English ingredients - a maligned cuisine

"Our weather may be unpredictable, but it gives us orchards of beautiful fruit, great soil for vegetables and the most wonderful lush grass that feeds our animals, giving us amazing meat, milk and cheeses in return."

Jamie Oliver

This is the only food themed English flag that I could find. There were quite a few British ones, but this was the sole English one. When I checked on Scottish, Welsh and Irish I did not get the Union Jack. Google seems to think that the English flag is the Union Jack. People acknowledge that the other three are countries in their own right with a distinct national character - that extends into their food. The English don't seem to get quite the same respect. Or is it that they are seen as the 'boss' country of the British Isles? Which is all very political and I won't go any further down that track. I do want to make the point here though that I am going to write about English ingredients, not Scottish or Welsh or Irish. Southern English at that because that is where I come from - both now and hundreds of years ago. The north is another country again. Obviously there is some overlap and some shared ingredients and also some ingredients that actually come from other parts of the British Isles - like kippers - but which the English would not be without.


I can't quite remember why I thought to write about English ingredients now, but that's my topic for today. It's beginning to look as if I'm distressingly homesick for England, which is not at all the case. But I am occasionally nostalgic for the things that are English and which cannot be found here - yes there are some. It's odd how the food of one's country of origin is possibly the last national characteristic to be let go. If indeed it ever is.


My touchstone for the ingredients thing was the Food Safari series in which Maeve O'Meara would start each episode with a rundown of the ingredients unique to that particular cuisine. So first of all I wondered, if in fact she had even done anything on English cuisine. And yes she did - and here it is:

And I have to say that English though that picture of a full English breakfast is, it's not really a dish which could be considered anything but potentially unhealthy comfort food. I'm not sure whether it makes me smile a little or cringe.


There are two things to note about the Food Safari program. England was relegated to Season three, Episode five behind the obvious big cuisines but also smaller ones such as Mauritius, Croatia, Korea and Malta. Who knows how those decisions are made of course, but still it's a bit demoralising. And considering that the English are the largest group of migrants in Australia you might think they might take a more prominent place. There's a sort of cringe factor in being English I think, here in Australia. The second thing to note is that although Maeve talks to Sydney's English born chef Matthew Kemp about ingredients it is not in the same way as for all of those other countries - a sort of list of what are the must haves - but more of a general chat about the quality and range of produce.


Anyway when I decided to tackle the notion of what an English cook just had to have in their kitchens, other than the basic things like flour and sugar, I first made a list. And here it is - grouped into categories. This is very definitely a personal list compiled from nostalgic memories, and is a list of almost uniquely English things, or if not unique, things that appear constantly in English dishes.


But before I get into this, just a word or two about English food today - best summed up by Jamie:


"I like to think of Great Britain as a magpie nation because throughout our history we seem to have collected beautiful flavours from elsewhere and worked them into our own culture. Truly iconic British condiments like piccalilli, Worcestershire and HP sauce are all heavily influenced by Indian flavours; our beloved meat pie can be traced to invading Roman soldiers (and ancient Egypt before that). In my mind one of the most exciting and unique things about being British is our ability to be open-minded and willing to embrace anything that looks and tastes good from any new neighbour." Jamie Oliver


And this is never more true than today when Chicken Tikka Masala, and Butter Chicken are often said to be England's national dish - or at least the most popular English foods of modern times. Fundamentally Indian dishes, but not really - some would say they are horribly degraded versions of ancient and traditional Indian foods. Some would say a wonderful fusion food. Even fish and chips is not really English. It's Jewish.


But I'm not talking about actual dishes here. No it's the raw ingredients that go into those dishes. So here goes with my list. I probably should also say that I no longer live in England, and so some of these things may no longer be in use or have become unavailable. Indeed yesterday we had a Face Time session with one of David's long lost relatives in Wales, and at one point, they expressed dismay at how all their fresh food seemed to come from anywhere but Britain these days. Okay - here I go - in no particular order.

Fats - lard and dripping. Lard is frequently used in the making of pastry and dripping is mostly used for roasting things. We used to have it spread on toast. I have talked about it before - it's just the combined melted fat of meats - surplus fat is cut off, put in a dish and melted in the oven when the oven is being used for something else. Then it's stored in a jar. In the fridge nowadays I guess. And it's coming back into fashion, because it's tasty and apparently no worse than any other fat - well not quite - but certainly no worse than butter.


There's suet too - you just cannot get suet here. You can get a suet mix but not suet. We used it for dumplings, and Cornish pasty pastry, and also it's a crucial ingredient of mincemeat of course. It's the fat from around the kidneys.


Butter is also used traditionally, but not much oil - not true today of course.

Herbs - and I'll begin with parsley because this seems to me to be the quintessential English herb. When I was young there was only the curly parsley. Nowadays I never use that - it's too spiky. It's a crucial ingredient, in what many would describe as bland - parsley sauce for fish and for ham, but you might also call it delicate - or even complementary. Just right anyway.


Then there is sage - for your sage and onion stuffing for your Sunday roast pork; thyme - stronger in taste and used a lot in stews; bay leaves - them too and watercress. It's only recently that has appeared in our supermarkets and it never seems to be as peppery as the English watercress that I remember. This also makes a wonderful sauce and also a soup, but we mostly had it in sandwiches and salads. Ditto for mustard and cress. So English. Mint - where would peas, new potatoes and lamb be without mint - which, of course, is also made into that very English condiment - mint sauce. Chives. I don't remember ever using rosemary or basil. And coriander was completely unknown - now the most popular English herb in supermarket sales I understand. Does horseradish count as a herb? I guess it does, although we only used it as a condiment for our roast beef. Roast beef is not eatable without it. And I am extremely upset that it is very hard to find here in Australia. I should try growing it.

Vegetables - potatoes of course, but new potatoes and Jersey Royals in particular. You cannot get them here - maybe not anywhere other than England. They are the most delicious potato that exists, and very seasonal. Well they used to be. Other vegetables? The dreaded cabbage of course, and I will admit that we did not cook this well - or the Brussels sprouts either. I'm sure that they are cooked much better these days. Peas - real ones with the aforesaid mint. Parsnips and Swedes - which I used to hate - the Swedes that is - but which I now love. I never liked turnips - they were pretty tasteless. But I did love parsnips. Spring greens - can't get those here either. Similar to some of those Asian green vegetables.

Fruit - Top of the tree here for me are all those berries - particularly the ones you can't get here - red currants, blackcurrants, white currants and gooseberries. Fruits which go to make two of the most divine desserts in the world - Summer pudding and Gooseberry fool. Then there were those special apples - Cox's Orange Pippins - nothing like that here - almost honey-like in taste; Bramleys for cooking and plums. Rhubarb too - we loved rhubarb. Why has it become so expensive? It used to be a poor man's food. And in spite of everyone telling me it is so easy to grow and I will have a glut, I have never been able to grow it.

Fish - well they do say the national dish is Fish and chips and there is nothing wrong with fish and chips if it's cooked properly. I have never come to grips with Australian fish for some reason, and now buying fish is a bit compromising is it not? My son has banned it completely from his household, which I think is a bit of overkill. Anyway - on the right is plaice - a flat fish as you can see - and my childhood favourite. There was also cod back then - now endangered I think, unless they have managed to save it. There was also haddock. Then there were the smoked fish - kippers of course - from the north of England, but also Scotland and apparently the Isle of Man. I never liked them anyway, but I do now. And the smoked haddock was essential to making kedgeree - another Indian/English fusion dish, which I also did not like then but do now. Smoked salmon was for the rich. Pilchards and bloaters and sprats - which you ate whole - the sprats I mean. Cockles and whelks from the seaside and shrimps too which you bought by the pint.

Condiments - This is a photograph from one of Delia's books and it's a 'today' photograph and so includes all sorts of things that we would not have known about in my youth. And in fact the list I am about to give you includes things that are not on show here. Times have changed.


English mustard powder - it's hot, it's made in Norwich at Colman's and I use it in my French salad dressing and a few other dishes. I admit I have mostly changed to French mustard these days though when it comes to cooking.

Worcestershire sauce - a bit of this will liven up all manner of things.

Malt vinegar - where would the English version of fish and chips be without malt vinegar? We used to sprinkle it over salads - just vinegar. Not a thing to enhance the reputation of English food.

HP sauce - not so much for cooking - although you could - more to go with things like sausages rather than that dreadful Australian tomato sauce.

Pickled onions - you just eat them. They're yummy. I used to help my grandmother make them and for a while I made them too. Must try it again. The smell was pretty horrendous though. Another use for that malt vinegar.

Piccalilli and chutneys - very English but we never used them.

And did I mention Marmite? Not a favourite of mine, but Nigella wouldn't be without it.

Meats - well most of the meats are the same as anywhere but there are a few that are very English:

Bacon - I don't care how well made Australian bacon is, it is really not the same. I can never make it go crispy for a start. Then there's the gammon joints, which you also don't get here.

Game - this is for the aristocrats - the hares and the pheasants, and the grouse. We had rabbit - poor man's food, which has also now become rich man's food. How times change.

Cheese - Do not turn your nose up at the idea of English cheese. 'Real' English cheese is superb and can match the best in the world. Even the French are capable of bastardising their cheese - think La vache qui rie (the laughing cow - or bon bel), which I confess to actually liking, but it's hardly a gourmet product and no use in cooking. Whilst, Stilton, Wensleydale, Cheshire and 'real' Cheddar most definitely are.


Alcohol - you can cook with Guinness (well that's cheating because it's Irish) but there are English stouts; West country apple cider; beer - England is famous for its beer. Though I have to say my mother never cooked with alcohol. There's gin too but that is also not much used in cooking is it? I certainly cannot think of a traditional English dish that contains gin. The English just drink it.


Oddments - Maldon sea salt - still up there with the best salts of the world, and coming from a small town in Essex - my old home. Golden syrup - need I say more? Clotted cream - ditto.


So there you go an absolute plethora of tasty ingredients to choose from to make delicious, fresh and comforting food. My list is of things that are either absolutely unique to England or frequently used in traditional English dishes. They may be simple, those dishes, but as many cooks have pointed out, simple is hard to do well. English food done well can hold its own with the best cuisines in the world.


"This is beautiful comfort food at its best - unfussy and unpretentious but full of life." Jamie Oliver


There have always been great English chefs and that tradition continues today. I can't find figures for England alone, but in Britain in 2021 there were 7 3 Michelin starred, 20 two starred and 157 one starred restaurants. Which is not bad. Not to mention the expanding list of English celebrity chefs whatever you think of them.


With such a wonderful ingredient base, and such a multicultural population, combined with the English spirit of adventure it's no wonder that it is one of the most interesting cuisines in the world today. Well I think so anyway.


"The English are a very adaptive people. English cooking - both historically and in the south - is a great deal more varied and delectable than our masochistic temper in this matter allows. ... The plain fact is that much commercial cooking is bad, or mediocre in any country - it's easy enough to get a throughly disappointing meal even in France where there exists an almost sacred devotion to kitchen and table. The food we get publicly in England isn't so often bad English cooking as a pretentious and inferior imitation of French cooking or Italian cooking." Jane Grigson

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