobble in you mouth. Feel how bits of preserved eel dissolve from the bone unto your jelly-covered lips. Enjoy the unique feeling of having your oral cavity lined with chilli-spiced slime. Not even the accompanying potato mash can erase the severe taste bud trauma you have subjected yourself to.
I suggest a glass of Thames water to go with this dish. After all, if it's good enough for the eels, it's good enough for you.
The best jellied eel is to be found in Cockney, I am told. At least the slang there might be a welcome diversion from the harrowing seafood ordeal you just went through.
All this aside, the British seem to have become extremely sensitive about food (maybe due to the stereotype), and good food can be had in many (gastro)pubs and “modern british” restaurants. Columns about improving food and cooking qualities are all over the papers and websites. Local food companies (e.g. for chocolate) spring up everywhere. To me it felt, that Britain, just like Germany is an “awakening” food country, tired to be measured by the same clichés that soiled its national cooking reputation, and more than ready to show the world is has got imaginative cuisine and high quality food products of its own. I wish them all the best.*
*Scots are exempt from this. I mean, deep fried pizza? Seriously?