Traditional British cuisine: a food map of the UK

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10 min read
AUTHOR: Carol Wilson
A cup of tea on top of the Union Jack

What is traditional British cuisine? The UK may not be renowned for its gastronomy, but England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have several national dishes to be proud of, and some of them are even popular in the rest of the world.
Always remember to pair a savoury dish with beer or whisky, and pudding with a cup of tea, of course.

England

The ‘roast beef of old England’ appeared on the tables of the wealthy as far back as the sixteenth century and established the reputation of England as a meat eating nation and as a producer of high quality beef.
Although we don’t consume the same vast quantities of beef as our ancestors, we still have a healthy appetite for roast beef which is so well known throughout the world, our French neighbours have nicknamed us ‘Les Rosbifs.’
Modern twists to plain roast beef include marinating in red wine, spices or treacle before cooking.

Roast beef is traditionally accompanied by roast potatoes, vegetables and Yorkshire pudding. The first written recipe for ‘A Dripping Pudding’ appeared in ‘The Whole Duty of Woman’ by an anonymous author in 1737.
The mixture of flour, eggs and milk was placed under the joint of meat, so that the juices from the meat, dripped onto the baking pudding. It was first named ‘Yorkshire Pudding’ by Hannah Glasse in 1747 in her famous cookbook ‘The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy’ and was a popular choice in Yorkshire coaching inns. Originally the pudding was eaten on its own with gravy before the main course, to curb appetites for the expensive meat. Modern additions to the basic recipe flavour the batter with chillis, herbs, cheese, or use beer instead of milk for the batter.

English Sunday roast

Traditional English roast dinner

fish and chips wrapped in newspaper

Fish and chips

Left: Traditional English roast dinner

Right: Fish and chips

Fish and chips, a national favourite, has been hugely popular ever since the first shop to sell it opened in the 1860s, although whether this was in London or Lancashire is disputed.
White fish coated in batter and fried until crisp with chipped potatoes, then sprinkled liberally with salt and vinegar is convenient to eat straight from their paper wrapping outside or served at home.
The nation’s best loved takeaway was one of the few foods that weren’t rationed in World War II and every English town has at least one ‘chippy’.

The famous English sweet tooth is evident in an enormous variety of puddings and desserts, such as hearty steamed and baked puddings, jellies, milk puddings, fruit fools and trifle.

Trifle in a glass

Trifle

sticky toffee pudding

Sticky toffee pudding with ice cream

Left: Trifle

Right: Sticky toffee pudding with ice cream

Quintessentially English, a properly made trifle is a luxurious dessert and has remained a well-loved classic since the eighteenth century. Consisting of layers of sponge cake soaked in sherry, rich custard, jam or fruit and whipped cream, topped with a sprinkling of toasted flaked almonds; later toppings include glacé cherries colourful ‘Hundreds and Thousands’ or silver balls.

Today, sticky toffee pudding is the nation’s favourite and has become a modern classic, featuring on restaurant and pub menus throughout the country. A fluffy baked sponge containing dates, it’s accompanied by rich toffee sauce and often served with ice cream or whipped cream. The origins of this delicious pudding are unclear, but ever since its creation in the late 1960s–1970s, it has remained much in demand.

Northern Ireland

The number one and best known national dish is Ulster fry. While not originally specifically associated with breakfast, lately it’s been promoted as Northern Ireland’s version of an English cooked breakfast.
What makes it unique is the addition of potato bread and soda bread, (fried or grilled until crisp and golden) to the bacon, sausages, black pudding and egg. Traditionally, the fry must not contain anything that cannot be fried in bacon fat, and there is much discussion about what can and cannot be included. Baked beans, potatoes, tomato, mushrooms and white pudding are rejected by traditionalists, but are sometimes added as optional extras. As people are more health conscious nowadays, grilling instead of frying is becoming popular.

Ulster Fry

Ulster fry

loaf of bread

Soda bread, or farl

Left: Ulster fry

Right: Soda bread, or farl

Another celebrated speciality is Irish stew and there are several variations – in Northern Ireland pork spare ribs were used. Originally it was made with just mutton, potatoes and onions, simmered slowly until thick and rich. Nowadays lamb is frequently used instead of mutton.
Other ingredients may include carrots and pearl barley, although these are disdained by purists who maintain they spoil the authentic flavour.

Soda bread, a soft, thick bread, is considered a national culinary star and is a common staple in Northern Ireland, where it is often called a soda farl – short for ‘fardel’ (a fardel is a quarter) because the dough is cut into four triangles before it is cooked on a griddle.
It was first baked in the 1800s in Ireland, and is made with flour, bicarbonate of soda (known as ‘bread soda’ in Northern Ireland), salt and buttermilk, which gives it a distinctive flavour.

The Society For the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread is dedicated to protecting this national culinary treasure and encourages people to learn how to make traditional Irish soda bread. Nowadays, soda breads are sometimes enriched with dried fruit and served as a teatime treat.

potato bread in a pan

Potato bread, or fadge

pudding in a bowl

Carrageen pudding with rhubarb and cream

Left: Potato bread, or fadge

Right: Carrageen pudding with rhubarb and cream

Potato bread, also known as fadge is well known. Potatoes were also used to make boxty bread, an unusual bread made with both raw and boiled potatoes. It’s usually made as a pancake and served as part of an Ulster fry.

Potatoes have formed an important part of the Irish diet since the seventeenth century and traditional classics include champ, (mashed potatoes with butter and spring onions) and colcannon, a similar dish, made with kale or cabbage instead of spring onions.

Carrageen pudding is an old fashioned time-honoured dessert. Carrageen is a seaweed found around the coast and is also known as ‘Irish Moss’. It’s a rich source of agar, a setting agent and vegan alternative to gelatine. Carrageen’s name comes from the Irish word carraigín (little rock) after Carrigan Head, a cape near Northern Ireland.
Traditionally it was used to make sweet puddings such as blancmange and, although, it’s not used in homes as much today, modern chefs use carrageen to make ice cream, panna cotta and soufflés.

Yellowman, a traditional toffee dating back to the early nineteenth century, is one of Northern Ireland’s favourite sweets. A crunchy golden yellow confection, the addition of bicarbonate of soda after cooking gives it a bubbly honeycomb texture.

Scotland

Scotland’s most famous dish is haggis – a mystery to most non-Scots!

Haggis is made from ‘sheep’s pluck’ – the liver, heart and lungs, plus oatmeal, suet, herbs, spices and seasoning. Its origin is unknown, although it is believed to be an ancient dish.

Early fifteenth century recipes mention a haggis or haggas pudding. The name may come from hag meaning to hack or chop, or from the Anglo Saxon haecan – to hack into pieces. Another explanation is that it comes from the French hachis (ground meat).
Whatever the reason for the name, it remains a much-loved speciality and is always served by Scottish communities everywhere with great ceremony and toasts of whisky, to the accompaniment of bagpipes on Burns Night (25th January).
Robert Burns, Scotland’s most famous and best-loved poet wrote his Address to a Haggis in 1786, which is recited before the meal.

Plate of haggis, turnips and mashed potatoes

Haggis served with neeps and tatties, and a glass of scotch whiskey

Engraving From 1873 Featuring The Scottish Poet, Robert Burns

Scottish poet Robert Burns

Left: Haggis served with neeps and tatties, and a glass of scotch whiskey

Right: Scottish poet Robert Burns

Every butcher has their own recipe, which is a closely guarded secret. Butchers follow the traditional basic recipe and add their own unique flavourings.
The traditional accompaniments to haggis are bashed neeps and champit tatties – mashed turnips and creamed potatoes.
Modern innovations include haggis burgers, meatballs, haggis pie, pakoras, kebabs and haggis bread. Nowadays there are also vegetarian, vegan and gluten free versions.

Shortbread, Scotland’s celebrated biscuit is a favourite throughout the world for its ‘short’ crumbly, melting texture and delicious rich buttery flavour.
The first published Scottish cook book by Mrs. McLintock appeared in 1736 and included a recipe for ‘Short Bread’ which used flour, yeast and butter.

By the nineteenth century the yeast had been abandoned and the recipe modified to resemble today’s familiar style of shortbread. Every region of Scotland created its own recipes, which varied in shape and thickness.

Shortbread biscuits on a plate

Shortbread biscuits

Cranachan in a glass and a glass of whisky

Cranachan

Left: Shortbread biscuits

Right: Cranachan


Ayrshire shortbread for instance contains cream, while Pitcaithly Bannock is a rich shortbread with the addition of almonds and candied peel.
Modern innovations include the addition of ingredients such as coconut, chocolate chips, nuts and dried fruits. There’s also chocolate-coated shortbread and savoury cheese shortbread.

Cranachan, the country’s famous dessert is an ancient Scottish speciality.
A luxurious concoction of toasted oats, whisky, cream and raspberries, it was originally a simple dish of toasted oatmeal and cream, sometimes sweetened with honey, called cream crowdie. The name crowdie probably comes from the Gaelic cruaidh, meaning thick and firm. Raspberries and whisky were later additions and other modern innovations include replacing raspberries with blueberries or blackberries and using rum or liqueur instead of whisky. Newer additions to the basic recipe incorporate orange zest, chocolate and toasted nuts and other modernisations include a trifle version and cranachan ice cream.

Wales

The national dish of Wales is cawl (pronounced ‘cowl’). A tasty stew (or thick soup), usually made with mutton, lamb, or beef and sometimes bacon and vegetables, plus potatoes, carrots and, leeks, cooked together slowly.
It dates back to the fourteenth century, when it would have been cooked over open fires in iron pots. Potatoes, now considered a key ingredient in cawl, weren’t widely adopted in Wales until the eighteenth century, so originally oats would have been used to thicken the dish.

Cawl can be eaten in one bowl, although sometimes the broth will be served first followed by the meat and vegetables, hence the Welsh saying cystal yfed o’r cawl â bwyta’s cig which translates to ‘it is as good to drink the broth as to eat the meat’.

plate with vegetable and meat soup

Cawl

laverbread seaweed on a spoon

Lverbread

Left: Cawl

Right: Lverbread

Cawl appears on menus across Wales, each serving their own take on the much loved dish, and recipes vary from region to region. Contemporary versions use leaner meat and more vegetables to produce a lighter stew. Modern-day twists include using ham, bacon or beef instead of, or as well as lamb and adding lentils or barley to thicken.

Another ancient delicacy is laverbread, which has nothing to do with bread! It’s a seaweed (porphyra unbilicalis) harvested in coastal areas. After harvesting, it’s washed many times, then soaked in fresh water and bicarbonate of soda before being boiled for hours to a greenish-brown puree. It’s now sold in tins, jars and pots, ready to use.
Traditionally, its mixed with oatmeal, shaped into patties and fried in bacon fat for breakfast or served with cockles. A classic Victorian sauce for roast mutton was laverbread heated with butter and Seville orange juice. Modern chefs include laverbread in bread, sauces for fish and also in risotto and pasta and to make a tasty laver pesto.

Biscuits covered in powdered sugar

Welsh cakes with raisins and powdered sugar

fruit loaf

Bara brith

Left: Welsh cakes with raisins and powdered sugar

Right: Bara brith

Cakes on the stone (pice ar y maen), or Welsh cakes as they have become known, have a soft texture and rich flavour and often have fruit and spices added.
It wasn’t until the twentieth century that ovens became common in all homes, but everyone owned a stone or iron slab that could be set over an iron tripod placed in the fire on the hearth. The little cakes cook in minutes on a griddle and are found all over Wales, sold in bakers’ shops and market stalls. They’re best eaten warm or toasted, spread with butter, jam or honey, and are popular for afternoon tea.

The most famous sweet speciality of Wales is bara brith (literally ‘speckled bread’) a traditional moist loaf containing dried fruits, which are usually steeped in strong black tea and left to soak overnight before baking. It’s served sliced and spread with butter and recipes have been handed down for generations.
Originally made with yeast, later versions use chemical raising agents instead and there are now many variations , e.g. adding marmalade or nuts to the basic ingredients and using rye flour instead of wheat flour. Modern variations include a savoury version to eat with cheese. It’s also popular used in bread and butter pudding instead of plain bread and in lighter soufflés.

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