Food & drink

10 Things We Know You Don’t Know About British Food

QI’s Director of Research John Mitchinson reveals the edifying history of British edibles.
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Let’s be honest, until recently the British didn’t have a brilliant reputation for food. But oddly enough, for many centuries the kitchens of the English court and the great houses of the Middle Ages cooked with a much wider variety of spices and ingredients than anywhere else in Europe. Our high streets are now overflowing with a diversity of ethnic restaurants that recall the glories of the medieval past and there are still a whole host of delicacies that are quite impossible to obtain outside the English-speaking countries. Here are ten of the most interesting:

1. Pork Pie

The English love fast food, and the pork pie was built for speed. The classic version comes from Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire, an area famed for its pigs fed on the whey of Stilton cheese. The basic pie was jellied pork surrounded by robust pastry. The self-supporting pastry was made from lard, salt and hot water and had grown out of the medieval tradition of the pastry ‘coffin’, which was so hard and inedible it was simply used to serve the filling and then thrown away. A pork pie from Yorkshire is known as a ‘growler’ and the addition of hard-boiled egg makes it a ‘gala’ pie.

2. Ploughman’s Lunch

It has long been accepted that the Ploughman’s lunch (cheese, bread, and pickle washed down with beer) was an invention of 1960s advertising. Certainly, that was when the Cheese Council first started using the term. However, there are photographs of ploughmen in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, lunching on what looks like bread, cheese and beer. What seems most likely is that post-war cheese marketers were determined to remind the public of the longstanding practice of eating bread and cheese in pubs, which had been interrupted by rationing in World War II.


3. Kipper

Today, if you order kippers for your breakfast you’ll get herrings. But until the 1840s, you would have been served kippered (i.e. cut open, salted & smoked) salmon. That’s because a male salmon, during the spawning season, is called a kipper probably because of its ruddy-brown colour (from the Old English copper – also used for the metal). The first kippered herring came to London from Northumberland and is a whole herring, gutted, salted or pickled, and cold-smoked over smouldering woodchips



4. Cheddar Cheese

It may come as a shock to discover that the British Cheese Board now lists over 700 varieties of British cheese – almost twice as many as our fromage-gobbling neighbours in France. However, they still consume twice as much per head as we do, and 55% of the £1.8 billion British cheese market is attributed to sales of just one variety: cheddar. Monty Python comedian John Cleese’s original surname was Cheese. He grew up ten miles from Cheddar and his best friend at school was called Barney Butter.



5. Poor Knights of Windsor

Also known as ‘eggy bread’ or French toast, this grand-sounding dish simply involves dipping bread in eggs and frying it. The old English name finds its counterpart in the German (arme Ritter), Danish (arme riddere), Swedish (fattiga riddare) and Finnish (köyhät ritarit) – all of which mean ‘poor Knights’. One theory about the origin is that the most expensive part of a medieval banquet was dessert. Although titled, not all knights were rich, so a dish of fried eggy bread served with jam or honey would have fulfilled the requirements of etiquette without breaking the bank.

6. Fish & Chips

The first recorded fried fish and chip shop was opened by Joseph Malin in the East End of London in 1860. Chips – or ‘French fries’ – were invented in 17th century Belgium as a substitute for, rather than accompaniment to, fish. When the rivers froze and fish couldn’t be caught, potatoes were cut into fishy shapes and fried instead. When France opposed the invasion of Iraq, the caterers in the House of Representatives were asked to rename French fries, ‘Freedom fries’ and French toast, ‘Freedom toast’.

7. Yorkshire Pudding

The first recipe for the de rigeur accompaniment to the Sunday roast appeared in a household management book called The Whole Duty of a Woman in 1737. It was then called ‘dripping pudding’ because it was cooked in meat fat and sent out as first course before the main meal. Real Yorkshiremen like to douse theirs in raspberry vinegar rather than gravy. A 2008 ruling by the Royal Society of Chemistry states that a Yorkshire pudding isn’t a Yorkshire pudding unless it is four inches tall or over when served.

8. Tea

The English fashion for tea drinking began in the early 18th century, driven by the British East India Company who had established a monopoly in its import in 1686. This lasted until 1834, and throughout that period no European had any idea how tea was grown, dried or blended. They simply imported it from China. This made it more expensive and exclusive than coffee. By 1800, 5% of the UK’s gross national product was attributable to tea.

9. Chicken Tikka Masala

Chicken Tikka Masala (or CTM) is Britain’s most popular dish. Invented in Glasgow in the late 1960s, there is no standard recipe. Chicken Tikka is a traditional Bangladeshi dish in which pieces of marinated chicken are cooked in a clay oven called a tandoor. The first Chicken Tandoori on a British Indian restaurant menu was at the Gaylord in Mortimer Street, London in 1966. The recipe reached Glasgow shortly afterwards and when a customer asked for some gravy to go with it, the chef improvised with tomato soup, spices and cream. Twenty-three million are now sold in the UK each year and many schools and charities in Bangladesh are funded by profits from Britain’s Chicken Tikka Masala boom.

10. Haggis

Haggis isn’t particularly Scottish. Much like tartan, it has been invented in different places at different times. The earliest definitive account of stuffing a stomach with offal dates from the Romans and the earliest recipe for ‘a hagese’ is English and comes from a collection of recipes from 15th century Lancashire. The name might come from Old French agace (‘magpie’), because a haggis is a bundle of odds and sods just like a magpie’s nest. According to MacSween’s, the world’s largest producer of haggis, popularity is at an all-time high with some super markets now stocking it 52 weeks a year.


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