The problem with English food is that it has either been looked upon as comfort food, or the poor (and boring) country cousin of its Continental neighbour. In other words, food for the nursery as in roly poly pudding, or a cuisine that had so little intrinsic worth that it borrowed its national dish from Bangladesh: chicken tikka masala.
The result is that for some decades now, it has been fashionable to denigrate the cuisine of Great Britain. In fact, chefs like Marco Pierre White actually flinch if they are called traditional British chefs. It is Mark Shand’s theory that British food came in for its share of flak soon after World War II when middle class households suddenly discovered they had no domestic help, and were left to fend for themselves, which they did with liberal use of the supermarket and frozen dinners.
It has taken a while for things to settle down, but lately there has been every indication that British food is sailing, surely if slowly, to its former place in the sun. I get the impression that the cuisines of Ireland, Scotland and Wales have always been in the background, while it is actually the food of England that has always been in the spotlight.
Any cuisine starts with ingredients: you can’t go too wrong with fabulous ingredients; with poor ingredients, there is only that much that a chef or housewife can do. In the last five years, England has seen the mushrooming of farmers’ markets. At first, according to Chef Andrew Whiffen, Executive Chef of The Oberoi, New Delhi, only larger towns had farmers’ markets. In recent years, even modest towns have started having weekly markets. The result is that quality ingredients have percolated down to a large number of households all over the country. Two books that I have in my possession – The Land that Thyme Forgot and The Taste of Britain – celebrate regional dishes that have, for long, been too homely to talk about. Singin’ Hinnies and Finnan Haddie have never been considered gourmet treats, but the writing on the wall says that all that is set to change.
Whiffen’s own British food festival, currently on at The Oberoi, New Delhi, has left even the management stupefied at its runaway success. The top-selling dishes? Toad in the Hole and Fish and Chips, the latter being served with mushy peas. A couple of years ago, this column reported on the Shepherd’s Pie phenomenon when the Executive Sous Chef of The Ivy, Covent Garden, cooked at ITC Hotels in three major cities. It is obvious that English food occupies a place that no other cuisine can boast of: it is comfort food for a surprisingly large percentage of the restaurant-going population in our metros and the ingredients are becoming increasingly premium.
Now, all that is left is for more British produce to find its way into our country. Olive oils and Parma ham have proved that the Indian market for fine ingredients is huge.
Fun Facts: Ever heard of Stinky Bishop, Black Pudding, Fat Rascals, Clapshot, Hindle Wakes, Cowheel and Solomongundy? You can eat your way through all of them on your next trip to Old Blighty.