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The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Online

29th April 2008


Original Story URL:

Finally, 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" (, 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 renaissance today.

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 summer.

Other important U.K. anniversaries occur around May Day, too:

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 Through 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)

cup ( stick) butter

cup golden raisins

2 cups milk

4 eggs

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 pudding.

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 kedgeree.

This classic kedgeree recipe we reproduce here, without curry, was traditionally a breakfast dish. The original, from, called for smoked haddock, but smoked salmon is acceptable, too, and more readily available here.


Kedgeree (England)

Makes 4 servings


1 pound smoked salmon

3 hard-cooked eggs (divided)

cup ( stick) butter

2 cups cooked basmati rice

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.

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