Saturday, October 9, 2010

A gastronomic guide to traditional Britain

From pork pies to jellied eels, Simon Majumdar documents the endangered flavours of his homeland

At the end of last year I finished a journey that took me to nearly every corner of Britain. My aim was to meet as many as possible of the people who grow, prepare and sell the food we eat, to construct the perfect ''Best of British'' menu.

Along the way I met farmers, chefs, butchers, brewers, cheesemakers, distillers, restaurateurs, hunters and anglers who all took time to share their lives and food with me. It was a journey that was filled with privileged experiences: I imbibed whisky costing £10,000 ($16,250) a bottle and sipped exquisite tea from delicate china cups at Brown's Hotel in London's Mayfair.

It was also a journey blighted with occasional sadness as I witnessed the seemingly terminal decline of some of Britain's most traditional foods. Whether you love them or loathe them, London's pie-and-mash shops and jellied-eel stalls will probably be little more than a memory in less than a generation's time.

There were some experiences that gave cause for concern (hang your head in shame, those who think that chicken tikka lasagne is a good idea). Despite this, I returned from my adventure convinced that British food is on the up.

The Midlands

Staffordshire oatcakes

A regional British treasure, the oatcake, or ''oat flannel'' as it is sometimes known as, fuelled generations of workers in the Potteries. Quite different from its crisp Scottish cousin, the Staffordshire oatcake is more like a dense pancake made from batter containing three types of flour and oats. As the ceramics factories have disappeared, so, too, have the bakeries that provided their workers with this sustaining breakfast. However, there remain a dozen or so producers and between them they still make 350,000 oatcakes a year, nearly all eaten within the boundaries of Stoke-on-Trent. At the Oatcake Kitchen, former ceramics worker Chris Bates expertly griddles up to 1000 oatcakes a day. Try one the local way, stuffed with cheese. Eat in, or take away as the workers would have done as they rushed to the factory. Delicious.


Melton Mowbray pork pies

If I were stranded on a deserted island, I would dream of Melton Mowbray pork pies. The hand-raised, hot-water pastry; the fresh, seasoned pork; and the jelly from trotters make the most perfect combination. Last year the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association (see finally attained European PGI (protected geographical indication) status after more than a decade of trying. The name and recipe are now protected. If you want to see the fine art of hand-raising a pork pie for yourself, head to Dickinson & Morris in the town of Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire. It is one of the oldest pie shops and gives demonstrations.


Fish and chips

Like so much of the best of British food, fish and chips is a product of immigration. Portuguese-Jewish refugees brought their skills in the fish-frying department and collided with their Belgian and French counterparts who knew about frying potatoes. The dish was one of the few not to be rationed during World War II, so detrimental would it have been to the nation's morale. I tried examples in dozens of places but my favourite was in the unlikely surroundings of a Birmingham shopping centre. Great British Eatery was created in 2007 by two Brummies, Conrad Brunton and Andrew Insley. They fry their fish and chips in beef dripping and the smell as you walk through the door of their takeaway goes a long way to explaining why the place is a huge hit. See

Northern England

Lancashire hotpot

Few sights are more appealing than that of a hotpot being taken from the oven, its meaty lamb juices bubbling through the golden potato crust. Yet so few people have actually tried a real one. It is a slow-cooked reminder of hard-working times and deserves to be treasured, particularly when made as well as it is by a terrific young chef, Warrick Dodds, of Hastings in Lytham St Annes. Order it with a side dish of pickled red cabbage and a pint of local ale and follow it with an Eccles cake. See


Jellied eels

People either love them or loathe them. Unfortunately for the few remaining jellied-eel stalls in London, the latter seems more common. This is a shame because eels, cooked with water, salt and parsley, then set in the gelatine they release, are delicious. Tubby Isaacs's family has been selling eels on Goulston Street, near Petticoat Lane in London's East End, since 1919. This is the perfect place to learn the art of eating jellied eel. You might not like them as much as I do but you'll be sampling a piece of history. See

Potted shrimps

Brown shrimps with clarified butter and a hit of mace have been a staple of British cuisine since the late-Victorian era. Nowhere is this made with more care than at London's oldest restaurant, Rules, in Covent Garden. The shrimp is sauteed, set in butter and lobster oil and served with lemon and a slice of brown toast. See


Arbroath smokies

Arbroath smokies are cleaned and brined haddock that have been hot-smoked over oak chips until their skin is golden and the flesh beautifully white. Iain R. Spink and his mobile smoking set-up are a regular sight at the farmers' markets of Fife and he is well worth seeking out for one of the finest tastes of my whole trip. The markets are on Saturdays, rotating between Kirkcaldy, St Andrews, Dunfermline and Cupar. It is worth getting here early to see Spink and his enthusiastic crew at work and to buy a hot smokie straight from the fire, with its juices still bubbling under the skin. See;


The haggis by veteran Edinburgh butcher George Bower in Stockbridge are made with the whole ''pluck'' - lamb's heart, lung and liver - simmered in game stock and then minced twice with fresh onions, pinhead oatmeal and spices. The offally end result might not be to everyone's taste but there is no doubting that it is the real deal. See

Chicken tikka masala

The owner of the Shish Mahal curry house in Glasgow, Ali Ahmed Aslam, has a strong claim to be the inventor of chicken tikka masala. He created the dish in the mid-1970s using a tin of tomato soup to make a spicy gravy when a customer complained that his meal was dry. The rest is history. So much so that last year a Glasgow member of parliament tabled a motion to apply for protected status and to have the dish renamed the Glasgow Tikka Masala. That might be a rather silly notion but a sizzling bowl of tender spiced chicken, cooked in the tandoor then coated with a fiery, tomato-based sauce, is a British treasure. Ali Aslam and his two sons can still be found at the Shish Mahal, carrying plates of their most famous dish to hungry Glaswegians. See

Northern Ireland

The Ulster fry

The great British breakfast can be a thing of beauty but is all too often a plate of stodge floating in grease. Not so at Georgian House in Comber, south of Belfast. Unassuming chef Peter McKonkey has three decades of experience in Ireland's best kitchens and has one of the best ''frys'' in the country. The whopping plateful includes organic eggs, dense meaty sausages, thick smoked bacon, local black pudding, tomatoes, mushrooms and - just to make sure you wobble out the door - the best soda bread and potato farls I have tasted. Georgian House, phone +44 28 9187 1818.

Yellowman sweets

A treat for sweet-toothed Belfast boys and girls for generations, yellowman was originally created by Peggy Devlin and sold at the Ould Lammas Fair in Ballycastle. As the name suggests, it is a lurid yellow candy made from caramelised sugar frothed with bicarbonate of soda and allowed to set before being broken into jagged shards. The best-known source for yellowman is now Aunt Sandra's candy shop in Belfast. David, the nephew of the original owner, still makes most of the sweets the shop sells and gives regular demonstrations. See


Faggots and peas

They might not have the most appealing name (it comes from the Welsh for ''little bundle'') or be made from the most tempting ingredients but these cricket ball-sized parcels of minced pork lung, liver and belly wrapped in bacon or caul (the lining of the stomach) are delicious. N.S. James family butchers has made award-winning versions since the shop opened in 1959. Local restaurants such as the Beaufort Arms ( have them on their specials menu but I think there is no better way of eating them than straight from the butcher's oven as a takeaway, doused with vinegar and a hit of white pepper. See

Welsh cakes

The chance to join Pat Maddocks as she prepared a batch of 1000 Welsh cakes in the small kitchen of her Gower home allowed me to relive a slice of my childhood. The smell and taste of her flat, fruit-laden griddled cakes (like small scones to look at but more delicious), taken hot from the stove and spread with butter, transported me back to the days when my own grandmother prepared them. Pat and her husband, Anthony, have recently opened a tearoom where you can sample Wales's finest baked goods, including cakes made with a shot of Penderyn Welsh whisky. See


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