Simply food



Oxton sausages, herby mashed potatoes, onion marmalade, seasonal greens and gravy at Ye Olde Bridge Inn, Oxton, Nottinghamshire

Searching the UK for acceptable pub food, what I would call true comfort food, is proving a tough challenge.

Once one could rely on a pub cook to make a decent steak and kidney or steak and ale pie. No more. Their pies now seem to come from some horrid central commissary where robots are programmed to insert the minimum of meat into the maximum of pastry shell. It’s all about the economics. Failing that, a pub cook will stick a hat of pre-cut frozen puff pastry onto a sloppy stew and call it a pie. Not in my lexicon, it ain’t.

In a pub in Oxford, which shall remain nameless as it is mere steps from my middle daughter’s new home, I have a simply inexorable example of chain pub pie, hidden under lashings of gravy and mushy peas. Not for nothing does Trip Advisor call this the “worst pub” in Oxford. However, we are here to see the annual Oxford vs Cambridge boat race on the big sports screen, which is exciting even though Oxford looses again. That’s fun and the food is really irrelevant. But how nice if both the experience and the grub had matched expectations.

There’s another ubiquitous food in Britain: fish and chips. I always used to look forward to an enjoyable serving of this once top-of-the-list take-away and as usual I end up disappointed. Again, it must be the economics. What you usually get is a great bulk of batter with a tiny bit of unidentifiable white fish inside. As a result, I peel off most of the batter and pick at the inner offering indifferently. Thank goodness the chips and mushy peas are usually reliable.

In the so-called “best” fish and chip restaurant in York, we are shown to a tiny table behind a pillar in a back room with indifferent service. If the grub had been fair, I would have put the experience down to bad luck, but no, the battered cod should have sued for assault. No wonder tikka masala has overtaken fish and chips as the number one take away in Britain.

The next day in Whitby, having learned my lesson, I have the best and freshest oysters I’ve ever tasted from a simple harbourside stall.

So, having dismissed chain pub pies and fish and chips from my list, what else is there?

Comfort food must give comfort not heart burn, so the only safe choice left is usually bangers and mash. I’ve written about this before (in Bangers and Toads, about toad in the hole) but it’s worth repeating. It’s hard to beat a couple of bangers on a mound of fluffy mashed potatoes covered in a rich onion gravy. Of course, they can mess it up with bangers left too long in a warming oven, lumpy mashed and packet gravy, but fortunately that’s mostly a thing of my boarding school past.

Speaking of toad in the hole, a few weeks ago it was British Food Fortnight, here in the UK. A local farmer, famous for growing Marfona potatoes, has opened a very successful diner in one of their barns, with the lovely slogan: ‘From field to fork.’  On offer at the Arrow Farm Café during the two weeks were bangers and mash and toad in the hole, the first time I’d seen the latter on a menu in years.

Lest you think I am limited in my comfort foods, let me hasten to add my other favourites, all in my last cookbook, Market to Table: apple crumble; boeuf bourgingon; cauliflower cheese; chili; cottage pie; eggs benny; Cumberland fish pie; English trifle; French onion soup; mac and cheese; rice pudding; scrambled eggs; spaghetti Bolognese; roast turkey; and more.

What makes all these dishes memorable, is that without exception I can recall, with pleasure, the places I first had these dishes and why they bring comfort.

Does the smell of a certain dish cooking bring back happy memories?

Does the scent of an herb or spice immediately bring to mind a meadow or marketplace? Somewhere fanciful, or exotic, or strange?

Does the delicious flavour, just a bite or a mouthful, of a particular dish remind of the fun you were having that night you first tasted it?

Work started this week on a new cookbook, my third, and as yet untitled. It will focus on all my favourite comfort foods. If you, dear reader, have a comfort food dish you think should be included, please use the “Comment” button to let me know.


Town House, Bawtry, Yorkshire, Cumberland sausage


The Rose Cottage, Rufford, Nottinghamshire


The Highway Inn, Burford, Oxfordshire

All the sausages were consistently excellent and well cooked. Mashed potatoes were equally tasty, although sometimes the modest serving of potatoes were hiding and sometimes there were more than a reasonable person could eat. Common to all offerings was a good rich onion gravy, although occasionally the amount left a little to be desired. Presentation, as the photography shows, seems to run to the current trend of stacking food high, with more or less veggies offered, and sometimes water cress or pea shoots as a decoration.

In Canada, the Loblaws grocery chain offers pork bangers which are almost as good.  They admit to ‘toasted wheat crumbs’ and ‘natural seasonings’ in the mix. In the US, most jurisdictions won’t allow more than two per cent ‘grain,’ which doesn’t get close to the recipe for a genuine banger.

Bangers and mash is an easy dish to prepare, simple food, simply made and simply delicious.

The recipes are included below for those who might have missed them the first time around.


Shopping list

  • 1 lb / about 500 g (about 5-6 links) English breakfast sausages or bangers

Preparation and cooking

  1. The best method for cooking bangers is broiling or grilling. Pan frying tends to heat the banger too quickly and they will burst apart, hence the name. Separate the sausages into individual links, if not already done by the butcher.
  2. Place them neatly laid out and not touching on aluminum foil on a baking sheet or pan and prick well with a fork to allow the fat to run out. Turn up the edges of the foil to catch all the fat, which will make clean up easier.
  3. Preheat the broiler (or grill) and place the sausages about 4 inches from the heat. Cook for about 7 mins, or until well browned, turn over and broil for a further 7 mins on the other side. NOTE: If you are making toad-in-the-hole, there is no need to cook the bangers so thoroughly as they will be in the oven for a further 20 minutes. As soon as they are browned on both sides, you can remove them.
  4. Serve with mashed potatoes and oodles of onion gravy, and a veggie of your choice, such as green peas, cabbage, kale, leeks, or carrots.
  5. Garnish with micro greens, pea sprouts, water cress or crispy fried onion pieces.


Shopping list

  • 6 ½ lb / 1kg floury potatoes, peeled and cut into even chunks
  • 2 TBSP butter
  • 100ml full-cream milk
  • Sea salt and fresh ground black pepper

Preparation and cooking

  1. Cook the potatoes in a saucepan of lightly salted boiling water for 15-20 minutes, until tender.
  2. Drain well, return to the pan and mash with the butter and milk until smooth. Season to taste and set aside.


  • 4 medium yellow onions, peeled and chopped finely
  • 1 TBSP EVOO (extra virgin olive oil)
  • 1/3 cup of balsamic vinegar (or red wine)
  • 2 cups beef stock or bouillon
  • 2 TBSP butter
  • 2 TBSP white flour
  • Sea salt and fresh ground black pepper

Preparation and cooking

  1. Slowly pan fry the peeled and chopped onions in olive oil until they are tender and transparent, about 10 mins. Then add balsamic vinegar and boil it down until the onions are well caramelized.
  2. Meanwhile, heat the beef stock in a microwave proof jug.
  3. In a thick bottomed pan, melt the butter until frothing. Add the flour slowly and stir well until it has the consistency of sand. Add the hot stock and stir until it is smooth and well blended. Season lightly with salt and pepper, taste and correct. As I wrote in Market to Table: The Cookbook, this is the basic brown sauce of French cooking, which us self-taught cooks call gravy.) When it thickens add the onion mixture, blend together and serve hot.

Featured image: grilled bangers, home -made mashed potatoes and onion gravy (all photos by Nigel Napier-Andrews)

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This is Nigel’s 261st blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well if you want to look back and see some of our previous stories.

4 replies »

  1. Whilst you were flailing around England in futile pursuit of decent pub grub, I was happily munching on delicious moules-frites by the sea in Menton! Vive la différence :)!


    • Thank you for torturing me with those images! Now what French food would you consider comfort food? Creme brulee, perhaps, Coq au vin?


    • Thanks Dawn. I shall certainly include this in the next book. I love croque monsieur and can’t imagine how I have never written about it! N.


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