The savoury dishes normally associated with traditional English cooking are characterized by a total lack of pretension and infantile simplicity of preparation, and distinguish themselves more by their strangely esoteric names than any claim to subtlety of taste. The limited space available to me in this blog does not allow mention to extend beyond the following, which are generally considered to be among the most common:
Bubble and Squeak
In the past this was a standard Monday lunch fry-up of vegetables and meat left-overs from the Sunday roast. Preparation and cooking present no great challenge, being well within the reach of a moderately sharp six-year-old. Instead of being tipped into the wheelie bin, ingredients are chopped up and dumped into a frying pan. Mashed potato is then added as a binder, and the resulting agglomeration fried and turned until golden brown. The name itself, apparently, is an onomatopoeic echo of the sounds emitted during the frying process.
Contrary to what most French people think, a pudding is not necessarily a hot dessert. Traditionally, Yorkshire Pudding is eaten either with the main Sunday dish of roast beef and vegetables, or on its own as a starter. Made simply from a mixture of plain flour, milk and eggs, preparation is well within the competence of anyone capable of producing a tolerable cup of instant coffee, though it is vital to use lard as a cooking medium, and the oven must be really hot before baking. The dish can include onions, and is served with plain gravy or onion gravy sauce.
Bangers and Mash
This quintessentially English dish consists of sausages served with mashed potatoes. Preparation is elementary enough to be well within the capabilities of anybody able to crack an egg five times out of ten without breaking the yolk. My French readers may be interested to note that ‘banger’ is a familiar word for a sausage, and constitutes an onomatopoeic reference to the fact that, unless thoroughly pricked before frying, their high water content makes them liable to explode with a deafening bang.
A sausage covered in a thick, Yorkshire Pudding-type batter, and then baked in the oven. Given that the sausage is usually bought ready-made, this is yet another dish which would not tax the culinary skills of anyone capable of making a decent cup of tea (though apparently the next-in-line to the English throne can’t). Why the strange-sounding name? One explanation is that the end of the sausage emerging from its batter is not without resembling a toad sticking its head out of a hole. Well … err with a bit of imagination, why not?
While not quite rivalling the elaborateness and diversity of their French equivalents, what is more normal in a nation of sweet-toothed cream faces that English cakes, buns and especially hot sweet puddings have considerably less to apologize for than their savoury companions? The following rank among the more common:
A thick, smooth mixture of gently-cooked egg yolks, sugar, milk or cream, frequently flavoured with vanilla, and usually served as a hot accompaniment to fruit pies and tarts, or in firmer, cold form as one of the layers of another typically English sweet treat – trifle (see below). A measure of the excellence of this relatively easy-to-make sauce, and a tribute to the country it originated from, are to be found in the fact that it was long ago adopted by the French under the name of la crème anglaise. Unfortunately, unlike in France where it is still systematically hand-prepared, English custard is nowadays, more often than not, purchased in convenience yellow-powder form, to which milk is simply added prior to gentle heating.
An intriguingly-named, steamed, sweet suet pudding containing currants and raisins, and usually served with custard or treacle sauce. Why ‘spotted?’ Presumably, because the dark-coloured currants are plainly visible from the outside. And what about ‘Dick?’ Despite the comparison the more indelicate among my English readers will now be making, the likeliest explanation is that, since this pudding is made by rolling the suet mixture into a cylindrical shape, the name is derived from its resemblance to a ‘sausage’ dog. This would seemingly be reinforced by the fact that another name for the pudding is ‘Spotted Dog’, and that ‘Dick’ like ‘Fido’ was formerly a common canine name.
It was the Asian human and resulting culinary invasion of the fifties and sixties which brought rice to the notice of the English as a vegetable ingredient of the main dish. Even though they will now consume vast quantities of it with their Chop Suey or Biryani, rice, unlike in France, has never been an accepted part of typical English main course cooking, and has always been consumed in sweet, pudding form. Cooked long and slowly in the oven with liberal helpings of milk, cream and sugar, it is often served with a dollop or two of jam, or reinforced by even more fresh cream.
A gelatine-based, fruit-flavoured dessert. Jelly’s wobbly configuration and impressive fluorescent colours are a source of open-mouthed incredulity for French visitors to England, but make it a firm favourite among English children who enjoy it at party time with ice-cream. Usually purchased in cubes to which hot water is simply added, the resulting mixture is then allowed to cool and set. Jelly also provides the penultimate layer for ‘trifle’ – another typically English cold, festive sweet made up of thicknesses of sponge cake, custard, fruit, and lavishly topped with whipped cream.
A slowly steamed and/or baked, dark, rich, festive cake of currants, raisins, candied peel, glacé cherries and almonds, to which is frequently added – though hardly in inebriating proportions – a flavouring dose of brandy or dark rum. Not only have the French paid the English the compliment of appropriating the cake for themselves (though usually in less rich form), but they have been honest enough to acknowledge its origins by retaining the English name (le cake is a reference to this English fruit variety in particular, and not to cake in general). Traditionally, English fruitcake is generously coated in marzipan and icing for birthdays, and is presented in an elaborate, architectural, multi-tiered form for weddings. And an English Christmas would not be the same without it.