British food has always held a sort of magical fascination in my life. From an early age, I read the works of Enid Blyton, who never failed to tantalize my poor tastebuds with detailed descriptions of food I could never have. The children of her narratives never go hungry and are constantly eating such exotic things (to my mind) as hot scones with raspberry jam, gingerbread, boiled sweets, humbugs, lemon drops, ice lollies, treacle, toffee, macaroons, blancmange, puddings of all kinds, Pop Biscuits, Google buns, Hot-Cold goodies, and Well-I-Never rolls. (The last four examples, I admit, were of Blyton’s own invention, but nonetheless never failed to inspire my childish imagination.) In her book Five on a Hike Together, she describes a meal at the Three Shepherds.
A wonderful smell came creeping into the little dining-room, followed by the inn-woman carrying a large tray. On it was a steaming tureen of porridge, a bowl of golden syrup, a jug of very thick cream, and a dish of bacon and eggs, all piled high on crisp brown toast. Little mushrooms were on the same dish.
Blyton’s attraction to food most likely stemmed from having lived through the rationing days of the Second World War. On 8 January 1940, butter, bacon, and sugar were the first commodities to be rationed. They were shortly followed by meat, tea, jam, biscuits, breakfast cereals, cheese, eggs, milk, and canned fruit (which would explain Blyton’s fascination with tinned pineapple). After the war, rationing became even stricter. Bread was rationed from 1946 to 1948. Potato rationing began in 1947.
The loss of food is a blow to any culture, and it is understandable that England lamented its loss during the war years. Over the centuries, English food has been shaped by the country’s temperate climate, geography, history, and even its religion. It has a wide and varied background, beginning with the Celts, whose agriculture and animal breeding resulted in a variety of foodstuffs for the indigenous population. The Angles and Saxons developed different stews made from meat and herbs, and during the Norman Conquest, exotic spices were introduced into England in the Middle Ages. The British Empire, stretching far into the Orient and across the oceans to tropical islands, brought back new recipes, among them the Indian tradition of food and its strong herbs and spices.
The traditional food of England, however, remains simple and relies on high quality, natural produce. England’s Puritan heritage made it almost impossible to incorporate strong flavors, such as garlic, or use complex sauces, as these had political affiliations with the Catholics. The majority of the population consisted of farmers, which is why England is famous for its simple, but small variety of breads and cheeses, meat and game pies, roasted and stewed meats, boiled vegetables and broths, and fresh and saltwater fish. Still, it is possible to find these traditional foods in most eating establishments.
As I first walked down the cobblestoned streets of York, I was glad to discover that restaurants and pubs still serve Shepherd’s pie, bangers and mash, fish and chips (one of the few foods unaffected by WWII rationing), and Sunday roasts (a roasted joint of meat, served with roasted or mashed potatoes, and a Yorkshire pudding). Thomas the Baker serves bread and butter pudding, rhubarb crumble, apple pie, treacle tart, spotted dick, trifle custard, and summer pudding, along with the traditional Cornish pasty (pronounced pass-ti, a light puff pastry wrapped around a mix of beef, potato, onion, and Swedish turnips), mince pie, and fruit tarts. The local teahouses dish out a daily, dainty delicacies, such as hot teacakes, currant scones with clotted cream and jam, and pots of Earl Grey. As a result of India being the “crown jewel” in the British Empire, Indian restaurants sprang up all over England, and the tikka masala is even jokingly hailed as “England’s true national food.”
As for myself, I find English food to be part of a larger body of work. Farmers’ dishes generally fall into similar categories—simple, heavy dishes made of meat, vegetables, and potatoes, originally made to serve hungry farmers after a hard day’s work. Pasties, steak and kidney piece, and bangers and mash have continental equivalents; pasties compare to the Swedish palt and kroppkakor (meat dumplings eaten with pork slices, butter, and lingonberry jam), and the Lithuanian cepelinai (zeppelin-shaped dumplings made from potato dough filled with ground beef, milk curd or mushrooms with salt and spices, and eaten with bacon and butter sauce); Scottish haggis is comparable to Swedish pölsa—even bloodpudding has its exact replica in Swedish cuisine. Though food is an indicator of national identity, it also works to include the country into an international community—England has, for centuries, been linked to the rest of Europe by its food. Its food has evolved and adapted with its historical circumstance, and now, once again, it is evolving to incorporate itself into a more international identity. Curries and pasties are sold side-by-side without a second thought, perhaps as harbingers of things to come.
I WANT AN A. I hate A minuses.