Raise the Union Jack for British food!

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Related tags: British food, English cuisine, Bangers and mash, Sausage

Raise the Union Jack, crank up the heat in the oven and get cooking because there are still plenty of customers who think British is best.If you were...

Raise the Union Jack, crank up the heat in the oven and get cooking because there are still plenty of customers who think British is best.

If you were to mention British cuisine to a French chef, he would probably arch a derisive eyebrow and dismiss it with an expansive flourish.

Talk to an Italian about our national cuisine and he would sashay off to his pasta and sun-dried tomatoes.

British cuisine has been maligned all over the world, but it appears that it is enjoying a renaissance on British pub menus.

Outrage seared through the market when three years ago the London Evening Standard headline read: 'British Cuisine? It's a joke, says the president of the Restaurateurs Association'.

The then president, Michael Gottleib, refuted the claim by qualifying it in a later interview. He elucidated: "I said that I did not believe that Britain had a cuisine, at least not according to the Collins English dictionary, which defines it as 'a style or manner of cooking food'. Britain has some unique food - some good, some bad - but the existence of British food does not by the dictionary's definition constitute a cuisine."

He may have a point.

Consider Chinese cuisine and the list that can be cited is endless, Indian and further reams could be quoted, but when you think British, you could be forgiven for getting stumped before you even drew breath.

It could be for this very reason that there has been a rash of ethnic pubs springing up across the country with pubs such as Jim Thomspon's oriental bars that believe ethnic food is the biggest and most profitable growth area in pub food.

Some ethnic dishes have even become so well assimilated into British cuisine that we almost forget their gastronomic roots. The spaghetti bolognese, the tikka masala and the stir-fry are now almost as compulsory on a pub menu as the ploughman's or steak and kidney pie.

So what do people expect when they think of British food? "To most people, British food is seen as the Ploughman's lunch, pork pies, steak and ale pies, roasts with jellies and cold side sauces, roasted and boiled vegetables. These dishes are historically British, but are not really representative of the diverse range of British food currently available," explained John Dillon, head chef at Fairfax Meadow, a British supplier that boasts a £100 million annual turnover - testimony enough that British is still bought.

While many pubs have opted to explore more international influences there are some devout believers in British fayre who serve traditional English dishes by the bucket load.

The General Havelock in Annersley, Nottingham, is one such pub, an establishment that has only been serving food since October last year. "We felt there was a niche in the local area for tasty home cooked British food," said tenant Grenville Hannibal. Dishes such as steak and ale pie, gammon, Cumberland sausage and haddock have all won their way into locals' hearts and appetites.

He admitted that they had experimented with ethnic dishes on the specials board, but they "never really took off".

However, he smashed the expectation that he would achieve 50 per cent GP on food, achieving 57 per cent GP, and revealed that brewery Scottish & Newcastle were "delighted with the profits thus far".

Good value for money has brought people through the doors to eat up to 2 to 3 nights per week rather than cooking in their own homes.

"To cook many British dishes is very time consuming and I'm sure that most people don't have the time to spend cooking once they come home from work. This could explain why British food is still very popular on pub menus," he said.

But times they are a changing, according to Judith Mann, spokesperson for Brake Bros.

"Products such as steak & kidney pies, Lancashire hot pots and jam roly polys continue to be big sellers as they give customers a familiar taste," she said.

"What in essence seems to be happening to the food of the 'good old days' is that while they are remaining in British pubs, chefs are adding new ingredients to them. Celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver are not completely moving away from traditional dishes because they know and understand their popularity with their audience. What they are tending to do is change a gravy, add a different vegetable or present a dish differently to ring the changes."

One such example is humble bangers and mash. Call mash 'champ', add an unusual sausage and you have a different dish altogether.

"Sausage and mash has become a trendy dish in pubs up and down the country, but plain pork sausages are replaced with new varieties such as wild boar, apple & cider and lamb & mint," commented Judith Mann.

It is this modern interpretation of British food that could perhaps finally counter the perception that international chefs have of British food as bland, fatty and tasteless.

Diners who choose 'modern British' cuisine have the benefits of sticking with that they know and enjoying new variations with exciting innovative dishes. "Many traditional dishes are being brought up to date, such as cottage pie with fresh horseradish mash," said Leon Abecasis, national account manager of Emile Tissot by way of example.

"It's horses for courses," said Andrew Pern, owner of The Star Inn in Harome, North Yorkshire, with disarming frankness. "Punters visiting a 14th century thatched pub opposite a duck pond in a village with a cricket green and a hunt would expect nothing less than good British food."

Too true.

In a metropolitan area with a dense population establishments are increasingly specialising their menus with seafood, organic, ethnic and even cheese pubs rising in popularity.

Catherine Chauvet of Punch Pub Co believes there is a rural/ metropolitan divide in terms of expectations, but attributes this largely to the customers that visit rural establishments. "Many rural pubs serve lots of protein, but you only have to look at the customer base to see why with farmers, builders and manual workers making up a large proportion of the custom," she said.

Indeed a convincing 99 per cent of Andrew Pern's menu is British featuring traditional dishes with a twist such as a terrine of gammon with fried quails egg. This approach has won him acclaim in many of national newspapers and magazines, and one Star Inn dessert even won dish of the year in the Guardian. The dessert, a variation on a northern recipe, is baked ginger parkin served with rhubarb ripple ice cream and hot spiced treacle.

At the Star, if you couldn't manage toad in the hole with pan fried foie gras, you could consider a sandwich with a difference; perhaps an open black pudding sandwich with apple and garlic.

"We ensure that we buy from local suppliers and we are lucky because our location means that we have a larder of wonderful ingredients on our doorstep - so exceptional British food can be easily created," he added.

He believes that part of the success of British food can be attributed to the fact that it is hearty comfort food and diners still eat out for a treat so British food fits the bill. "British food is being re-invented at the moment and is growing in popularity, but a lot of people don't do it properly which gives a poor impression of what British stands for. They offer frozen platters of roast beef and Yorkshire puddings," Andrew said.

John Dillon of Fairfax is equally buoyant when it comes to the future of British food. "I would encourage diners to eat out more. British food has evolved so much in the last 10 years. I feel it now caters to everyone's taste and there's something to suit even the fussiest palate."

So raise the Union Jack, crank up the heat in the oven and get cooking because there are still plenty of customers out there who think British (whether old or new) is best.

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