Have Fun Learning English
British Culture, British Customs and British Traditions
With dictionary look up. Double click on any word for its definition.
This section is in advanced English and is only intended to be a guide, not to be taken too seriously!
Yes, we do have a wide and varied cuisine in Britain today, no more do we suffer under the image of grey boiled meat! After years of disparagement by various countries (especially the French) Britain now has an enviable culinary reputation. In fact some of the great chefs now come from Britain, I kid you not!
However Britain's culinary expertise is not new! In the past British cooking was amongst the best in the world. Mrs Beeton is still one of the renowned writers of cookery books, her creations have now gained international popularity, years after her death.
Traditional British cuisine is substantial, yet simple and wholesome. We have long believed in four meals a day. Our fare has been influenced by the traditions and tastes from different parts of the British empire: teas from Ceylon and chutney, kedgeree, and mulligatawny soup from India.
British cuisine has always been multicultural, a pot pourri of eclectic styles. In ancient times influenced by the Romans and in medieval times the French. When the Frankish Normans invaded, they brought with them the spices of the east: cinnamon, saffron, mace, nutmeg, pepper, ginger. Sugar came to England at that time, and was considered a spice -- rare and expensive. Before the arrival of cane sugars, honey and fruit juices were the only sweeteners. The few Medieval cookery books that remain record dishes that use every spice in the larder, and chefs across Europe saw their task to be the almost alchemical transformation of raw ingredients into something entirely new (for centuries the English aristocracy ate French food) which they felt distinguished them from the peasants.
During Victorian times good old British stodge mixed with exotic spices from all over the Empire. And today despite being part of Europe we've kept up our links with the countries of the former British Empire, now united under the Commonwealth.
One of the benefits of having an empire is that we did learn quite a bit from the colonies. From East Asia (China) we adopted tea (and exported the habit to India), and from India we adopted curry-style spicing, we even developed a line of spicy sauces including ketchup, mint sauce, Worcestershire sauce and deviled sauce to indulge these tastes. Today it would be fair to say that curry has become a national dish.
Among English cakes and pastries, many are tied to the various religious holidays of the year. Hot Cross Buns are eaten on Good Friday, Simnel Cake is for Mothering Sunday, Plum Pudding for Christmas, and Twelfth Night Cake for Epiphany.
Unfortunately a great deal of damage was done to British cuisine during the two world wars. Britain is an island and supplies of many goods became short. The war effort used up goods and services and so less were left over for private people to consume. Ships importing food stuffs had to travel in convoys and so they could make fewer journeys. During the second world war food rationing began in January 1940 and was lifted only gradually after the war.
The British tradition of stews, pies and breads, according to the taste buds of the rest of the world, went into terminal decline. What was best in England was only that which showed the influence of France, and so English food let itself become a gastronomic joke and the French art of Nouvell Cuisine was adopted.
In the late 1980's, British cuisine started to look for a new direction. Disenchanted with the overblown (and under-nourished) Nouvelle Cuisine, chefs began to look a little closer to home for inspiration. Calling on a rich (and largely ignored) tradition, and utilising many diverse and interesting ingredients, the basis was formed for what is now known as modern British food. Game has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity although it always had a central role in the British diet, which reflects both the abundant richness of the forests and streams and an old aristocratic prejudice against butchered meats.
In London especially, one can not only experiment with the best of British, but the best of the world as there are many distinct ethnic cuisines to sample, Chinese, Indian, Italian and Greek restaurants are amongst the most popular.
Although some traditional dishes such as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, Cornish pasties, steak and kidney pie, bread and butter pudding, treacle tart, spotted dick or fish and chips, remain popular, there has been a significant shift in eating habits in Britain. Rice and pasta have accounted for the decrease in potato consumption and the consumption of meat has also fallen. Vegetable and salad oils have largely replaced the use of butter.
Roast beef is still the national culinary pride. It is called a "joint," and is served at midday on Sunday with roasted potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, two vegetables, a good strong horseradish, gravy, and mustard.
Today there is more emphasis on fine, fresh ingredients in the better restaurants and markets in the UK offer food items from all over the world. Salmon, Dover sole, exotic fruit, Norwegian prawns and New Zealand lamb are choice items. Wild fowl and game are other specialties on offer.
In fact fish is still important to the English diet, we are after all an island surrounded by some of the richest fishing areas of the world. Many species swim in the cold offshore waters: sole, haddock, hake, plaice, cod (the most popular choice for fish and chips), turbot, halibut, mullet and John Dory. Oily fishes also abound (mackerel, pilchards, and herring) as do crustaceans like lobster and oysters. Eel, also common, is cooked into a wonderful pie with lemon, parsley, and shallots, all topped with puff pastry.
Despite recent setbacks beef is still big industry in England, and the Scottish Aberdeen Angus is one of our most famous beef-producing breeds. Dairy cattle are also farmed extensively -- England is famous for its creams and butters and for its sturdy and delicious cheeses: Stilton, Cheshire and its rare cousin blue Cheshire, double Gloucester, red Leicester, sage Derby, and of course cheddar.
Some of our more interesting dishes include:-
Beefsteak, Oyster, and Kidney Pudding: Oysters may seem unlikely in this meat pudding, but their great abundance in the Victorian age and earlier eras inspired cooks to find ways to incorporate them creatively in many different recipes. This steamed pudding combines the meats with mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, and Worcestershire, then wraps the whole in a suet pastry.
Black Pudding: invented in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis black pudding is often served as part of a traditional full English breakfast.
Cock-a-Leekie : This Scottish specialty can be classified as a soup or a stew. It combines beef, chicken, leeks, and prunes to unusual and spectacular ends.
Crown Roast Lamb: The crown roast encircles a stuffing of apples, bread crumbs, onion, celery, and lemon.
Eccles Cake : Puff pastry stuffed with a spicy currant filling.
Hasty Pudding: A simple and quick (thus the name) steamed pudding of milk, flour, butter, eggs, and cinnamon.
Irish Stew: An Irish stew always has a common base of lamb, potatoes, and onion. It could contain any number of other ingredients, depending on the cook.
Likky Pie Leeks: pork, and cream baked in puff pastry.
Mincemeat: Beef suet is used to bind chopped nuts, apples, spices, brown sugar, and brandy into a filling for pies or pasties - not to be confused with minced meat!.
Mulligatawny Soup: What this soup is depends on who is cooking it. Originally a south Indian dish (the name means pepper water in tamil), it has been adopted and extensively adapted by the British. Mullitgatawny contains chicken or meat or vegetable stock mixed with yogurt or cheese or coconut milk and is seasoned with curry and various other spices. It is sometimes served with a separate bowl of rice.
Syllabub: In the seventeenth century, a milkmaid would send a stream of new, warm milk directly from a cow into a bowl of spiced cider or ale. A light curd would form on top with a lovely whey underneath. This, according to Elizabeth David, was the original syllabub. Today's syllabub is more solid (its origins can also be traced to the seventeenth century, albeit to the upper classes) and mixes sherry and/or brandy, sugar, lemon, nutmeg, and double cream into a custard-like dessert or an eggnog-like beverage, depending upon the cook.
Trifle: Layers of alcohol-soaked sponge cake alternate with fruit, custard and whipped cream, some people add jelly, but that's for kids.
Welsh Faggots: Pig's liver is made into meatballs with onion, beef suet, bread crumbs, and sometimes a chopped apple. Faggots used to be made to use up the odd parts of a pig after it had been slaughtered.
Welsh Rabbit (or Rarebit): Cheese is grated and melted with milk or ale. Pepper, salt, butter, and mustard are then added. The mix is spread over toast and baked until "the cheese bubbles and becomes brown in appetizing-looking splashes" (Jane Grigson in English Food, London: Penguin, 1977).
Westmoreland Pepper Cake: Fruitcake that gets a distinctive kick from lots of black pepper. Other ingredients include honey, cloves, ginger, and walnuts.
Pies and puddings are related phenomena in British culinary history. Originally, both solved the problem of preparing dinners made with less expensive meats. Pies covered a stew or other ingredients with a crust; puddings were made from butcher's scraps tucked into a sheep's stomach, then steamed or boiled. Pies have remained pies, although, in addition to savory pies, there now exist sweet variations, which tend to have two crusts or a bottom crust only.
Pie crusts can be made from a short dough or puff pastry. Snacks and bar food (Britain's fifth food group) are often in pie form: pasties (pronounced with a short "a" like "had") are filled turnovers.
Over time, however, in a confusing development, pudding has become a more general term for a sweet or savory steamed mixture -- as well as a word that describes desserts in general. For example, black pudding is actually made with pig's blood. Whereas plum pudding is a Christmas treat consisting of a steamed cake of beef suet (the white fat around the kidney and loins) and dried and candied fruits soaked in brandy. And, of course, one can't forget rice pudding.
Amongst cakes, buns and pastries local delicacies include Bath Buns, Chelsea Buns, Eccles Cakes, and Banbury Cakes.
"And then to breakfast, with what appetite you have." Shakespeare
The great British breakfast is famous (or notorious) throughout the world! Actually nowadays it is a bit of a myth, today many British people are more likely to have a bowl of cornflakes or a cup of coffee with a cigarette than to indulge in the wonders of this feast!
However that is not to say that the traditional breakfast is dead, far from it, it's just not often eaten every day of the week. Speaking as a true Brit I occassionally push the boat out and treat myself to the full monty (not to be confused with the film of the same name).
The typical English breakfast is a 19th century invention, when the majority of English people adopted the copious meal of porridge, fish, bacon and eggs, toast and marmalade, that has now appeared on English breakfast tables for 100 years.
The annual consumption in the United Kindgom is 450,000 tonnes of bacon, 5,000 tonnes of sausages and millions of eggs, so you can see the Great British Breakfast is very much alive and well. It has retained its popularity as one of the country's favourite meals, and survived a whole series of eating trends and food fads.
Mrs Beeton would have recommended a large list of foods for breakfast such as, bread, rolls, toast, toasted teacakes, Sally Lunns; eggs cooked in various ways; fish, baked halibut steaks, fried whiting, broiled fresh herrings, soused herrings, fishcakes, broiled kippers, 'Findon' haddock, sprats fried in butter, fish kedgeree, fried salmon, salmon pie, baked lobster, codfish pie, cod's steak, croquettes of cod's roe, herrings stuffed with fish. Fruit such as stewed figs, stewed prunes, and fresh fruits in season. Game and pheasant legs, brawn, devilled drumsticks, and meat dishes both hot and cold, such as collared tongue, kidneys on toast, sausages with fried bread, pig's cheek, Melton pork pie, ham, galantine, spiced brisket, pressed beef...
So what does the great British breakfast consist of nowadays?
Simpsons in the Strand, a well know (and expensive) restaurant, serves breakfast daily. Their full English breakfast consists of the following:-
The GREAT BRITISH BREAKFAST at £13.95 includes:- Toast with jam or marmalade, pastries, fresh orange juice, freshly brewed coffee, a choice of cereals, porridge, stewed fruit or half a grapefruit, The Simpsons Cumberland sausage, scrambled egg, streaky and back bacon, black pudding, grilled mushrooms and tomato and a daily newspaper (not for consumption).
In addition to the GREAT BRITISH BREAKFAST, for serious breakfast eaters, Simpson's offers THE TEN DEADLY SINS - at £15.95 per person this includes: Toast with jam or marmalade, pastries, fresh orange juice, freshly brewed coffee Choice of cereals, porridge, stewed fruit or half a grapefruit The Simpsons Cumberland sausage, fried egg, streaky and back bacon, black pudding, lambs kidneys, fried bread, liver, bubble & squeak, baked beans, grilled mushrooms and tomato.
Guests may also choose from an à la carte selection of classic breakfast dishes such as: Smoked Haddock Kedgeree; Poached Finan Haddock; Quails eggs with haddock; Smoked Salmon with Scrambled Eggs; Grilled sirloin steak with grilled mushrooms and tomato and welsh rarebit. There is also a selection of plain, cheese, bacon, herb, mushroom and smoked salmon omelettes.accompaniments. It is a tradition with a long pedigree, so read on...
How it all began
In medieval times the village serfs served the squire for six days a week. Sundays however were a day of rest, and after the morning church service, serfs would assemble in a field and practice their battle techniques.
They were rewarded with mugs of ale and a feast of oxen roasted on a spit.
The tradition has survived because the meat can be put in the oven to roast before the family goes to church and be ready to eat when they return.
Typical meats for roasting are joints of beef, pork, lamb or a whole chicken. More rarely duck, goose, gammon, turkey or game are eaten. The more popular roasts are often served with traditional accompaniments, these are:
roast beef - served with Yorkshire pudding; and horseradish
sauce or English mustard as relishes.
roast pork - served with crackling (the crispy skin of the pork) and sage and onion stuffing; apple sauce and English mustard as relishes
roast lamb - served with sage and onion stuffing and mint sauce as a relish
roast chicken - served with pigs in blankets, chipolata sausages and stuffing, and bread sauce or cranberry sauce or redcurrant jelly
Any self respecting Sunday roast should be served with a gravy made from the meat juices.
You might see this on offer in a pub or cafe. Simply put, bangers are sausages, and mash is potato that's been boiled and then mashed up (usually with butter). The sausage used in bangers and mash can be made of pork or beef with apple or tomato seasoning; often a Lincolnshire, or Cumberland sausage is used.
The dish is usually served with a rich onion gravy. Although sometimes stated that the term "bangers" has its origins in World War II, the term was actually in use at least as far back as 1919.
Bubble and squeak (sometimes just called bubble) is a traditional English dish made with the shallow-fried leftover vegetables from a Sunday roast dinner. The chief ingredients are potato and cabbage, but carrots, peas, brussels sprouts, and other vegetables can be added. It is usually served with cold meat from the Sunday roast, and pickles, but you can eat it on its own. Traditionally the meat was added to the bubble and squeak itself, although nowadays the vegetarian version is more common. The cold chopped vegetables (and cold chopped meat if used) are fried in a pan together with mashed potato until the mixture is well-cooked and browned.
There are various theories as to the origin of its name, one of them being that it is a description of the action and sound made during the cooking process.
You can even by pre-p repared frozen and tinned versions, but they're pretty disgusting.
Fish and chips is the traditional take-away food of England, long before McDonalds we had the fish and chip shop. Fresh cod is the most common fish for our traditional fish and chips, other types of fish used include haddock, huss, and plaice.
The fresh fish is dipped in flour and then dipped in batter and deep fried, it is then served with chips (fresh not frozen) and usually you will be asked if you want salt and vinegar added. Sometimes people will order curry sauce (yellow sauce that tastes nothing like real curry), mushy peas (well it's green anyway) or pickled eggs (yes pickled).
Traditionally fish and chips were served up wrapped in old newspaper. Nowadays (thanks to hygiene laws) they are wrapped in greaseproof paper and sometimes paper that has been specially printed to look like newspaper. You often get a small wooden or plastic fork to eat them with too, although it is quite ok to use your fingers.
When you think about steak America always seems to come to mind, with cowboys and Texan cattle millionaires. However in the past steaks were so British that our elite troops were referred to as beefeaters, you can still see them in their traditional costume at the Tower of London.
The term Porterhouse for a special large kind of steak cuts has nothing to do with porters or luggage carriers but originates from British pubs where a special brand of dark beer, Porter beer, was served, and where a snack consisted of a steak some 2 lbs (about 900 grams) by weight - a single portion for a single man.
Cheese is made from the curdled milk of various animals: most commonly cows but often goats, sheep and even reindeer, and buffalo. Rennet is often used to induce milk to coagulate, although some cheeses are curdled with acids like vinegar or lemon juice or with extracts of vegetable rennet.
Britain started producing cheese thousands of years ago. However, it was in Roman times that the cheese-making process was originally honed and the techniques developed. In the Middle Ages, the gauntlet was passed to the monasteries that flourished following the Norman invasion. It is to these innovative monks that we are indebted for so many of the now classic types of cheese that are produced in Britain.
The tradition of making cheese nearly died out during WWII, when due to rationing only one type of cheese could be manufactured - the unappealingly named 'National Cheese'.
The discovery and revival of old recipes and the development of new types of cheese has seen the British cheese industry flourish in recent years and diversify in a way not seen since the 17th century.
I have written a quick guide to British cheeses here.
Where would British be without the cheese sandwich? The origin of the sandwich is as British as it could be. The name refers to the Earl of Sandwich who lived 1718 to 1792. The British have always been keen on betting and gambling, but the Earl of Sandwich overdid it even by our standards. During his gambling days, taking meals was considered by him as highly unwelcome interruptions. He therefore invented a kind of meal not requiring him to exchange the gambling table for the dining table: sandwiches.
The word curry, meaning 'to spice' has been used since the medieval period. Nowadays, a night out in the pub, followed by a curry, is a tradition in many cities. Ever since the Victorian era, during the British Raj, Britain has been "borrowing" Indian dishes, and then creating Anglo-Indian cuisine to suit the British palate. Back then we came up with kedgeree, coronation chicken and mulligatawny soup, all traditional Anglo-Indian dishes, but they are not that popular today. More recently many varieties of Indian curry of which chicken tikka masala and balti are the best known have been popularised. In fact chicken tikka masala is now considered one of Britain's most popular dishes, you can even buy chicken tikka masala flavoured crisps.
The food industry in Britain is now undergoing major changes. From a resurgence of interest in organic food to the other extreme - genetically modified (GM) food. GM food has so incensed the general public that there have been mass demonstrations against it all over the country.
Genetically modified food
Enough sites found for GM farm trials (13 March 2000)
taken from simplyfood.co.uk
Farm-scale trials of genetically-modified (GM) crops look set to go ahead after enough sites were found to carry out the experiments, following a meeting of the Scientific Steering Committee, an independent group overseeing the trials.
A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said: 'The outcome of the meeting was that there are sufficient sites to allow trials to go ahead. They will be advising ministers next week and an announcement will be made as soon as possible.'
It had been reported last month that the trial site organisers were 'struggling' to find enough farmers to take part. Ministers were said to want about 75 farm-scale trials of GM crops this year to test whether they damage the environment. They need to choose from a pool of 150 farms for the first phase of the three-year scientific experiment.
Peter Melchett, executive director of Greenpeace UK, said: 'If these trials go ahead it will be a potential tragedy for the environment. Britain will be bombarded with GM pollen without any regard for wildlife, people, or GM-free farmers. The whole process has been nothing short of genetic tyranny with an almost complete absence of public consultation.'
A Friends of the Earth spokesman urged farmers who had volunteered for the trials to 'think again'. He said: 'Farmers who have signed up for these very large trials should realise that they have also signed up to a packet of potential problems. Issues such as liability for cross-pollination of neighbouring crops and contamination of honey have not been resolved. The main beneficiaries of GM crops could well be lawyers rather farmers.'
Another interesting site can be found at http://www.nutrition.org.uk/ including a great information section.
One of the staples in the English person's diet is cheese, if you don't believe me just watch Wallace and Grommit. This great site is all about cheese: All about cheese
Iceland - no not the country! Learn all about frozen food here.
Find out all about the rules, regulations and government bodies in control of food in the UK at: http://www.foodstandards.gov.uk