a chance to dance
Oft-maligned British food is gaining respect
May Day! May Day! Time for British food!
This is not a distress call. Nor is it a joke.
It is an invitation to change some old and, some would
say, unfair perceptions about the cuisine of the United Kingdom.
It isn't all suet puddings and marmite, you know.
Instead, we've got better kippers to fry: How about
some cranachan, with the essential ingredient of single-malt scotch? Or some
bara brith, a.k.a. "spotted bread," which could be called the national bread of
Wales? There is also a tasty little Scottish number with the tastier-sounding
name of cullen skink.
Most U.K. foodies trace Britain's bad food rep back to
the days of rationing, introduced at the end of World War I, and enforced during
the very lean years of World War II, when sugar, butter, eggs, flour, cheese and
meats were strictly controlled. British cooks had to learn to make do - and the
results weren't always palatable, given the absence of ingredients that impart
the best flavor and texture.
Sam Breach, a British ex-pat whose San Francisco-based
blog, known as "Becks & Posh" (becksposhnosh.blogspot.com/), incorporates
restaurant reviews and her own adventurous cooking experiences, also blames the
cooking methods devised in the postwar years.
"I know they definitely overcooked," Breach says of
her mother's generation of cooks. "I was brought up on boiled foods. It was
really terrible stuff."
On the other hand, June Gray of Milwaukee, who owned
the former Bits of Britain, a British tea room and bakery, grew up with
rationing in the industrial English town of Stoke-on-Trent "and I don't ever
remember wanting for anything."
"Then again, I was fortunate because my mother knew
how to cook," Gray says.
Before rationing, cooking in Britain was an exercise
in combining the best of local ingredients with the best from Her Majesty's
colonies, whether it was cinnamon from Ceylon, cardamom from India or wild
blueberries from Canada. Thanks to efforts of U.K. celebrity chefs, such as
Jamie Oliver and Marco Pierre White, traditional British cooking is enjoying a
The first day of May offers a timely opportunity to
reorient our American palate for things British. May Day has a long tradition in
"dear old Blighty," where records show maypole dancing and celebrations have
been popular since before the Middle Ages.
The maypole has earlier, pre-Christian ties to the
Saxons, who associated it with fertility and rebirth in spring. Evidently
Parliament was uncomfortable with this randier May Day connection, as it banned
maypole dancing in 1644, calling it "a heathenish vanity, generally abused to
superstition and wickedness."
Fortunately, the ban was ignored or forgotten; the
"wickedness" of maypole dancing survived and thrived through the centuries.
The "Oxford Book of Days" (2000), a history of each
day in the calendar, has one of its longest entries for May 1.
"May Day is rich in customs, perhaps more so than any
other day of the year," write authors Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc
Holford-Strevens, who then cite nine pages worth of historical records detailing
May Day celebrations.
One record from 1515 has a young Henry VIII, "as in
the 3rd of his reign, and divers other years, so namely in the 7th of his
reign," celebrating the bringing in of May with Catherine of Aragon, by leading
a procession from Greenwich to Shooter's Hill. There they watched as 200 archers
dressed in green hoods, "one being their chieftan, was called Robin Hood," shot
their arrows into the air.
By the 17th century, May Day had become a day for
milkmaids and chimney sweeps to parade through London, collecting silver.
Now May Day is a national bank holiday in the U.K.,
celebrated on the first Monday of the month, the first long weekend of the
Other important U.K. anniversaries occur around May
• Scotland, Ireland and Celtic communities in Cornwall
and the Isle of Man celebrate May 1 as "Beltane Day," the name derived from the
Gaelic for "first of May."
• The Act of Union, which joined Scotland to England
to form the government of Great Britain, took effect on May 1, 1707.
• St. George's Day, which commemorates England's
patron saint, falls on April 23.
To honor St. George's Day last year, Breach invited
her readers to complete the sentence: "English food is not a joke because . . .
She ran more than 60 responses, which ranged from
recollections of sponge puddings drenched in toffee syrup to defense of the
ever-hardy shepherd's pie.
"I know that the Brits have a bad reputation for food,
which they have to live with, but I think most people can appreciate British
desserts," Breach says. "I was really pleased that people could find good stuff
in the savory side, as well."
May Day commemorations aside, there is another reason
to try these traditional dishes: They are relatively simple to make, coming from
a time before the advent of modern culinary tastes, which demand ever longer
lists of ingredients and complicated steps. None of the recipes in our package,
for example, requires more than 10 ingredients.
"They really are foods meant to be cooked by people in
their homes," Breach says.
And the foods are very regional, with a strong sense
of place preserved in the flavors. One bite of a Bakewell Tart, for instance,
takes Breach to Derbyshire, where the pastry originated.
Gray likes to make oatcakes, the simple, pancake-like
flatbread from around Staffordshire, where she grew up.
"They have never diminished," Gray says. "People still
like to line up Saturday mornings for their oatcakes" at a couple of well-known
shops near her hometown. "And they're about as basic as you can get."
This regionalism may be another reason British food is
undergoing a revival. In the face of the global sameness of fast food and chain
stores, a hearty helping of Buckingham Suet Dumpling sounds refreshingly unique.
"I get upset when I hear people say, 'Oh, the food in
England is terrible,' " Gray says. "We're living in 2008. You don't have to eat
at McDonald's anymore."
Last, a wee culinary disclaimer: Ireland's cuisine has
its charms, too, not least being Guinness and soda bread, but Irish cooking also
gets its due on St. Patrick's Day. For that reason, we focus here on fare from
the rest of the U.K.: England, Scotland and Wales.
This recipe is adapted from
April and May, the site has a special page devoted to St. George's Day (April
23), commemorating England's patron saint. That page has a map of the districts
of England; click on any district for a recipe traditional to that area.
Bread and Butter Pudding (England)
Makes 4 servings
6 slices bread (see note)
¼ cup (½ stick) butter
½ cup golden raisins
2 ½ cups milk
3 tablespoons sugar (divided)
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Remove crusts from bread and butter both sides of each
slice. Cut each piece into four triangles. Set aside four triangles for top of
Arrange remaining triangles in layers in an 8-inch
square pan, small oval casserole dish or 9-inch pie pan, sprinkling raisins
between layers. Top with reserved triangles.
Heat milk in saucepan until very hot, but not boiling.
Remove from heat. Whisk together eggs and 2 tablespoons sugar, then add milk in
a thin stream, whisking constantly.
Slowly pour custard over bread slices, being careful
not to dislodge the decorative top layer. Let stand 10 minutes.
Sprinkle remaining 1 tablespoon sugar over top and
bake pudding in preheated oven 30 to 40 minutes, or until top browns.
Note: This recipe works best with a dense,
artisanal white bread.
Kedgeree is an Anglicized version of kitchiri, an
Indian dish popular among British soldiers stationed in India in the 19th
century. When soldiers brought the recipe home, their fellow Victorians quickly
plained it down, removing the zesty Indian spices to make it suitable for their
less adventurous palates. With the popularity of ethnic Asian "take-aways" among
U.K. diners today, many English cooks are putting the curry back into their
This classic kedgeree recipe we reproduce here,
without curry, was traditionally a breakfast dish. The original, from
www.Recipes4us.co.uk, called for
smoked haddock, but smoked salmon is acceptable, too, and more readily available
Makes 4 servings
1 pound smoked salmon
3 hard-cooked eggs (divided)
¼ cup (½ stick) butter
2 ½ cups cooked basmati rice
¼ teaspoon pepper, or to taste
1/8 teaspoon salt, or to taste
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
In skillet, heat salmon with enough water to cover,
about 2 cups. Simmer gently about 10 minutes, or until heated through. Drain
well. Discard skin and bones.
Chop one egg finely.
In large skillet, melt butter. Add fish, chopped egg
and rice. Season with pepper. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, about
8 minutes or until heated through. Transfer to serving platter.
Slice remaining two eggs into quarters. Arrange
quarters on top of rice and season with salt.
Garnish with chopped parsley.