British specialties

A traditional British Breakfast (Photo © Reid Bramblett)
A traditional British Breakfast

Typical dishes, traditional meals, & British culinary specialties

Part of an old joke about European stereotypes goes that in Heaven the English are police—but in Hell they're the cooks.

Although you can still get pub grub lousy enough to curl your toenails, British cuisine has improved remarkably over the past decade. Not only have they started paying attention to the quality of old-fashioned dishes, but Britain's top chefs have also adapted international culinary techniques and ingredients, mixed them with a dash of time-honored tradition, and created Modern British cuisine.

Add to this the variety of ethnic restaurants, especially in cities—Brits go out for Indian the way Americans go out for Chinese—and you won't ever have to touch steak and kidney pie unless you want to.

Traditional British dishes

When you're not dining high on modern innovations, Britain still has a formidable array of time-tested dishes for you to try.

The ploughman's lunch is a hunk of bread, a chunk of cheese, butter, pickle (relish), and chutney.

The two most familiar of the many meat pies you'll run into are Cornish pasty (beef, potatoes, onions, and carrots baked in a pastry shell) and shepherd's pie (lamb and onions stewed under a lid of mashed potatoes—if they use beef, it's called cottage pie).

The English are masters of roast beef, which is often served with Yorkshire pudding (a popover-like concoction cooked under the meat joint so the juices drip into it).

Then there are the truly oddly named British dishes, such as bangers and mash (sausages, of which the best are Cumberland, and mashed potatoes), bubble-and-squeak (which sounds like boiled mice but is actually fried cabbage and potatoes), or toad in the hole (what Yanks call pigs-in-a-blanket, a sausage wrapped in pastry).

The Brits also do good game dishes, especially pheasant and grouse.

Fans of fresh fish will enjoy London's cod, whitefish, haddock, herrings, and the mighty Dover sole. Fish 'n' chips (battered, fried fish with french fries) is a greasy delight, and oysters from Colchester can also be fabulous. 

British breakfast

Traditional English breakfasts are getting scarce in these days of the continental croissant-and-coffee, but when you can find one they are tasty, but massive on the cholesterol counter: ham and/or sausage, fried eggs, and fried tomatoes alongside toast or scones with butter and jam.

Afternoon tea

One of Britain's key contributions to the culinary scene is the ever-civilized afternoon tea ritual, detailed on this London page but available in every British town.

British cheese

If the Brits excel at anything edible, it's their cheeses and desserts. Of the former, blue-veined Stilton is the king, best enjoyed with a glass of port wine.

Lots of regional delicacies pop up on the cheese board as well, one of the most famous being cheddar.

Puddings (British desserts)

If you prefer your meal to end with something sweet, English puddings are some of the best desserts around.

Trifle is sponge cake soaked with brandy, smothered in fruit or jam, and topped with custard.

Light cream whipped with fresh fruit is called a fool, and a treacle pudding is a steamed trifle without the sherry and with syrup instead of fruit.

And then there's everybody's favorite pudding menu item at which to giggle: spotted dick—a bowl-shaped suet pastry studded with raisins, currants, or other dried fruit.

British beer

Wash down your meal with a pint of bitter—but make sure it's a proper English ale and not a wimpy import or lager.

Culinary tours links