Beyond Fish and Chips: Eating in Britain

It was enough to make me choke on my cucumber sandwiches. I almost dropped my umbrella, spilled my Earl Grey and lost my place in the queue.

Most of the Thirteen Awesome Things You Totally Have to Do in England were perfectly sensible, if a tad predictable. But what made me as irate as a retired colonel dashing off a letter to The Telegraph was the section on English [sic] food.

Fish and chips were bound to be there. They always are. There is a culinary cliché for every country, and that one is ours. Fair enough. But the exhortation to eat at a carvery? No! Definitely not. Please, please, please don’t eat at a carvery. That is British food circa 1975, when people drove Morris Marinas and Roger Moore played James Bond.

All you had to do, back then, if you wanted to eat well was to go down to your local high street and book a holiday in France. Things have moved on.

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There is a lot more to modern British food than platefuls of fat, overdone meat and soggy, under-seasoned vegetables. That is still easy enough to find, if it is really what you want. But try, instead, a poached Scottish trout with English asparagus, Jersey Royal potatoes and a smear of hollandaise. Or a pot roast pheasant with cider and bacon. Or just a plate of Colchester natives, or a dressed Cornish crab.

Go to the St John in Clerkenwell, where the chef, Fergus Henderson, is famous for dishes like roasted bone marrow with parsley salad. Anthony Bourdain wants that for his last meal. Go to Corrigan’s Mayfair for the farmhouse terrine and pickled courgette, the small boat haddock with peas and cockle and lemon dressing, and Elwy Valley lamb with glazed sweetbreads. Go to one of Anthony Demetre’s Central London restaurants. If it is winter, and it is on the menu, order smoked eel, Cheltenham beetroot and horseradish.

London has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other European city, except Paris. It had the first Indian and the first Thai restaurants with Michelin stars anywhere in the world. It is not just London, either. The village of Bray in Berkshire, with a population of around 8,000, has two restaurants with three Michelin stars; and there are 70 starred restaurants scattered about the English provinces, 16 in Scotland and 5 in Wales.

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Nor is it just fine-dining. There is a whole lot in between a Toby Carvery and the three-Michelin-starred Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road. In the wintertime in the countryside, you can pull up close to a crackling fire in a fourteenth century inn with a twenty-first century menu and eat nicely-cooked meat and hearty root vegetables delicately flavoured with thyme. On long summer evenings in old city pubs, you can sit on the mismatched furniture and order pan-fried fish and steamed samphire off the menu chalked up on the board. There are venerable seafood restaurants with wood panelled walls and bright modern cafes attached to museums and gourmet burgers and noodle shops and tapas bars and curry houses; there are stalls at famous markets grilling scallops, shucking oysters and stuffing slices of rare rib of beef into baguettes with rocket and horseradish.

There are, in short, any number of reasons why no one should ever have to eat at a carvery.

© Richard Senior 2015

9 thoughts on “Beyond Fish and Chips: Eating in Britain

  1. Great post! I love pub food in the UK (not all though, few disappointments on a way, but hey, that is normal anywhere). I like fish and chips from time to time too, but surprisingly I eat them when visiting sea side, I look for a busy small shops selling them, acting like tourist trying to eat like locals, haha, so I can feel like on holidays. I like the idea of sitting on a beach with my fish and chips right in front of me, looking at the sunset… But yes, I can see your point, when I came to live in the UK I have no idea about fish and chips dish, when I finally got to eat it I could not understand all the fuss about it, for me it was a usual meal without a salad (I like veggies with my meals) and it did not make much sense to glorify it much. But the perception is there and this simple meal is acting as a “national treasure” in English kitchen.

  2. Thank you. There still is a lot of awful food here, in fairness. Much better if you are in London, Ludlow, Whitstable, Padstow and so on. But I do object to the idea that there is nothing but well done meat and boiled-to-buggery vegetables, oh and Pret a Manger. I also, for that matter, object when people talk about pizza as if it were central to Italian food culture. I have fish and chips now and then as well, although nearly always regret it because i feel so full and unhealthy.

  3. This makes me so homesick for Britain. (Although to be honest, I loved the cucumber sandwiches.) I was supposed to come start work for a financial firm there in September but my company’s rcos got rejected because the limit was exceeded this month. I’m heartbroken. They’ll try again though and hopefully it’ll go through. Then I can come try all these wonderful dishes. 🙂

    • Oh dear. Sure there is great stuff where you are though, and you’ll get back eventually 🙂 I’m not sure I’ve ever actually had a cucumber sandwich, although I know we’re supposed to eat them – like fish and chips – all the time.

  4. London – well UK’s – restaurant scene might be improving, but what remains staggering is the utter lack of food culture in this country. Or am I the only one who ends up in a state of physical sadness each time I step in one of the nation’s supermarkets? Half of the floor space is dedicated to booze and snacks and a good chuck of whatever’s left is filled with ready meals.
    Michelin stars might abound but the amount of people I see actually cooking their own meals is still shockingly low.

    • I know what you mean. I hate supermarkets. We’ve got fantastic ingredients here and an appreciation of good food among a minority but no democratic food culture in the same way as in, say, France or Italy. We’re that obsessed with being seen to work hard that we think it’s somehow sinful to eat properly . All sad.

  5. Half the battle in the UK (and in America) is identifying what is Food and what is Not Food. For example, if someone from a long time ago (before we broke food) wouldn’t understand it as a food substance (e.g. mousse, donuts, chips, pizza, vegiburgers – they’re neither vegetable NOR protein, they’re so pointless) it’s probably Not Food. Pies are debatable on a case by case basis (wordplay not intended). If more people understood this neither of our countries would have such an obesity problem.
    As an aside, I rather like the humble carvery. They tend to serve Food – a protein source, vegetables and carbohydrates, they adhere to food hygiene, and they also tend to have drinks on offer that are conducive to driving home afterwards. I celebrated the second half of my wedding in a Toby. But then, I grew up on a council estate (or four, or more) and fish and chips on a Friday or the Sunday Carvery were always a working class treat when your wages came in, along with hols to Calais or Marbella (I never left the country until I was 20; that’s how unattainable some of this stuff still is for normal people), so I guess it depends on your budget and your perspective, and depends if you want to “eat like a local” or have the finest gastronomical experience at the Ivy. Both are valid.

    • Also I may have given the impression that every Friday was fish and chip day (well, it was for the four weeks my mum worked at the chip shop, then never again for about two years) and every Sunday a domenical carvery – I should add that these were occasional highlights to break up the monotony, not regular occurrences.

  6. I know what you mean. I came from a working class background too (I started out as a mechanic myself, although rather bizarrely later became a barrister). Except the odd family day trip to Boulogne, I didn’t go abroad till I was well into my 20’s. Food is scandalously expensive here, which is part of the reason we do not have a democratic food culture like, say, France or Italy, but it is of a pattern with everything else here, sadly (from my way of looking things). I don’t mind fish and chips, and eat them occasionally, but I find it tiresome to read about them in every travel feature and every guidebook as if it were the beginning and end of British food.

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