Culture, Shopping & Recreation
Meals and Mealtimes
Like many things in the UK, British cuisine doesn’t refer to a nationwide common denominator. It rather includes English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish food. Overseas, however, two particular meals are considered representative of British cuisine: English breakfast and afternoon tea.
A full English breakfast is a worldwide celebrity – though it’s hardly suitable for vegetarians or anyone on a low-cholesterol diet. It includes bacon, sausage, eggs, baked beans, tomatoes, and mushrooms. You can even add black pudding or kipper.
Obviously, not everyone goes all out for such a hearty breakfast, but people normally have breakfast between 7:00 and 9:00 am. Lunch (formerly called dinner and once the main meal) is typically between noon and 1:30. Dinner (or supper) is usually eaten between 6:30 and 8:00 pm.
In northern working-class communities, dinner may still be called “tea”, if it’s the main meal of the day. But that’s not what new arrivals think of when hearing “tea” in connection with British cuisine. The Victorian-style afternoon tea is an institution of its own. It consists of sandwiches, buttered crumpets, scones with clotted cream and jam, as well as tea, of course. If you want to enjoy a fancy tea during your time as an expat in the UK, check out websites like Afternoon Tea.co.uk.
Is there anything more quintessentially British than a pub? Gathering in your local pub, drinking ale, and chatting with your neighbors is another British institution. Smoking was also a favorite pastime, but it’s now banned in all UK restaurants and pubs.
The word pub is short for “public house”. Historically it was the one public house amongst a cluster of private ones where neighbors could get together. Thus pubs became known as the “neighborhood’s living room”. Pubs are drinking establishments, but most serve simple British cuisine, too: pub grub. Steak and kidney pie, Welsh Rarebit, pork scratchings, pickled eggs, Ploughman’s Lunch, sandwiches, and crisps are frequently offered.
Even if you buy food, tipping is not expected. But if the person behind the bar is particularly nice or fills several big orders, you can invite them to “have one [a drink] for yourself” and add it to the bill.
Depending on your location and preferences, you’ll invariably find a pub to call home, but here is a list of some particularly historic and interesting pubs across the UK.
- Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, London, has a history of hosting literary greats such as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
- The Pandora, Truro, Cornwall, is a 13th century pub that is still alive and kicking.
- The Skirrid Mountain Inn, Llanfihangel Crucorney, Wales, can look back on nine turbulent centuries of Welsh history.
- Ye Old Fighting Cocks in St. Albans, Herfordshire, goes back to the 8th century and is one of the oldest pubs in England.
- England supposedly oldest inn, Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, in Nottingham is home to a memorable pub that connects to a labyrinth of caves and is made out of rock.
- The Butcher’s Arms, Herne, Kent is the leading example of a “micropub”.
- The Eagle and Child, Oxford, used to welcome local dons and fantasy writers J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis as regulars.
Gastropub now appears in the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. The term, first used in 1996, describes a pub that serves food which is above and beyond regular snacks and British cuisine. Pub grub serves as the initial inspiration, but chefs at gastropubs reinterpret traditional British cuisine quite liberally.
Instead of regular chips, you can try sweet potato chips. And instead of normal sausages, the menu might offer turkey sausages with fennel served with green apple compote. Gastropubs are an excellent choice for eating out if you want to combine a laidback atmosphere with quality British cuisine. They also connect to the new British food scene, but more on that below. At especially posh gastropubs and fine dining restaurants, tipping – about 10% of the bill – is expected. Some restaurants add a service charge of up to 15% to the cost of the meal.
If a pub is as British as British gets, curry isn’t far behind. Former foreign secretary Robin Cook called chicken tikka masala “a true British national dish”. British cuisine bears witness to the culinary influences of the Empire, and today jalfrezi is as British as fish and chips. In 2008 there were around 8000 curry houses in the UK! So British cuisine certainly includes curry, and the dish has a long history in the UK.
A 1747 cookbook, “The Art of Cookery”, included several curry recipes, and the first London curry house opened in 1809. The popularity of curry in the UK peaked at certain periods. Queen Victoria, surprisingly, liked her food hot and employed an Indian cook. However, the popularity of curry in the UK cooled a little later, starting with the Indian Rebellion of 1857.
Curry became popular again after WWII, especially due to the influx of Bangladeshi immigrants, who now own 65% of curry houses in the UK. Cities that have held the title “Curry Capital of Britain” include Leicester, Glasgow, Birmingham, and Bradford.
The New British Food Scene
Pubs, gastropubs, and curry houses aren’t the only options for dining in the UK. Thanks to the new British food scene, British cuisine has never been as exciting. London is the center of this food revolution, but you can taste it throughout the UK. In addition to the usual suspects (casual restaurants, fine dining, fast food and chain restaurants), you can now find everything from underground and pop up restaurants to street food collectives.
There are, of course, still very fancy restaurants where the old dining rules and class consciousness apply. Generally speaking, however, food culture has been democratized. In 2012, the Guardian even declared that fine dining is dead. Inspired by the Turner Prize, annually awarded to an artist working in the UK under the age of 50, there’s now an award for innovation in the British food scene: the YBF (Young British Foodies). Categories include street food, coffee, and food writing.
The new British food scene has infiltrated UK food culture as a whole. Gone are the days when the term British cuisine made you wonder if you should move to France instead.