Editor’s Note: Let’s give a big Anglotopia welcome to Colleen Sehy, who is going to write about British food in America for Anglotopia.
Welcome to my new monthly column, Eating British in America. I’ve spent more than 35 years traveling across the United States exploring places with links to the British Isles. My travels increased significantly while I was conducting research for my upcoming book, Finding Shakespeare in America, a guide to connecting with the Bard in the US.
During my travels, I’ve visited restaurants, pubs, tearooms, and shops across the country that serve wonderful English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh foods. Eating British in America will highlight some of these businesses, and the people behind them, to help you find authentic tastes of Britain in the United States.
Are you interested in making British food at home? I’ll also share some of the recipes I’ve collected over the years, along with advice on preparing British recipes in American kitchens.
THE GROWING POPULARITY OF BRITISH FOOD
British food had a questionable reputation in America during much of the 20th century. This reputation overlooked the wealth of unique, delicious foods that can be found across the British Isles. Fortunately, Americans have learned more about the quality and diversity of British food in recent years.
Chefs such as Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver, and Gordon Ramsay have helped raise its profile with their popular television shows and cookbooks. Shows like Downton Abbey, Outlander, and Poldark have also sparked interest, generating cookbooks such as A Year in the Life of Downton Abbey: Seasonal Celebrations, Traditions, and Recipes; Outlander Kitchen: The Official Outlander Companion Cookbook; and The Poldark Cookery Book.
Then there’s The Great British Bake Off, which airs in the US as The Great British Baking Show. This popular show has produced a host of tie-in cookbooks, including The Great British Bake Off Big Book of Baking and The Great British Bake Off: Perfect Cakes and Bakes to Make at Home. Books from the show’s judges and contestants have also sold well in the US.
These and many other options make it easy for today’s Anglophiles to learn more about British food, but it hasn’t always been so easy for Americans to add British flair to their meals.
I started collecting British recipes after my first visit to England in 1979. Back then, I couldn’t just open a laptop and look up recipes online or order cookbooks from Amazon. Instead, I combed through library books and magazines to find recipes for things like Scotch eggs, toad-in-the-hole, Madeira cake, and other mysterious foods I encountered in the English books I was reading. I was in heaven when I stumbled across my first English cookbook in a used bookstore!
Today, I have more than 100 cookbooks on English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish cooking. They’re filled with recipes for historic dishes, regional specialities, pub grub, afternoon tea treats, and much more. I’ve tried quite a few of these recipes over the years. Some of my efforts have fallen flat, while others have become a welcome sight in our house.
The foods of the British Isles are as varied as its peoples. Each country has its own culinary traditions, and within each country, regional specialities abound.
Anglophiles are probably familiar with English foods like bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie, and fish and chips. But what about bubble and squeak, Lancashire hotpot, Eton mess, and treacle tart? Wales is known for its national vegetable, the leek, and for Welsh rarebit, but have you ever tried laverbread, Glamorgan sausages, or bara brith?
Scottish specialities such as smoked salmon, haggis, and shortbread, and Irish specialities like soda bread and Irish stew are widely recognized in America. But Scottish specialities such as Cullen skink, Scotch collops, bridies, and black bun, and Irish specialities like boxty, champ, coddle, and barmbrack are almost unknown.
Many regional recipes are based on local bounty and have evolved over hundreds of years. For example, cider is closely associated with the English counties of Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, and Worcestershire in western England, where a wide variety of apples have long flourished. Britain’s long stretches of coastline yield popular delicacies like Whitstable oysters, Manx queen scallops, and finnan haddie, a cold-smoked haddock from Scotland.
Distinct versions of clotted cream developed on the dairy farms of Devonshire, Cornwall, and Somerset in England. Regional baked goods include Dundee cake and Selkirk bannock in Scotland; Northumberland singing hinny, Bakewell tart, parkin (claimed by both Yorkshire and Lancashire), and Eccles cakes in England; and Waterford blaa in Ireland.
Some regional specialities have earned protected status from the European Union, including Stilton and Wensleydale cheeses, Welsh lamb, Cornish pasties, Jersey Royal potatoes, Cumberland sausage, and Scotch whisky. Protected status recognizes and safeguards unique foods and agricultural products, and helps increase awareness of these culinary treasures.
Organizations and programs such as the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), the Red Tractor Assured Food Standards program, and Love British Food are also helping to promote and preserve local foods and beverages.
There have also been many international influences on British cuisine. Some of those influences date back hundreds of years, such as the introduction of the potato from South America in the late 16th century. India’s influence is reflected in foods like kedgeree, chicken tikka masala, vindaloo, and chips smothered in curry sauce. Turkey contributed the popular doner kebab, and Italy’s influence is found in dishes like spaghetti Bolognese (sometimes called spag bol) and lasagna, which is often made with bechamel sauce in England.
IRISH TEA AND ENGLISH TEA DIFFERENCES
Many of the businesses I’ll be highlighting in this column were started by British expats or the descendants of British immigrants. They take pride in bringing an authentic taste of their homelands to America.
An example of this pride can be found in Loraine Dalton Gist, who regularly presents a program called An Irish Celebration of Tea at the Irish Cultural Center in Phoenix, Arizona. Loraine developed the program to highlight the differences between Irish tea traditions and the more widely known tea traditions of England. In addition to learning about the history and customs of tea in Ireland, participants also sample some popular Irish teas and practice making a proper Irish ‘cuppa’ under Loraine’s expert guidance.
Most importantly, the presentation highlights the spirit of hospitality that’s deeply ingrained in Irish culture, and the important role that tea plays in that hospitality. This spirit is evident as Loraine shares a wealth of anecdotes about her life in Ireland, while participants sip their perfect cuppas and sample her delicious Irish soda bread.
JOIN ME EVERY MONTH
Loraine is just one of the many people I’ve met who are eager to share their culinary and cultural heritage with America. Be sure to join me each month as we meet more of these individuals on our great British food odyssey across the United States.
I’m also looking forward to hearing about your favorite recipes and your favorite places to eat British in America.
I’ve collected pictures of some of the foods we’ll be exploring on the Classic British Food board on my Pinterest page. I hope these pictures and my upcoming columns will inspire you to add some British flair to your dining experiences!