Simply food

MISUNDERSTOOD BRITISH FOODS

German supermarket chain Aldi, which operates in 20 countries world-wide including the UK, has done some in-depth research to find out what Brits think about food. The short answer is that most don’t!

No toads in toad-in-the-hole!

Almost half of the populace of the UK aged 24 to 35 don’t know what a plate of bangers and mash is. Many think that a Scotch egg, spotted dick and toad-in-the-hole are made up dishes. When they do believe that toad-in-the-hole is real, 16 per cent think it is made with a real toad cooked with potatoes.

According to internet pollster YouGov, Scotch eggs were also found to be among Britain’s least liked foodstuffs, ranking alongside bubble and squeak, pork pies and steak and kidney pies in the low tier of British foods, with only 50–59 per cent in favour. Black pudding, kippers, haggis, faggots and jellied eels ranked worse, of which we will say no more.

Let’s get one thing straight: the Brits are going to need something much stronger than the recent British Food Fortnight (18 September – 3 October 2021) to set them on the culinary path to wholesome delights and some of the best comfort food around. Here’s a brief compendium of my favourite olden days dishes:

Bangers and mash: Twelve per cent of millennials think the name comes from the fireworks “banging” on Bonfire Night. Nooo!

Bangers are English breakfast sausages made with ground pork, herbs and spices and a filler such as breadcrumbs. Sausages are called bangers because if you fry them too hot, without pricking the skins, they will explode. Mash is simply short for mashed potatoes, often with loads of butter or cream added. Here’s the link to my bangers and mash recipe. It’s one of my favourites and a go-to dish in any British pub, because it is almost impossible to get wrong.

Toad-in-the-hole: There are no toads, alive or dead, or potatoes, in this traditional dish.

It gets its name from the pieces of meat sticking up from the batter, which were supposed to look like toads sticking their noses out of the mud in a pond. That’s not a very attractive image, so just ignore it. Originally, the meal used chunks of beef, but now it almost always refers to cooked bangers in a dish of Yorkshire pudding. Here’s the link to my toad-in-the-hole recipe. When served with lashings of piping hot onion gravy, this is outstanding comfort food.

Fortnum & Mason Scotch egg

Scotch egg: Twenty-two per cent of British millennials have never even tried a Scotch egg. They don’t know what they are missing.

The claim of the fabulous London food shop Fortnum & Mason to have invented this snack a century ago is probably specious, but they certainly made it popular. Their version has a still runny egg yolk, unlike other hard boiled offerings. Scotch eggs have nothing to do with Scotland; more probably they were named after a Yorkshire firm called William J. Scott & Sons of Whitby, which also claims to have invented them. I often buy a Scotch egg when I’m travelling around England, as it is easy to eat while driving and you can buy them almost everywhere. It is simply a hard-boiled egg, wrapped in pork sausage meat, rolled in breadcrumbs and deep fried. Best eaten cold. I have not included a recipe in any of my cookbooks, as this is not something I would bother making at home, when it is so easy to buy a superior product at better food shops.

However, a YouGov survey back in 2019 found that Scotch eggs were among the least liked foods in Britain, so I suppose their reputation is slipping. Perhaps, they have recovered some of their popularity during the pandemic? They were deemed a ‘substantial meal’ to allow people to drink in pubs.

Bubble and squeak: This is another food relegated to the least-liked list in the YouGov survey.

Perhaps it’s because a large percentage of millennials don’t know what it is: simply left-over mashed potatoes and greens (usually, but not limited to, cabbage) pan fried in a little butter or bacon fat. As the greens fry, they are supposed to “squeak” in the pan. Perhaps they do, but regardless they are delicious. Here’s the link to my own rather more up-scale version of bubble and squeak made with Brussels sprouts in an attractive patty and topped with bacon.

Spotted dick: Forty-six per cent of millennials think this dish is made up. They need to get out more. Heinz even sells a tinned version if you are desperate and stuck at home.

The spots refer to the currants that permeate the steamed sponge pudding. Dick is not a reference to the male anatomy, as some US writers gigglingly infer; in fact, the origin of the name is lost to time. The first recorded recipe is found in The Modern Housewife or Ménagère, published in 1851. By the time it was published, the pudding had already been around for centuries. The Royal Navy was certainly serving it to sailors during the Napoleonic Wars (and perhaps we should serve it on Trafalgar Day, 21 October, celebrating Lord Nelson’s famous 1805 victory over the combined French and Spanish fleets). Again, this is not something I have made myself, but I have enjoyed it many times, even the stodgy version served at my English boarding school, where it was saved by the addition of lashings of thick creamy yellow custard.

Sticky toffee pudding

Sticky toffee pudding: This sounds like a very old recipe, but in fact is quite modern.

It is essentially a very sweet sponge cake, made dark with puréed dates, dark brown sugar and molasses, and then served with a toffee sauce. I have yet to make this myself, as I have been quite satisfied with most of the offerings I have tried in restos far and wide. Coincidentally, my UK-based daughter was hiking in the Lake District when I was writing this article, and I asked her to check out the Sharrow Bay Country House Hotel on Ullswater. This is where Frances Coulson and Brian Sack claim to have invented the dessert in the 1970s. Staff allegedly were sworn to secrecy about the exact recipe. Sadly, Frances died in 1998 and Brian in 2002 and after a couple of decades of benign neglect, the hotel closed for good during the pandemic. Nowhere could my daughter find sticky toffee pudding until she was visiting the local pub in Yorkshire. She sent me some yummy looking photos.

She missed visiting the little village of Cartmel, which has become custodian to England’s most famous version of the pudding. “We’ve championed it, embraced it and pushed it forward more than anyone else,” says Sarah Holliday, co-owner of the Cartmel Sticky Toffee Pudding Company, who sells more than a thousand home-made puddings a week. “But we did not invent it.”

Eton mess: A third of millennials have never tried this strawberry, cream and meringue dessert, a version of a fruit parfait.

Mess has nothing to do with untidy, although undoubtedly the boys at England’s top private school are just that. Look at Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, an Old Etonian. A mess is simply Old English for a portion of food, from the Old French mes. In the St James version of the Bible, Esau was served “a mess of pottage.” Eton mess was first mentioned in 1893, and there are several apocryphal stories of its creation, mostly fanciful. Here’s the link to my own tasty recipe for Eton mess.

Finally, pease pudding, which is not, of course, a pudding, popular in the North-East of England, but virtually unknown elsewhere in the UK. It is sometimes called pease porridge, which gives you an idea of how thick it can be when served. Pease is the Old English word for peas.

This is a potage or thick soup, made by soaking dried yellow peas and when softened cooking them with salt, spices and ham. The ham can be a left-over ham bone, removed after cooking, which adds extra flavour. Easy to make and outstanding comfort food.

Pease pudding

Shopping list

  • 7 oz/200 g yellow split peas
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and quartered
  • 1 carrot, peeled and quartered
  • 2 cloves of garlic, peeled [optional]
  • 2 cups / 500g vegetable broth [or more]
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 TBSP malt vinegar
  • Sea salt and white pepper
  • 1 1/4 TBSP/20 g butter, cut into chunks
  • Ham bone, or chunks of ham [optional]

Garnish

  • Chopped parsley

Preparation and cooking

  1. Soak dried yellow split peas in water overnight. Drain and rinse.
  2. Add onion, carrot and bay leaves and fill pot with vegetable broth to cover the veggies. [Option: add a ham bone or chunks of ham and cloves of garlic for more flavour.]
  3. Bring the peas to a boil. Once boiling, lower the heat and simmer gently for an hour or until the peas are tender. Add more broth or water to prevent the soup from drying out.
  4. Remove the bay leaves and ham bone from the pan and add the soup to a blender. [Option: leave the peas in the cooking pot and use a hand blender.] Blend to a thick purée.
  5. Pour the peas into a clean pan. Add malt vinegar and season to taste with salt and pepper. Gradually beat in the butter a cube at a time. If the potage is too thick, add a little more warm broth or water and stir in, but do not let it get too thin. It is supposed to be thick.
  6. Garnish lightly with chopped parsley.
Featured image: Sticky toffee pudding with custard, photographed at The Beehive, Harthill, England (Megan Napier-Andrews photo)

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This is Nigel’s 317th blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories. The link to Gentleman’s Portion: The Cookbook is now live, well priced at $9.99 or £9.99.

3 replies »

  1. Great issue today about British foods, Nigel. But I am sure that what you call Eaton Mess should be spelled as Eton Mess, after a certain school in Windsor.

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  2. Another delicious article, Nigel. I recently came across the following in Peter Mayle’s ‘Toujours Provence’ which is ascribed to his Provençal dining buddy Régis: “To England and the English, as long as they keep their cooking to themselves.”

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  3. Thanks Alan. I was of course thinking of the former Canadian department store, not the school in Windsor, but the mistake is now corrected. N.

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