Once upon a time the tastes of the British were not considered diverse at all. British fare was thought bland in comparison with continental food and the English had a reputation for enjoying traditional meats and vegetables without much in the way of garnish or adornment. These days, Britain is a multicultural nation where you can find examples of every food imaginable. The British have embraced cuisines from around the world and have enjoyed a vibrant renaissance for their own. Fish and chips, bacon and eggs, and Sunday roasts are still part of a much-loved menu of course, but now there’s a great deal more to choose from.
Britain’s reputation for unimaginative eating probably stems from wartime rationing in the early part of the last century. Habits formed at that time were hard to break, and people had come to be grateful for what they could get in terms of staple foods to meet their needs. More exotic foods were luxury goods treated with an air of caution for many years. British-ness was represented on tables through the products of high quality local agriculture and farming, lightly seasoned to enhance flavour rather than create it.
In fact, Britain does have a long history when it comes to exciting flavours. It would have been during the Middle Ages and after the Norman Conquest that strange, exotic spices were first introduced. While they may not have entered mainstream food culture then, the British certainly traded in spices, and knowledge of them enabled an understanding of Indian cuisine in colonial times. Even before then, Anglo-Saxons in Britain were stewing meat in herbs to create flavours, and that was long before similar methods became popular in other parts of Europe.
British farming and agriculture produced foods that satisfied the majority of the population for a very long time. Traditional British cheeses and dairy products are still preferred by many. Meat from livestock in England was among the best in the world. Vegetables from the British Isles were rich in flavour and allowed for a nutritionally balanced diet. The fact that British tastes have diversified does not reflect badly on traditional foods. In fact, traditional fare is now a part of a much larger picture when it comes to British food.
As culture changed in the 19th Century, British cuisine moved with the times. Restaurants featuring food from abroad didn’t remain a novelty for long. The writer and chef Elizabeth David did much to introduce new dishes from the continent. Indian and Chinese takeaways came to be ubiquitous on high streets across the land. Chicken Tikka Masala famously became the nation’s favourite dish. Refined dishes came to the British Isles from France and other countries. As foreign travel got easier, residents of the UK developed a taste for sophistication, and food moved into the realms of style.
As food became fashionable, a definable culture grew up around it. Celebrities such as Delia Smith served a strong market for books and TV programs about traditional home cooking, but celebrity chefs like Keith Floyd paved the way for a new generation of sophisticates interested in dishes from abroad and fine wines to accompany them. If British food had been seen as plain and limited, new ingredients and new cooking methods brought it of age.
In the midst of a dietary revolution, a new found appreciation for traditional British food emerged, fuelled by chefs intent on enhancing traditional British recipes and bringing them to a new audience. While many were looking to nouvelle cuisine from France in the 1980s, others were seeking re-interpretations of traditional meals that would go on to become a major feature on menus in restaurants around which social life came to revolve.
Traditional recipes for stews, puddings, roast meats, and pies have been revitalised in recent years, with new, imaginative cooking methods and the innovative use of herbs and seasonings. These days it’s not rare to find top class restaurants offering a fresh twist on such traditional dishes as bubble and squeak, steak and kidney pie, and steamed pudding. More elaborate dishes involve ingredients such as roasted venison loin, pickled shellfish, and wild rabbit. Menu items that were thought lost forever came back with a force in trendy eateries offering British fare. Mutton and suckling pig came back to plates in the UK and there was a definite challenge to the understanding abroad that British food was bland and boring. A growing taste for healthy food failed to hamper the development of a distinctly British cuisine with natural ingredients prepared in a traditional way. In modern times consumers appreciate the value of a balanced diet, and traditional British food is known to have its place.
The strength in modern cuisine from Britain still lies in high quality ingredients. In local fish, beef, lamb, pork, and vegetables, chefs still find they have the best of ingredients with which to provide wholesome dishes that appeal to people’s palates. Though modern British cuisine places a strong emphasis on locally produced ingredients, a new generation of celebrity chefs are finding that blending traditional meals with features from abroad is producing new and exciting dishes for which there is a very healthy market. Gordon Ramsay is one such popular chef, whose new book Gordon Ramsay’s Great British Pub Food continues a theme of using wholesome local ingredients to create dishes that appeal to a modern audience.
While traditional Christmas dinners and the like have remained unchanged, the rest of the British diet has undergone many radical changes. Now, supermarkets in the UK are filled with exotic foods from every corner of the world. From having a reputation for plain, somewhat heavy foods, the British in general have come to embrace flavours from around the world. In homes around the British Isles people are experimenting with exotic dishes and traditional meals, often fusing styles to create meals that are distinctly modern. Today the diverse tastes of the British reach far beyond simplicity and plainness to innovation, style and new sophistication.