There were many places on this trip that I was excited to visit for essentially little more than the chance to eat my way through them. It will probably not surprise many of you that England was not originally on that list.
It is now. England may traditionally be the laughing stock of the culinary world, but if our meals during our latest visit are anything to go by, Blighty’s days as a gastronomical whipping boy are well and truly over.
Don’t believe me? Take a gander at the (mostly) delicious dishes we tucked into during our time in the city:
Wasting no time, we kicked off our week in London by sampling Marmite, England’s most divisive condiment. Essentially left over beer dregs, it probably says everything about the country’s colorful food history that this spread is not only considered a foodstuff, but is also an acceptable form of vitamins.
Regardless, we gave it a try, since it could hardly be any worse than durian… or could it?
We let our dear friend Maddy doctor up our toast with but the barest scraping of Marmite, since she assured us that the most common ingestion error was a too liberal slathering of the stuff. I think that I ultimately liked it better than Tony did (also true for Durian), but we both said we mostly just found Marmite to be quite salty and I can’t say we really saw the appeal. I will allow that I could see potentially using it as a spread on a sandwich and in combination with many other ingredients, but much as I wouldn’t sit down and simply eat toast spread with ketchup, mustard, or mayo, I think we can also add Marmite to that list. I suppose I just prefer my toast fixings to be of the sweet variety. Oh well, more for Kat’s monster cat, Boots!
Fish & Chips
Perhaps England’s most famous and most beloved edible export, no visit to the UK would be complete without a hearty (an exceedingly unhealthy) portion of fish & chips.
After two years of trying dubious iterations of the dish here and there around Asia and going completely without the seven years prior to that (since Nashville—much to its detriment—does not do fish & chips, unless you consider fried catfish and fries an acceptable substitute, which it clearly is not…) I was so ready to dig into a deep-fried bomb of artery-clogging goodness. To that end, I did a fair bit of research into some of London’s best chippies that were still reasonably priced (Have I mentioned that London is pricey?) and wound up settling on Masters Super Fish, which is just down the road from Waterloo station.
A purported favorite with London cabbies, we had been forewarned that portions were huge and service was decidedly surly. We were not disappointed on either count. The walls are sea foam green, your waitress will roll her eyes when you ask for water, but the servings were massive (I know the photo makes them seem reasonable, but they really weren’t) and the food was good. Maddy assured us that Masters should be awarded full points for authenticity as it was “very English”. The only anomaly was that in addition to bread and gherkins accompanying our fish suppers, a plate of steamed prawns was also presented, which we were warned was strange and untraditional.
For £8 per person for a fried cod fish dinner, we rolled out of Masters Super Fish stuffed to the gills (hardy har har) with just a whiff of greasiness about us. All in all, a success!
A Full English
Breakfast is not just the most important meal of the day, it might just also be my favorite. “Breakfast for dinner” is a frequent occurrence in our household so great is our collective love for breakfast foods, so I don’t say this lightly when I say that for all its food-related stumbles over the years, a Full English might just be the very best breakfast on the face of the planet.
I mean, look at what you get! Toast, eggs, sausage, bacon (which is generally more like ham; the British refer to what we North American’s call bacon as “streaky bacon”), roasted tomatoes and mushrooms, baked beans… This is the ultimate savory breakfast and veritable heaven/heart attack on a plate.
That said, I only have two regrets about the Full English we experienced in London:
- The place we went to didn’t offer black pudding as part of their breakfast sets, which would have really made the meal full-on traditional;
- We only had this type of breakfast ONCE during our entire visit. Then again, our cholesterol levels likely thank us for this decision…
You can pretty much find Full English breakfasts all over London. We wound up popping into a place that we stumbled upon immediately after exiting a Leicester Square Tube station in SoHo where you could have breakfast for fairly cheap: our two breakfasts (one veggie) came to £9.70, which—given the location—isn’t too shabby. You can, of course, pay a lot more for a Full English, but I would say if you’re able to find it for less than £6 in London, you are doing well.
[Editor’s Note: Some serious Google sleuthing on Tony’s part has revealed we ate at Café Aroma Coffee Bar, located at 22 Cranbourn St. where a Full English can be had for £4.95. Don’t say we never did anything for you!]
So. Many. Sandwiches.
After two years largely eschewing sandwiches (save for our time in Vietnam where you would be mad to pass up a banh mi!), we were excited to eat our weight in sandwiches once we hit England. Which is fortunate, because it turns out sandwiches are one of the cheapest things to eat in London.
I have already told you about the best sandwich ever, but there were many other excellent sandwiches to be eaten in London. Our first day in the city, we went for lunch at Café in the Crypt at St Martin in the Fields, one of London’s most notable cheap eats. We had a salt beef sandwich, which was pretty tasty, albeit largely reminiscent of corned beef (and not as good as Montreal’s smoked meat!).
As far as meals in London go, Café in the Crypt is fairly kind on your wallet, but not really all that cheap (we decided to split the sandwich to make it a bit more affordable). Instead, we found ourselves turning to the local supermarket chain Sainsbury’s to sate all of our lunchtime sandwich needs: For £3 (~$4.80US), you can get a sandwich, a drink, and a small snack (packet of crisps, fruit salad, yogurt). As far as deals go, this one is tough to beat, although all of the supermarkets and even some of the pharmacies (like Boots) offer some variation on this. On previous visits to England, deals like this tended to be limited to the “triangle sandwiches” (ones made on sliced bread), but it seems the lunchtime crowd has gotten more ambitious as now it encompasses wraps and even baguette sandwiches too.
I maintain that these lunch deals are a great way to delve into English flavors, since we enjoyed combos that you definitely won’t find back home like chicken & stuffing, cheese and pickle (not actually pickle as we know it but a brown spiced condiment that features many different veggies), Ploughman’s platter (featuring cheddar cheese and some veggies), and southern fried chicken. Ok, that last one you can definitely get back home, but it turned out to be Tony’s favorite because it was marginally spicy. And let’s not forget the crazy snacks, like “prawn cocktail” crisps or “Wotsits” washed down with a bottle of Ribena!
Anyway, we quite happily ate loads of sandwiches for relatively little. When the weather was nice, they were perfect for lunches in the park and they are truly one of the best ways to eat fairly well while sticking to a budget in London.
A Proper High Tea
Speaking of sandwiches, they also featured when we went out for a proper English tea. Although no means cheap, when I asked Tony what he considered to be an unmissable English food experience, this was what he picked. Perhaps even more shockingly, I ferreted out a place that offers “lads tea”, serving up things like mini shepherd’s pies and the like, but Tony wanted to go the traditional route of dainty finger sandwiches and sweets instead.
So, off to the Radisson Blu Edwardian on Bloomsbury Street we went with Maddy and Kat in tow. Although the setting was a bit more modern than we were anticipating, the food was staunchly English. Our first course featured crustless sandwiches filled with things like egg mayonnaise, ham and butter, smoked salmon, and cucumber.
Second course was all about scones, clotted cream and jam. By which I mean, it was all about the clotted cream! Be still my heart! (Literally.)
To wrap things up, we indulged in the decadent top tier of fruit tarts, lemon sponge cake, chocolate brownies, and berry compote. The lemon sponge was regrettably dry, but we were quite honestly so stuffed by this point that we didn’t really mind leaving it unfinished.
Tea at the Radisson Blu Edwardian on Bloomsbury Street set us back £19.95 per person. A pricy indulgence, but decent value for money given the spread you are served. It also has the bonus of being just a few blocks down from the British Museum, which is completely free.
Traditional Cornish Pasties
Our friend Maddy was very keen that we try pasties while we were in town, but was adamant that the only decent ones we could have in London would be made by her own hand, since they are native to Cornwall, the area of England where she grew up and where her family has been making them for decades.
Pasties are, in essence, hand-held meat pies along the lines of a samosa or—dare I say it!—a hot pocket. They are made with a purposefully thick crust (which takes some real skill to properly weave!) which was used by miners as a handle for the pasty and is generally discarded.
The ingredients that go into the traditional version are very basic: ground beef, onion, potatoes, and some salt and pepper. Maddy was very clear that this is all that should be included in a pasty—anything else would be sacrilege. (Apparently her husband, Simon, is known to put curry powder in his pasties, but one look from Maddy made it clear that this was an unsanctioned deviation.)
Maddy was disappointed with how her pasties turned out, but served with a side of Branston pickle, we clearly liked them well enough as we devoured them without taking the time to take a picture of the finished product. So, here is a picture of me eating a lamb samosa instead, which I bought at a Tube station and was not at all sketchy.
Pub Grub (+ All The Beer/Ale/Cider)
Last, but certainly not least, what would a visit to England be without ample time spent down at the pub drinking many many pints, but also eating too? All of our English friends were curious as to what the North American equivalent of heading to the pub was, and we had no easy answer for this. While we certainly have our own tradition of hitting up happy hours or heading out to bars or clubs, none of these things quite cover the social meeting ground that the English pub offers and I don’t believe we tend to frequent any of those places with the same regularity that Brits do their local pubs (at least none of our friends do).
The public house is a beautiful thing, and some of them are quite literally so, housed in gorgeous old buildings that I’m sure have more than their fair share of wild stories. One evening Kat & Alex invited us to tag along to their local pub, the Warrington Hotel, for a drink… which quickly devolved into several drinks and some massive platters of food. As you might imagine, pub food tends to be on the heavier side, all the better to soak up irresponsible levels of alcohol. (Seriously, I think my liver has just now mended itself following our time in London…)
It took a real team effort, but together we managed to demolish several “snack’ platters laden with: baked camembert, chips (in the British meaning of the word), deep fried sausage, Scotch egg (i.e., an egg covered in sausage meat that is then breaded and deep fried), meat pie, sausages covered in a mustard glaze, and the dubiously named “scampi” whose initial origins no one could properly identify (the closest we could get was “some kind of fish… maybe multiple fish…”). It was serious meat overload and it was glorious.
Slightly better was when we went out to a pub in Richmond with Maddy & Simon (it was raining so what else were we to do?) where the platter we ordered featured chorizo & salami, cheese, mushrooms, sundried tomatoes, and toast fingers. More reminiscent of an antipasti platter, we could almost trick ourselves into believing we had made the healthy choice. Now, if only there hadn’t been quite so much beer involved…
Shocking though it may be, the truth of the matter is that we ate incredibly well in London. Indeed, even after having made our way through culinary powerhouse destinations like France and Italy, when I think back on our time in Europe, I consistently rank London as one of our best weeks when it came to stuffing our faces. When it came to good food and good friends, London delivered on all fronts, so much so that only the words of Oliver Twist can truly capture what that week was like:
“Please, sir, I want some more!”
Now it’s your turn: If you’ve ever been to London, were you pleasantly surprised by the food you encountered? If not, what is your favorite unexpected food destination? Which of these dishes would you most like try? If you are familiar with English food, what did we miss and should we make sure we try on our next visit?