Months of endless drizzle and thick, heavy fog and the necessity of a stiff upper lip: is it any wonder hearty comfort foods are a British staple? As we head into the winter season, born-and-raised Brit Nikki Bayley shares four of her favourite hugs-on-a-plate.
Fish and Chips
Fish and chips are a British staple—during the Second World War they were one of the few foods not rationed. Batter-fried fish came to the UK via Jewish immigrants in the 17th century, and the country’s first fish and chip shops began to appear in the 1860s. Fuelled by the religious tradition of eating fish on Fridays, by 1930 there were some 35,000 chippies in the UK. Whether the fish is fried old-school in beef dripping or in vegetable oil, it’ll come with thick-cut chips lashed with salt and malt vinegar and then doused with brown sauce in Scotland, gravy in the North, curry sauce in Wales or dunked in mayonnaise down South.
Easily transportable and packed with carbs, the humble Cornish pasty is a pastry-wrapped potato, swede (turnip) and onion snack that kept mine workers going in the 19th century. As meat became more affordable, the recipe switched up to include minced or diced beef. For now (pre-Brexit), the Cornish pasty is protected by E.U. law and must, along with a raft of other conditions, “be crimped into a D shape, with the crimp towards one side” to be considered the genuine article. This crimped edge is thought to have served as a throwaway handle, protecting miners from arsenic-laden dust on their hands. Ironically, in the hands of politicians, the pasty can turn into a hot potato; the 2012 Conservative government tried unsuccessfully to implement a tax on freshly baked, takeaway foods, which the media dubbed the “pasty tax.”
Brits begin to drool before noon on Sundays in anticipation of the weekly roast. You can argue which meat is best—beef or alternatives such as lamb, pork or chicken—but there’s no debate about what to have as sides: Yorkshire pudding, liberally hosed in meaty gravy, along with stuffing, roasted potatoes and veg, and a dollop of horseradish or mint sauce. The roast dates back to the 1400s—King Henry VII’s guards were known as “Beefeaters,” as they were fed large portions of beef daily. For folks of modest means, the following week’s menu would be built around the use of the roast’s leftovers, making bubble and squeak—potato, cabbage and other leftover veggies shallow-fried in a pan. A home-cooked roast is wonderful, but nothing beats a traditional Sunday roast shared with friends in an old-fashioned pub.
Invented in East Sussex in the 1970s, this triumph of empty calories combines condensed milk, bananas and cream to provide an instant sugar high (and corresponding crash) at the first bite. Inspired by an American recipe for Blum’s Coffee Toffee Pie, which apparently had a 50/50 record for setting or collapsing, the chef at the Hungry Monk restaurant boiled a tin of condensed milk to make toffee-ish dulce de leche, smothered it over a pastry case, layered it with bananas and then blanketed it with whipped cream, creating one of the nation’s favourite desserts. Banoffee Pie is the 1970s glamour gal of the British dessert trolley. Opinion may be divided on whether the base should be made with pastry or crushed biscuits and melted butter, but there’s rarely a discussion over whether there is room for a second piece.