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Flavors of England

The New Food Scene

England has never lacked a treasure store of nature's bounty: lush green pastures, fruitful orchards, and the encompassing sea. Over the past few decades, dowdy images of English cooking have been sloughed off. A new focus on the land and a new culinary confidence and expertise are exemplified by the popularity and influence of celebrity chefs such as Rick Stein, Heston Blumenthal, Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, and Mary Berry. The chefs are only one indicator of change: all over the country, artisanal food producers and talented cooks are indulging their passion for high-quality, locally sourced ingredients. And television programs on home baking have proved phenomenally popular.

Food festivals, farmers' markets (some organic), and farm shops have sprung up in more cities and towns. Alongside the infiltration of supermarkets, much opposed by some people, comes a more discriminating attitude to food supplies. Outdoors-reared cows, sheep, and pigs; freshly caught fish; and seasonal fruits and vegetables provide a bedrock upon which traditional recipes are tempered with cosmopolitan influences. The contemporary English menu takes the best of Mediterranean and Asian cuisines and reinterprets them with new enthusiasm.

Natural Bounty

Cask ales. The interest in the provenance of food extends to beer, encouraging microbreweries to develop real or cask ales: beer that’s unfiltered and unpasteurized, and that contains live brewer's yeast. The ales can be from kegs, bottles, or casks, and they range from pale amber to full-bodied. The Casque Mark outside pubs signals their availability.

Dairy produce. The stalwart Cheddar, Cheshire, Double Gloucester, and Stilton cheeses are complemented by traditional and experimental cheeses from small, local makers. Some cheeses come wrapped in nettles or vine leaves, others stuffed with apricots, cranberries, or herbs. Dairies are producing more sheep and goat cheeses, yogurts, and ice creams.

Game. In the fall and winter, pheasant, grouse, partridge, and venison are prominent on restaurant menus, served either roasted, in rich casseroles, or in pies. Duck (particularly the Gressingham and Aylesbury breeds), rabbit, and hare are available all year-round.

Meat. Peacefully grazing cattle, including Aberdeen Angus, Herefordshire, and Welsh Black varieties, are an iconic symbol of the countryside. When hung and dry-aged for up to 28 days, English beef is at its most flavorsome. Spring lamb is succulent, and salt-marsh lamb from Wales and the Lake District, fed on wild grasses and herbs, makes for a unique taste. Outdoors-reared and rare breeds of pig, such as Gloucester Old Spot, often provide the breakfast bacon.

Preserved foods. Marmalade is a fixed item on the breakfast menu, and a wide variety of jams, including the less usual quince, find their place on the tea-shop table. Chutneys made from apples or tomatoes mixed with onions and spices are served with cheese at the end of a meal or as part of a pub lunch.

Seafood. The traditional trio of cod, haddock, and plaice is still in evidence, but declining fishing stocks have brought other varieties to prominence. Hake, bream, freshwater trout, wild salmon, sardines, pilchards, and mackerel are on the restaurant table, along with crab, mussels, and oysters. The east and Cornish coasts are favored fishing grounds.

Traditional Dishes

Good international fare is available, and you shouldn't miss the Indian food in England. But do try some classics.

Black pudding. In this dish, associated with Lancashire, Yorkshire, and the Midlands, onions, pork fat, oatmeal, herbs, and spices are blended with the blood from a pig. At its best this dish has a delicate, crumbly texture and can be served at breakfast or as a starter to a meal.

Fish-and-chips. This number-one seaside favorite not only turns up in every seaside resort, but in fish-and-chip shops and restaurants throughout the land. Fish, usually cod, haddock, or plaice, is deep-fried in a crispy batter and served with thick french fries (chips) and, if eaten out, wrapped up in paper. The liberal sprinkling of salt and vinegar, and "mushy" (processed) peas are optional.

Meat pies and pasties. Pies and pasties make a filling lunch. Perhaps the most popular is steak-and-kidney pie, combining chunks of lean beef and kidneys mixed with braised onions and mushrooms in a thick gravy, topped with a light puff- or short-pastry crust. Other combinations are chicken with mushrooms or leek and beef slow-cooked in ale (often Guinness). Cornish pasties are filled with beef, potato, rutabaga, and onions, all enveloped in a circle of pastry folded in half.

Sausages. "Bangers and mash" are sausages, most commonly made with pork but sometimes beef or lamb, served with mashed potatoes and onion gravy. Lincolnshire sausage consists of pork flavored with sage. Cumberland sausage comes in a long coil and has a peppery taste.

Shepherd's and cottage pie. These classic pub dishes have a lightly browned mashed-potato topping over stewed minced meat and onions in a rich gravy. Shepherd's pie uses lamb, cottage pie beef.

Meals Not to Be Missed

Full English breakfast. The "full English" is a three-course affair. Starting with orange juice, cereals, porridge, yogurt, or stewed fruit, it's followed by any combination of sausages, eggs, bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms, black pudding, baked beans, and fried bread. The feast finishes with toast and marmalade and tea or coffee. Alternatives to the fry-up are kippers, smoked haddock, or boiled eggs. Some cafés serve an all-day breakfast.

Ploughman's lunch. Crusty bread, English cheese (perhaps farmhouse Cheddar, blue Stilton, crumbly Cheshire, or waxy red Leicester), and tangy pickles with a side-salad garnish make up a delicious light lunch, found in almost every pub.

Roast dinners. On Sunday, the traditional roast dinner is still popular. The meat, either beef, pork, lamb, or chicken, is served with roast potatoes, carrots, seasonal green vegetables, and Yorkshire pudding, a savory batter baked in the oven until crisp, and then topped with a rich, dark, meaty gravy. Horseradish sauce and English mustard are on hand for beef; a mint sauce accompanies lamb; and an apple sauce enhances pork.

Tea in the afternoon. Tea, ideally served in a country garden on a summer afternoon, ranks high on the list of England's must-have experiences. You may simply have a scone with your tea, or you can opt for a more ample feast: dainty sandwiches with the crusts cut off; scones with jam and clotted cream; and an array of homemade cakes.

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