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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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06.06.06

London Calling

Food History, Travel


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london window display

The glories of the English table showcased at Fortnum and Mason.

I wonder sometimes why England has such a bad reputation for food. I’ve been going to England for decades, and I’ve only had one or two mediocre meals, and most of the time I’ve eaten splendidly. Sure, nowadays everyone points to the handful of famous venues that are popping up on “best restaurant lists.” Or people will say, “It’s because of the great ethnic eateries.” Yeah, England has those—big time. When I lived in England as a student, I relied heavily on the ethnic restaurants, though mostly because they were fun and cheap. But even before my university days, I’d already learned to love English food.

And what’s not to love. It’s an island, so fresh seafood is abundant and glorious. Even the French envy England’s rostbif. There is wonderful game and fabulous produce. And England has a glorious cheese heritage that dates back to the Roman Empire. To tell the truth, when I plan a trip to London, the food is one of the things I look forward to.

I’m not the first person to think this. Before scads of Americans were exposed to the tattered remains of British cuisine during World War II, England had an incredible international reputation as a food destination, and as a nation of foodies. If you want proof, just read Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels. They are primarily about the British Navy during the 1700s, but so much time is spent talking about food that a cookbook (Lobscouse & Spotted Dog) was published to recreate the dishes featured in the books, from goose and truffle pie to ship’s biscuit. England was wealthy, and ever since the ancient Greeks decided that people with money should eat better than everyone else, wealth has meant good food. And remember, the English didn’t spread the island’s imperial mantle to India because they liked bland, uninteresting food. They went for the spices.

England has long been on the cutting edge of culinary consumption. It was in England in 1700 that milk was first added to chocolate. Earlier still, it was England that initiated Europe’s love affair with coffee. Though coffee was being drunk in Muslim countries as early as the 15th century, it was not until a Jewish merchant from Turkey opened a coffee house in Oxford in 1650 that coffee culture really caught hold in Europe. France was next, then Vienna, and soon coffee houses were all over Europe. In England, coffee houses became the gathering places of intellectuals, politicians, and anyone else who liked to talk. One great chain of coffee houses, Kardomah, became a fixture in the high streets of towns throughout the UK. Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and his circle of friends frequented these shops with such regularity that they were known as “the Kardomah boys.” I can remember stopping at a Kardomah coffee house when I first visited London at age 14. They served coffee with amber sugar crystals, rather than plain, white sugar. I was enchanted. Today, though Starbucks has now displaced the majority of the old Kardomah cafés, there is still a lovely coffee culture in England.

England’s oldest restaurant, Rules, opened in 1798, and it’s a great place to indulge in classic English fare. Their menu offers a wide range of delights, including many varieties of game. Friends with whom I’ve dined assure me that everything is outstanding, and one friend still rhapsodizes about the smoked Scottish salmon. I believe them, but at Rules, I always order the same thing: the velvety, rich, flavorful Stilton soup as my starter and the splendid wild highland red deer for my main course. The preparation of the red deer varies each time I visit, but it is always superb. The history at Rules is almost as rich as the food. This is where Bertie (later King Edward VII) took Lilly Langtry while he was wooing her, and it has been the hangout of England’s literati for generations (Graham Greene loved the place). The interior boasts gorgeous wood paneling, murals, stained-glass skylights, hundreds of pictures, and mounted antlers and animal heads. I try to get to Rules every time I go to London.

Simpson's CarverAnother favorite place to eat in London is Simpson’s-in-the Strand. As it approaches its 200th birthday, Simpson’s remains a bastion of all that is best in Britain’s dining traditions. The polished oak-paneled walls, high ornate plaster ceiling, and glowing chandeliers of the Grand Divan, Simpson’s main dining room, offer a wonderfully imposing setting for the flawless service and classic food. At Simpson’s, I’ve indulged in rich lobster soup, potato soup with truffle oil, and butternut squash soup with toasted pumpkin seeds. However, while I vary my starters here, I am as stuck on my main course as I am at Rules. Simpson’s roasts are almost legendary, and I invariably order the flavorful Scottish Angus beef, which is aged for 28 days and roasted to perfection. A carver rolls a silver-domed cart to your table and carves your beef tableside. It comes with buttery Savoy cabbage, roasted potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, and a rough-cut horseradish mixed with heavy cream that is unsurpassed anywhere.

Pubs are almost always reliable places to get food, as well as to sample England’s wide range of beverages. I don’t fancy beer, but I love the hard ciders that English pubs generally have on draft. Pub grub can range from simple sandwiches, leek pies, and beef roasts to complex, French-influenced dishes. For a hearty midday meal that is delicious, traditional, and relatively inexpensive, try a ploughman’s lunch. A ploughman’s lunch consists of a large chunk of whatever cheese is the local specialty, fresh bread with butter, a pickled onion, a bit of salad, and something known as Branston pickle, which is a bit like large chutney. This meal can generally be found in even the most remote and humble of pubs. Of course, if the sign outside a pub says “Chef and Brewer,” forget humble and expect to be impressed by the extensive menu.

Pubs predate restaurants by centuries, so the oldest pubs are older than the oldest restaurants. London has a number of delightful pubs that are 300 or more years old, but Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is probably the most famous. Here, the history is as important as the food. Parked in the middle of Medieval London, in an area that was home or hangout for many of the giants of English literature, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese hosted Dr. Samuel Johnson, who lived around the corner, and Charles Dickens, who describes it (though he doesn’t name it) in A Tale of Two Cities. The pub was rebuilt after the Great Fire in 1666. You can pop into the bar for a pint of their excellent private-label cider or beer, or you can eat in the ancient, creaky, wood-paneled dining room, where royals, diplomats, writers, and locals have mingled for centuries. The food can on occasion be overcooked, but most of the time it ranges from good to excellent—classic English fare such as duck and port pâté, roast beef, steak and kidney pie, bubble-and-squeak, and spotted dick (a classic steamed pudding dotted with currants).

England’s food has roots that stretch back for millennia. As invading Romans marched toward London in AD 43, they found a thriving, well-established food market on the southern side of the Thames. It was called the Southwark Fair Market, and it became even more successful after the Romans built the first bridge across the river. By 1014, merchants from all over Europe were traveling to this market to trade. The market was acknowledged as an institution by 1276, and in 1754, the market at Southwark was officially recognized by Act of Parliament, with its 4.5 acres in Central London permanently safeguarded. Still vividly active today, the Borough Market in Southwark is a bustling culinary paradise packed with fabulous seafood, game, fruit, veggies, honey, jams, herbs, and myriad other delights. The crowds include not only knowledgeable shoppers stocking their private larders, but also restaurateurs in search of the freshest and best ingredients. And noshing at the 2,000-year-old marketplace can extend beyond the odd free sample, as many vendors sell snacks and even lunches, so you don’t have to choose between shopping and eating.

The Romans didn’t just view the goodies they found in England; they introduced their own foods and food ideas. Among the most important of these was cheese. England is a dairy farmers’ delight, so cheese culture throve. With moderate temperatures and lush grass, there was an abundance of good, rich milk from cows, sheep, and goats. Some of the world’s most famous and revered cheeses evolved in the verdant English countryside: Cheddar, Stilton, Cheshire, Wensleydale. Though England’s cheese culture was seriously damaged by the two World Wars, a movement that began in the 1970s has seen an emphasis on protecting and promoting England’s wonderfully varied cheeses, and many varieties rarely seen since World War I are now reemerging.

In London, there are no better places to sample the delights of England’s cheese makers than at Neal’s Yard or Paxton & Whitfield. If you haven’t had Stilton, you must try it, but also check out Gloucester, Derby, and Leicester. At these great cheese emporia, you can also find farm-made cheeses that are uncommon even in England, such as Cornish Yarg, a creamy cow’s-milk cheese that is aged wrapped in the aromatic leaves of the Cornish nettle; Ticklemore, a crumbly, flavorful goat cheese from Devon; or Lord of the Hundred, a sheep’s-milk cheese from Sussex. But ask for recommendations—and samples. The merchants in these shops love cheese, and they love talking about it.

london cheese shop

Neal’s Yard, one of London’s top cheese merchants, offers a wide range of beautiful English cheeses.

And speaking of dairy products, what about Devonshire cream? Afternoon tea with a bowl of almost unspeakably rich Devonshire clotted cream for spreading on your scones is heaven.

We haven’t even touched on the wonderful pie shops, fish and chips, kedgeree, or the full English breakfast, and this piece is already running long. But a word must be said about two of London’s most famous food shopping destinations: Harrods Food Halls and Fortnum & Mason. Harrods Food Halls are gloriously elegant and stunningly extensive. Marble fountains showcase the freshest seafood in the fish and seafood hall. Chandeliers in the fruit and vegetable hall are sculpted to reflect the wares below. The prepared food hall features more pâtés, terrines, and specialty delights than most people can comprehend, and the candy hall is paradise. Most of the décor and even the attire of some who work in the food halls reflect the periods that gave rise to this over-the-top food palace.

London Piehouse

London’s old pie houses are great places to get traditional fare at reasonable prices.

Fortnum & Mason, founded in 1707, is even more elegant and 150 years older than Harrods. Tales of F&M are woven into England’s history, literature, and lore—and it is important enough to have been alluded to in the film The Madness of King George. Knowledgeable clerks in morning coats see to the needs of customers in the remarkable wood-paneled food hall on the ground floor. Stroll to the back, past displays of teas and coffees and glass cases filled with glacéed fruits, decadent pastries, and fabulous prepared foods, and you will find yourself in a lovely restaurant that offers an outstanding Welsh rarebit, as well as an unbelievable chocolate gateau for afternoon tea.

English food is not dramatically different from American fare, and perhaps this is why some are disappointed; the food is not sufficiently exotic. But the food is not entirely the same. There is enough familiar to comfort the less adventurous, but also glorious goodies to be enjoyed by the lover of great food. And there are even a few adventures to be had: keep an eye out jellied or stewed eels, once the almost ubiquitous “fast food” of England’s working class, but still available in some of London’s venerable pie shops.

Of course, the ethnic places are a treat, as are the newer, high-end news-grabbers. These can add variety to the menu, if your stay is long and you find you’re tiring of English fare. But don’t go expecting to hate English food, because English food is great.

4 Comments on "London Calling"

Gene Eagles

I too have been surprised at comments about the poor food in Britain. Over the last 25 years I have traveled about the UK, east, west, north and south and found traditional English food just wonderful and of course the variety of ethnic dishes a pleasure as well.
Gene Eagles—Formia, Italy



Cynthia


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Just saw this press release, and thought it was a timely addition to the defense of British food.

Meals Fit for a Queen
The BBC are championing British food with a new eight-week TV series to find
the ultimate British menu which will be served to Her Majesty the Queen at
her 80th birthday banquet in June. DK is publishing the tie-in book with
over 100 recipes from 14 of Britain’s top chefs, all of who are
participating in the contest to get their dishes on to the final menu. This
book will change the way you think about British food: from starters and
fish dishes, to meat courses and desserts, you can prepare a delicious meal
incorporating the eclectic flavours and styles that make up British cooking
today.

For more information see
http://www.dorlingkindersley-uk.co.uk/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,11_1405316500,0
0.html



Cynthia

One last thing I remembered. While there are myriad wonderful, small, privately owned shops for baked goods, fruit, etc., if you’re wandering about London and simply need a good grocery store, Waitrose is the most sensational. If all you need is tissue, you can go anywhere, but if you want gorgeous fruit, a great selection of beverages, a tremendous array of cheeses (English and European), and a hot food section that serves everything from classic English to exceptionally good Indian ready-made meals, then Waitrose is the place to stop. It’s kind of England’s Whole Foods, but a bit more high-end/cosmopolitan.



NAPOLEON DE NOTTING HILL

PAXTON AND WHITFIELD IS AMAZING!!WHAT A CHEESE VARIETY!!I ALSO LOVE HARRODS MARKET.



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