Food Glorious Food
For more than 500 years, Pancake Day, or Shrove Tuesday (13 Feb), has been a traditional day of feasting in England, invented so that people could use up eggs and fats before fasting in the run-up to Easter. Celebrate this ritual at Crème de la Crêpe in Covent Garden, where you can enjoy pancakes filled with British favourites such as Heinz baked beans.
Fish and Chips
Probably the UK’s most recognised national dish, battered fish and chips were first served in the 1800s – Charles Dickens mentioned fried fish in Oliver Twist in 1839. Until the 1980s, they were served in old newspaper, and they’re usually eaten with your fingers.
Try them with salt and vinegar, tomato ketchup, mushy peas, pickled onions and gherkins, topped with gravy, cheese or curry sauce. Pat ‘Pop’ Newland – the man behind Poppie’s – started his career in the chippy trade aged 11, in 1952. The Spitalfields and Camden branches rock a 1950s vibe, with music hall songs and memorabilia from Pop’s childhood on display, including Chopper bikes and Space Hoppers. You can also try jellied eels, a traditional dish loved by East Enders over the centuries.
The cooked breakfast, or fry up, dates back to the 1300s when the upper classes would demonstrate their wealth to visitors during breakfast feasts. It took on its current form during the Industrial Revolution, when the masses needed to fill up before work. Riding House Café’s Full English has two fried eggs, a free-range pork sausage, bacon, baked beans, mushrooms and tomatoes. www.ridinghouse.cafe
King Henry VIII’s bodyguards were so fond of beef they were nicknamed Beefeaters, a name still used today. Their habit of eating Yorkshire puddings as a cheap, filling starter and then roast beef on Sunday after church soon spread. Today, most pubs serve roast beef and potatoes with seasonal vegetables, savoury Yorkshire puddings and gravy. Roast by Borough Market serves 48-day dry-aged roast sirloin served with Yorkshire pudding, rosemary ‘roasties’ and horseradish cream. For a modern take, pop by Yorkshire Burrito in Soho, which sells the whole shebang – slow-cooked beef, stuffing, roast potatoes and red wine gravy – wrapped in a giant Yorkshire pudding.
Bangers and Mash
When meat was in short supply during World War I, water and cereal were added to sausages to bulk them up – making them sizzle or ‘bang’ in the frying pan. This led to the nickname bangers and mash, or sausages and mashed potato. The sausages are often made from pork and drenched with onion gravy. Try the dish at Mother Mash off Carnaby Street. Choose mash made with milk and butter, Cheddar cheese, mustard or onions; a pork or lamb banger, flavoured with herbs, and red wine, onion or veggie gravy.
While it’s not really a pie, or filled pastry, a typical shepherd’s pie is made with minced mutton or lamb, chopped carrots and onions and topped with mashed potato made crispy in the oven – the ultimate comfort food. It’s often confused with cottage pie, which is made with minced beef topped with sliced potatoes. Cheap and filling, cottage pie was made by peasants in cottages – hence the name – and was eaten 100 years before shepherd’s pie. You can try both in most pubs, while shepherd’s pie is available at The Bridge House, a gastropub with a real fireplace and piano by Tower Bridge.
Traditionally, this sticky dessert was popular with the lower classes, as it used cheap ingredients – bread and thick, black treacle – but golden syrup has been used instead of treacle since the dish was invented in the 1880s. Today, it’s made by pouring golden syrup, lemon juice and breadcrumbs into shortcrust pastry, and served with cream or custard. A popular pudding at school, it features in Harry Potter, while the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang used it to tempt children into a cage. Canteen, which makes classic British dishes such as pies on site in the Royal Festival Hall and Spitalfields, serves treacle tart with clotted cream.
A hot dessert is just what you need in winter, so why not try a traditional crumble, made with stewed fruit topped with a blend of oats, sugar, flour and butter? The Café in the Crypt, a hidden spot with brick-vaulted ceilings and tombstones beneath St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, has a daily crumble – try apple, blackberry or blueberry, served with custard.
Bread and Butter Pudding
A dessert made with stale bread and nicknamed the poor man’s pudding doesn’t sound appealing, but this dish from the 1200s is really tasty. Once popular with the lower classes, it’s now served on modern menus. Recipes vary, but usually include bread, rum-soaked raisins and custard, flavoured with nutmeg, cinnamon and orange or lemon zest. Try it at The English Restaurant by Spitalfields Market.
Try a regional dish, even if you don’t travel out of the capital.
Cornish pasty: Half-moon-shaped pastries stuffed with beef and root vegetables; cheese and onion or chicken and mushroom. Try one at the West Cornwall Pasty Co. www.westcornwallpasty.co.uk
Eccles Cakes: Named after Eccles in Greater Manchester, these flat, circular pastries are filled with currants and dusted with sugar. Try them at St John Bar & Restaurant Smithfield, St John Bread and Wine or St John Maltby, with or without Lancashire cheese, or from its bakery at weekends. www.stjohngroup.uk.com
Welsh Rarebit: A South Wales staple, this is cheese on toast, flavoured with ale, mustard or Worcestershire sauce. Try it with brown ale at the Old Red Cow, a traditional pub with church pews near the Museum of London. The pub also serves Scotch eggs, Sunday roast, fish and chips and sticky toffee pudding. www.theoldredcow.com
Melton Mowbray pork pie: Made in Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire, this pork-filled pastry was created in the 1700s so it could be carried to work or on a hunt. The pastry was originally discarded before jelly was added to preserve the meat and prevent the pie from crumbling. Try one at Mrs King’s Pork Pies at Borough Market. www.boroughmarket.org.uk