If you’re from the UK, beige food is just another part of growing up. It’s the boiled egg and soldiers you’d eat before school, the stodgy fruit trifle you gobbled at your grandparents’ house on Boxing Day, the dollop of bubble and squeak from your local greasy spoon that cured that particularly shitty hangover.
But it’s these sorts of decades-old dishes that inspired food researcher Ben Mervis to put together ‘The British Cookbook’: a 550-recipe journey through traditional foods from all over the the UK. ‘British food isn’t talked about a lot because it’s sitting in front of you every day,’ Mervis says. ‘It might be beige, but it really is fantastic.’
British cooking isn’t just about comfort and simplicity (although they both play a big part). It’s about being resourceful. ‘[When researching the book], one thing that was really surprising was just how in tune people used to be with seasonality and biodiversity,’ Mervis says. ‘A hundred years ago, cookbooks mapped out every week of the year and showed what you could be doing to prepare all of the plants and ingredients available. You’d use everything you could, eat every part of the animal, and preserve things out of necessity.’
And the best thing? They usually taste pretty great too. To celebrate the best of the beige, here are our top five traditional British foods – and what Ben has to say about them. Time to get greedy, polish off your potato-peeling skills and dig in.
‘The traditional Welsh harvest stew, the cawl (simply ‘broth’ in Welsh) varied in substance from house to house, and indeed season to season, depending on what was in abundance. Typically, however, it was made using salted bacon or beef and leeks, cabbage and potatoes, along with the cook’s choice of root vegetables. Today, tough cuts such as lamb neck or beef shin are preferred to bacon pieces. In many parts of Wales, it’s still common to eat cawl in wooden bowls with wooden spoons, with a crusty bread and good cheese served alongside.’
‘Balti is named after the wok-style pan in which it’s cooked, which literally means ‘bucket’. Made popular in Pakistani-owned restaurants (mainly in Bradford and Birmingham), the cooking style is a fast stir-fry, with balti pans set over large stoves with vertical jet flames.’
‘An Eccles cake is a flaky butter pastry filled with a sweetly spiced currant mixture, easily recognisable by the three narrow steam holes through which its caramelised filling invariably seeps. The crispy caramelised edges that form are something you should welcome if not seek out especially. In the last few decades, London restaurant St. John has created a craze over the Eccles cake, which they bake in house and serve with a wedge of soft, crumbly Lancashire cheese.’
‘A full breakfast is a hefty meal, with just enough grease and carbohydrates to mend a sore head and send you back to bed. The composition of the quintessential big British breakfast, however, is an understandably contentious issue. Composed of up to a dozen elements, and varying widely from region to region, this is much more personal preference than textbook definition. Most would agree that essentials include eggs, bacon, sausage and toast, as well as fried mushrooms and broiled tomatoes. Beyond that, however, it’s the domain of either cook or diner. Some regional variations include haggis in Scotland, vegetable roll in Northern Ireland, laverbread in Wales.’
Mince and tatties
‘Mince and tatties is a traditional Scottish dish, one of those deceptively simple ones where, as you eat, you think to yourself, “How can this be so good?” The key is well-browned fatty beef mince (ground beef) and onions. They are cooked in a little oatmeal, then simmered in a rich beef stock and dark beer until the mixture is thick.’
The British Cookbook by Ben Mervis is published by Phaidon.
Read more: 7 hidden foodie destinations in the UK.