1. Black Pudding (and the Full English Breakfast)
Once you go black, you never go back. Much like steak and kidney pudding and the Pudding River in Oregon (thank you Google), black pudding is not actually a dessert. But unlike the other two it’s a sausage and it’s made out of blood. They’re not as good as regular sausages obviously, they’re made out of blood, but they’re pretty edible. In Ireland you’ll also encounter it’s lesser known cousin, ‘white’ pudding, which isn’t made out of blood, and nor, as playground myth would have you believe does it get its colour from sperm. I’m pretty certain. I don’t actually know why they are white. Paint maybe? Pillowcases? Glue? They’re probably fine.
Where to find it?
As you can imagine, a sausage made out of pig’s blood is almost exclusively a breakfast food. How else would you start the day? Mostly found in Full English/Scottish/Welsh/Ulster/Irish (depends where you are in the country) Breakfasts, in any hotel, restaurant, café or pub in the country.
Which neatly brings me onto the dish that for diplomatic reasons I’m going to call the Full Cooked Breakfast. Sorry Europe, but cold meats and cheeses do not a breakfast make, that’s a deconstructed sandwich you’re messing around with. A proper breakfast, British style, is a breakfast that contains so much energy for the day that by the time you’re finished you’re too full to do anything with it. This breakfast consists of sausage, bacon, egg, baked beans, grilled tomato for vitamins, mushrooms, toast and/or fried bread, hash browns and of course, our old friends black and/or white pudding, along with any regional variations you care to chuck on the side. We don’t eat this everyday of course, otherwise we’d die at 23. Although in reality, that is almost certainly due to the effort involved in cooking such a large meal at that time of day, rather than the thought of an early oversized grave. Because who notices the hot breath of the Grim Reaper cackling in your ear when you’ve got three types of pork in your mouth?
2. Cheese on Toast with Worcestershire Sauce
Simple heaven. You’ll struggle to find this on the menu of most restaurants or cafés, although it’s surely only a matter of time before the UK hipster council decide it’s the next working class food to be gentrified and pop ups all over East London start selling organic Peruvian gouda melted onto ‘rustically ripped’ chunks of toast, probably served in tiny wheelbarrows, for £11.
Until then, follow this simple recipe:
- Lightly toast 2 slices of the bread of your choice, no need to get too fancy.
- Carefully cover each piece with grated EXTRA MATURE cheddar. The last person to be executed in Britain was hanged in 1964. His crime? Using mild cheddar.
- Splash Worcestershire sauce all over the cheese. Go easy to begin with, you’ll find out why in about 90 seconds. Yes, it might seep into the toast. No, that doesn’t matter.
- Add pepper to taste, or even a few chilli flakes if you’re feeling exotic. Don’t overdo it. Let the cheese do the work.
- Place under a pre-heated grill until the cheese starts to melt and bubble then pull out the tray and generously splash on more Worcestershire sauce. You see, the sauce you put on earlier mostly seeped through the grated cheese, this second addition will ensure it properly mixes in.
- Slide the cheese back under the grill until it starts to brown. Eat.
Congratulations, your life has now changed.
Where to find it?
Rare in restaurants and cafés, but not extinct. It will usually be under the name Welsh Rarebit to make it sound less like half a sandwich, but it’s the same thing. Slightly more common in the provinces and of course Wales, who have used its alternative name as an excuse to adopt it as something of a national dish. In London you can grab very decent, albeit slightly pretentious, versions at St John Bar and Restaurant in Clerkenwell, Boyden’s Kitchen in Southgate or the Spitalfields and Islington branches of Ottolenghi.
3. Cornish Pasty
Picture this: You’re an 18th century miner. By that I mean you work in a mine, not that you’re a child. Maybe you’re both, it is the 18th century. You’re working hard all morning down in the shafts and by midday you are absolutely famished. You put down your pick axe, click open your Captain Cook™ lunch box and hungrily tuck in to your ham sandwiches. But “What’s this?!” you splutter. You tilt your head torch and see that your grubby mitts have covered your lovely white bread in soot, coal dust and all manner of unidentifiable mine grime. “If only there was some kind of delicious hot meat and vegetable dish wrapped in tasty pastry, with a thick crimped edge that would act as a handle for my mucky hands!” you cry out. Enter the Cornish Pasty. Delicious AND practical; like a witch’s gingerbread house.
Where to find it?
In pretty much every bakery in the country except Greggs. Dedicated cornish pasty shops on many high streets and in almost every train station offer also overpriced but good quality pasties with a variety of flavour variations on the tradition beef and vegetable. And of course, as the name suggests, you can’t breath in Cornwall without inhaling a lungful of golden pastry flakes.
For too long have Germans styled themselves as the kings of the sausage. They’ve been feeding the world a lie and you’ve all been munching down that propagandawurst like a bunch of cannibalistic pigs. German sausages are flopped in your face at every novelty Christmas village in the northern hemisphere, conditioning you to associate them with novelty jumpers, The Pogues and a feeling of pure festive joy. But don’t let yourself be Pavlov-ed, it’s the humble British banger that takes the taste crown. Where a bratwurst has the texture of a cheap battenburg, A British sausage feels like you’ve got actual meat in your mouth, and whether that makes you hungry or horny, I think you’ll agree it all points to one winner.
Where to find it?
Another founding member of the full English breakfast club, but this is not always the place to find the kind of sausages that would prove my point. As part of an ensemble cast, hotels and restaurants often see cheap sausages as a way to save money in a breakfast. “Don’t worry” they chuckle, “with big players like bacon, eggs and hash browns on the plate they won’t even notice we’ve used the shit sausages!” Well, I notice, and it’s an abhorrent practice that simply isn’t acceptable in this day and age! No, to make sure you snag a good snag get yourself to a nice gastro pub. You should be able to tell that you’re in a ‘gastro pub’ and not a ‘boozer’ from a few subtle signs. Is there a neon cardboard star advertising either an Elvis impersonator or a meat raffle this Thursday? Within 5 minutes of sitting down were you asked if you want to buy razor blades, fake tan or DVDs from a shifty guy with a Tesco bag full of merchandise? If you answered yes to either or both of these, you are probably not in a gastro pub. But don’t worry, this isn’t a wasted visit. On your way out grab a couple of other great British classics, a bag of pork scratchings and a packet of scampi fries, and try not to worry about any hairs on the scratchings…seriously. Back on the sausage trail, once you’ve managed to find a bone fide gastro pub, take a seat on the plush, trendily mismatched chairs, and order Bangers and Mash with Gravy. Failing that, try Mother Mash in central London.
5. Pickled Onion Monster Munch
Imagine a bag of baked corn-based snacks that are the shape of giant monster feet and taste like pickled onions. You’ve just imagined the world’s greatest crisp.
Where to find it?
Corner shops or supermarkets, depending on whether you want one pack or six.
Not to be confused with its inferior antipodean imitation, Vegemite. Although very similar, Marmite is richer, and has a glossier finish to ensure its brown stains are less easily confused with faecal matter. Which makes it more suitable for eating in bed. Vegemite is Antz to Marmite’s A Bug’s Life, it’s EdTV to The Truman Show, Paddy McGuiness to Peter Kay…ok that last one’s a little harsh, Vegemite is still actually really tasty. Whichever hemisphere you’re in, this certainly is a bold flavoured pot of gloop. It tastes so strong that the savoury spread now has the rare distinction of being so closely associated with a characteristic – in this case, of wildly polarising opinions – that Marmite is now an established adjective to describe things that people either absolutely love or can’t stand. It’s also made from a by-product of beer production, so not only are you basically recycling every time you spread it on your toast, you’re also helping the beer industry. How could you not love it?! In fact, if smells are your thing, take a drive past the unami-fest that is the Marmite factory in Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire, before continuing down the road past the booze scented Bass brewery that supplies much of its primary ingredient. It’s a rollercoaster for the nose! I mean, only if you’re in the area obviously. It’s probably not worth a day trip.
Where to find it?
In the jam and preserves aisle of any supermarket. For double the English-ness, spread on a hot, buttered crumpet.
Until 1886, Bovril went by the appetising name of ‘Johnson’s Fluid Beef’, and frankly I don’t know why they changed it. The jingle practically writes itself. But Bovril is as it’s known now, and the marketing department have to live with that. It is in a very similar jar to marmite, and is a thick, brown gloopy liquid like marmite, in fact some people even spread it on their toast like marmite, often not knowing what it is. But Bovril is in fact, when mixed with boiling water, a hot beefy drink. That’s right, a hot beverage, made from beef. A beef tea.
Bovril was ludicrously popular in the first half of the 20th century, partly due to bold advertising claims that it could cure influenza, win wars, and even make it possible for women to fly planes. However it’s fashionableness wained with the rise of less eyebrow-raising brews like coffee, regular tea, and other drinks that for reasons best known to the manufacturers, have little or no meat in at all, which makes it somewhat hard to come by nowadays. However, one place that has remained faithful to the hot retro drink that puts the tea in tea-bone, is the football stadium. Sat in the stadium, away from the judging eyes of attractive women, GQ magazine and over-confident bartenders, British men can be comfortable being their true selves, and when it’s the middle of winter and you’re sat on a plastic seat in Stockport for 2 hours, your true self doesn’t want to a tall skinny cappuccino to warm you up, your true self wants a massive cup of hot liquid beef!
Where to find it?
Football stadiums, particularly those in the lower leagues, fly the Bovril flag high. But if you’re not going to a game, you could also buy your own jar and make your own. All you need is a kettle and a spoon. That way you can also take it home and see the look on your friend’s faces when they take the first sip of what they think is a nice normal coffee. It’s found in most supermarkets, usually near the gravy, because let’s face it, that’s basically what it is.
The Scottish national dish. Genuinely tasty but I wouldn’t ask what’s in it. You don’t need to know. Let’s just say it’s a fat, well-spiced sausage. Yep, let’s say that. A fat, unsettlingly crumbly on the inside, well-spiced but definitely not just to disguise the actual ingredients sausage that probably wasn’t invented as the result of a dare after all.
To complete the Scottish experience, wash down with either Irn Bru if you like E Numbers, or Buckfast if you like domestic violence.
Where to find it?
Pub restaurants, touristy restaurants and anywhere advertising Scottish fare throughout Scotland. Usually served with ‘neeps’ (turnips), ‘tatties’ (potatoes) and ‘gravy’ (gravy…obviously). It’s difficult to find outside of Scotland but becomes readily available around Burns Night (25th January) as middle class English people pretend to like Scottish things for an evening. Alternatively, stand at the right side of the Haggis Hurling field during the Highland Games and you might get one for free. Or be killed by one, but what a way to go!
9. Cream Tea
More English than a darts playing badger in a bowler hat, and like all good English things, the name is very misleading. The ‘tea’ in this sense refers not to the drink, but to the several variations of a meal eaten in the latter half of the day. Tea is sometimes a light snack, sometimes the biggest meal of the day, depending where in the country you’re from. Sometimes there’s no tea involved in a tea at all. In the case of a cream tea, it can be pretty much eaten at anytime of the day, but the tea is mandatory. Welcome to England.
Some people say the assembling ritual is half the joy in having a cream tea. These people are wrong. It’s at most maybe 10% of the joy, but it’s still quite enjoyable. The scone should be served warm and freshly baked next to an artery clenching dollop of clotted cream and a bowl of jam no smaller than a Tamagotchi. Split the scone, spread thinly with butter first if you want, I won’t judge, then add as much cream as you can fit on each half and gently top with a generous helping of jam. This is known as the Devon Method, flip reverse this if you’re in Cornwall. When you put it in your mouth you’ll realise why where the other 90% of the joy went.
Where to find it?
Sometimes called a Devonshire Cream Tea and occasionally a Cornish Cream Tea, the South West of England is brimming with tearooms and cafés specialising in both this and lace-based interior design. Although anywhere slightly rural that attracts tourists, pensioners, is within seagull-stealing-your-chips distance of the coast, or has ever, even once, been in the same sentence as the word ‘quaint’, will have more than plenty to choose from. In certain parts of the Cotswalds there’s literally nothing else available to eat, and your only chance of finding something savoury is to provide a note from your doctor describing life-threatening diabetes. Spend any longer than a weekend there and you won’t need to forge one.
10. Scotch Eggs
Once a fancy travelling snack food for wealthy men in tights. The scotch egg became something of a snack food leper over the last few decades. The sort of food that would be at every wedding buffet from 1970 to 1999 but would only be eaten by your grandmother’s friend with the hairy knuckles. It became a small, stodgy imitation of its former self, the only ever seen in the hands of depressed men in late night petrol stations, or in the lunchbox of that kid with the mystery skin disorder who used to play out in his school shoes at the weekend. The kid that grew into Keith from The Office.
However (play inspirational music now), the scotch egg has made a come back. In hipster bars and trendy markets all over the country it has been revived as a freshly cooked, hot snack. The eggs are large and are cooked to runny yolked precision, before being wrapped in quality sausage meat, occasionally with a fancy twist (hello again, black pudding), breaded and perfectly deep fried. Fucking yes!
Where to find it?
Bars, pubs and markets, anywhere hipster: South or East London, Manchester’s Northern Quarter, the West End of Glasgow, Stoke’s Croft in Bristol, the Baltic Triangle in Liverpool etc.
11. Staffordshire Oatcakes
Not to be confused with the biscuit-like Scottish Oatcake. This is a genuinely local local delicacy. Oatcakes are in fact so local that you won’t find any restaurant or café making them more than a 15 mile radius from Stoke-on-Trent. You won’t have to travel much further that that before they also become extinct in bakeries, and not much further still before even the slightly rubbery mass produced versions disappear from supermarket chains where just a few miles back they could be found piled high amongst the bread and crumpets.
What are they? Well they look like pancakes, but they’re not. As the name coyly suggests, their dominating ingredient is oats. Mmm oats! …No? Oh sorry, I forgot to mention they’re also filled, usually with bacon and/or sausage and cheddar cheese, then grilled until the cheese melts and rolled. Like a northern burrito. Dress with ketchup or brown sauce as desired. They make one hell of a hangover cure and because they’re made of oats, they’re actually a great source of low GI slow release energy. Which is why they’ve for so long been favoured as the breakfast of choice for the generations of local blokes slogging away in the mines and pottery factories. This is proper, no bullshit, not for tourists, working class British grub from a very particular corner of England. A local dish to beat all others in backpacker top trumps.
Where to find it?
The last of the traditional Hole in the Wall oatcake shops, in which they are cooked and filled in the front room of a terraced house and served through the front window, sadly closed recently. But there are still a number of cafés, oatcake shops and even mobile food vans cooking them fresh around North Staffordshire. Although comically, for such a simple produce, oatcake recipes are closely guarded secrets swaddled in mysticism that are only ever occasionally sold or passed on with the highest of trust and presumably some proof of allegiance to the region, an heirloom stolen from Derbyshire of Cheshire perhaps. So most cafes buy from bakeries or oatcake shops ready made for them to fill and grill.
Of the dozens of similar outlets dotted around North Staffordshire, High Lane Oatcakes in Burslem is often lauded as one of the best. Although newcomers Oatcakes & Milkshakes in the lovely market town of Stone definitely deserve recognition for taking this humble comfort food out of the traditional no nonsense, spit and sawdust gaff and giving it a touch of American diner glamour. And with queues out the door, it’s clearly working. Outside of Staffordshire, you’ll really struggle to find anyone who’ve even heard of oatcakes. Although, visitors to South London will now be able try them at the KäseSwiss stall in Maltby Street Market, where they’ve started to serve them as a vehicle for their Swiss cheese. Admittedly, it’s Swiss cheese, and they cost about 3 times what they would in their homeland, but it’s a huge leap in the right direction for a food that like so many other local traditions around the world, was in fear of becoming yet another 21st century extinction. Perhaps these adaptations to the modern world will herald something of a renaissance for this very Potteries delicacy. I hope so.
12. Spotted Dicks (& less hilarious puddings)
The British have terrible teeth. That’s the stereotype. A harsh stereotype, but not completely unfounded when compared to the gleaming mouth marbles of Hollywood. The main reason for this is we just bloody love sweet things. Cakes, puddings, tarts, sweets, jellies, jams, even gateaus if you’re from the 80s or the north. There’s a cacophony of sweet things out there that are wonderful and almost completely unique to these sugar-encrusted isles, and some of them don’t even sound like venereal diseases. Try as many as you can: Bakewell tarts, angel delight, hob nobs, treacle tart, eton mess, banoffee pie, jam roly-poly, sticky toffee pudding, rhubarb and apple crumble and of course, spotted dick and custard. If you leave the UK without having had at least one spotted dick in your mouth, then frankly you’ve let yourself, and the contents of your postcards, down.
Where to find it?
Any dessert menu, anywhere.
What have the Romans ever done for us? Well obviously the roads go without saying, and irrigation, and medicine, and education. And the wine. And classic comedy routines for me to plagiarise. But allegedly, the toga-wearing conquerers also brought the mighty pie into northern Europe, before soon abandoning it in favour of spirally pasta, moustaches and 50cc scooters.
Nowhere adopted pies, specifically meat pies, into their daily lives more than the British. And no matter where you go in the country, there will be a version or variation that will hold the locals’ hearts. In Victorian East London, eel pies were all the rage, largely because eels were just about the only living thing that was able to survive in the toxic waters of the industrial-era river Thames. It was served with mashed potato and liquor (a sort of eel gravy) until the over fished eels became too pricey and minced beef became cheap enough to ship in instead. The liquor is now thankfully, to everyone but the hardcore of purists, made from parsley instead of eel juice. Although jellied eels are still bizarrely a cockney delicacy. Maintaining the theme of weird fish, stargazy pie is a Cornish dish containing whole pilchards who’s heads stick out of holes in the pastry looking concerned. Despite looking like it was designed by a Beano illustrator, legend claims that it was first created to celebrate the time a 16th century saved the entire town from starvation with an enormous catch that was then baked into a pie.
However, the pie lovers crown has to go to the county of Lancashire, home of the World Pie Eating Championships, where the streets are paved with pastry and the rivers run brown with rich beef gravy. They even put pies in sandwiches. Now that’s true love.
Where to find it?
Bakeries up and down the country, particularly up, are your best bet for a hot pie, but also check out this list of the best pie shops in Britain. Be careful when ordering a pie in a pub or restaurant however, particularly if it’s listed on the menu as a ‘Steak and Ale Pie’, because these are often nothing more than a bowl full of stew with a pastry lid. A true pie should be encased on all sides with thick buttery pastry. So make sure you ask before ordering.
14. Fish ‘n’ Chips
Of course fish and chips was going to make an appearance. Unequivocally the English national dish, the one food that sits on the bucket list of so many tourists as something to ‘do’ alongside landmarks, entire cities and world heritage sites, and rightly so. This is not a part-time national dish, something that just comes out on special occasions and patriotic national holidays. Fish Fridays is a weekly thing still heavily partaken in by many schools, workplaces, canteens, pubs and families. A tradition that is in it’s roots Catholic, observed by a nation that has been Protestant for almost 500 years and is now predominantly atheist. Purely as an excuse to indulge as often as possible in a dish that was introduced to the country by Jews. Talk about religious harmony!
It’s a known fact that ‘chippy chips’ are the best in the world. That’s just science. And it’s a good job because small portions don’t exist. Bizarrely, chip shops operate under inverse laws of economics in which customers are given far more of something than they possible could want or need at a lower price than other places offering the same thing. It doesn’t matter what you say, they’ll simply keep heaping on the chips until your protestations of “That’s enough…no, seriously, that much physically won’t fit inside me…please, I’m only human!” are muffled behind a wall of potato. Here’s a rough translation guide to help you choose the correct portion:
- ‘Small’ – “I don’t understand”
- ‘Regular’ – “Shitloads”
- ‘Large’ – “Ah, so you’re a zookeeper?”
And of course, the chip shop is more than just fish and chips. Battered sausage is a divine and cheap alternative to fish. Pineapple fritters are a wonderful addition to whatever you choose and of course, no meal from a fish and chip shop is complete without lashings of salt and vinegar, and at least one of the holy trinity; mushy peas, curry sauce and gravy.
Where to find it?
Don’t be foolish enough to get this in central London. Fish and chips is THE classic working class takeaway and not something that should make you crack into a second tenner. A large fish should cost between £3-£6, regular chips about £1.50 and a battered sausage also about £1.50. If you find yourself somewhere that non-British tourists wouldn’t look to get fish and chips, that’s where to get fish and chips. The shop should be able to stay open due to the quality of the food, not it’s proximity to somewhere that sells fridge magnets with telephone boxes on them. Also avoid venues within vomiting distance of a nightclubs that are open until 4am, they’re booming prosperity is again probably not due to their high quality haddock. Look at the sign above the door. Is the most prominent word ‘fish’ or ‘kebab’? Avoid the latter. Being close to that big thing that all the fish come from called the sea is generally a good barometer of quality.
However, if you really want to make sure you taste the best example of fish and chips during your stay, then check out the winners and regional winners of the National Fish and Chip Awards (yes, that’s a thing) here, or click here to see the full list of the 60 restaurants shortlisted, and find the best chippy near you no matter where it is you’re visiting.
15. Deep Fried Chocolate Bars
Another health food borne north of Hadrian’s Wall, and yet another treasure of the deep fried Aladdin’s cave that is ‘the chippy’, but one that really deserves it’s own entry. If your reaction upon first hearing about chocolate bars deep-fried in the same batter that cocoons your freshly-caught cod is disgust, you’re not alone. But remove yourself from the connotations that the juxtaposition of seafood and dessert conjures up, and think about what it really is. Think about warm, gooey, semi-melted chocolate, nougat and caramel encased in the ever-so-slightly salted crunch of a crispy golden batter…
Now wipe your chin.
The deep fried Mars bar is the classic. It’s the margherita of deep fried confectionary. But you can get so much more than that if you know where to look, in fact many chip shops in Scotland will deep fry anything if you bring it for them (including margherita pizza actually). A personal favourite is the deep fried Creme Egg, an Easter treat available in establishments proud of both the Gregorian calendar and Britain’s domination of childhood obesity tables. If the Mars Bar is a margherita, the Creme Egg is an over-microwaved petrol station calzone, a piping hot ball of molten fondant which smells so good that no matter how times the proprietor tells you to “wait at least 5 minutes” before even attempting to eat, you physically can’t stop yourself biting into it the second you’re out the door, immediately bursting hot liquid sugar all over your arm and giving yourself the most delicious 3rd degree burns you’ll ever have.
Where to find it?
The Carron Fish Bar in Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire claims the noble title of birthplace of the deep fried Mars bar, and is a pilgrimage site for some. But there are plenty of other places that serve the delicacy, mostly in the Scotland and occasionally in the North of England. Tivoli, The Merchant and the Blue Lagoon in Glasgow spring to mind, as does Northern Sole in Sheffield. But why leave it in the hands of the gods? Be bold and just take in your own sweets for them to fry. Although maybe don’t pick anywhere off the Fish and Chip Shop Awards list. The fish and chip purists might not be as keen to play with the formula.
16. Sunday Roast
Sunday is the day of rest. So it makes sense that this is the day on which English mothers spend hours over a hot stove crafting the most extravagant meal of the week. The Sunday Roast is so synonymous with British, particularly English, culture that ‘Les Rosbifs’ is the French racial slur of choice for this roast loving nation.
This always consists of a slow roasted meat, usually beef, but sometimes lamb, pork, chicken, or even game birds, with crispy roast potatoes, fluffy Yorkshire puddings, and a menagerie of roasted, boiled, steamed or mashed vegetables, all lathered in a thick meat gravy. Depending on the chef, your plate may also be piled with sausage meat, cauliflower cheese, braised cabbage, sage and onion stuffing, pigs in blankets (little sausages wrapped in bacon), crackling if you’re having pork, and a sauce that matches your meat. Mustard or horseradish for beef, mint for lamb, apple for pork, and cranberry or bread sauce for poultry.
A huge, meat-heavy meal. The stuff of medieval feasts. But apart from it’s propensity to put dads into a 3 hour coma immediately afterwards, all the vegetables make roast dinners actually quite healthy. It’s the meal students dream about when they make the monthly trip home to see their parents, with cider sweats and a bag full of dirty laundry. And the one they talk about in revered tones for weeks afterwards.
Where to find it?
Any pub, any Sunday. In fact, in many pubs this is the only thing on the menu on Sundays.