What I find so weird and wonderful about British food is that it is simultaneously adored and derided.
Imagine for a moment that you’re sitting down to your dream meal: something of real comfort, tinged with nostalgia. A steak pie with gravy and buttery mash. A hearty stew with dumplings. A roast chicken with greens. A trolley of puddings with custard, or even something warm and cheesy like a Welsh rarebit.
Of course, these are all hallmarks of the British kitchen, but I imagine many people conjuring up this dream meal would also deny to the death that British food could be among their favourites.
Besides me, of course. I have no trouble acknowledging that this sort of food gives me a pleasure unlike any other.
Mince and tatties
Mince and tatties is a traditional Scottish dish, one of those deceptively simple ones where, as you eat, you think to yourself, ‘How can this be so good?’ The key is well-browned fatty beef mince and onions. They are cooked in a little oatmeal, then simmered in a rich beef stock and dark beer until the mixture is thick. A friend once asked me for a recipe recommendation – something ‘dark and ambrosial’, he said. This is just what he was after. The sort of recipe that makes you pine for cold, dreary days, just as an excuse to make this.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour
1 tbsp rapeseed oil or beef dripping
1 large onion, finely diced
1 small carrot, finely diced
1⁄2 small swede, peeled and finely diced
350g good-quality steak mince, about 15 per cent fat
A good pinch of finely chopped thyme leaves
1 tbsp fine oatmeal
1 tsp ground white pepper
570ml strong beef stock
1 bay leaf
1 tsp Bovril
A dash of mushroom ketchup
A dash of Worcestershire sauce (optional)
350g floury potatoes, such as maris piper or yukon gold, peeled and cut into large chunks
Heat the oil or dripping in a large frying pan or skillet over a medium heat, add the onion, carrot, swede and a good pinch of salt and sauté for 4–5 minutes until beginning to soften. Increase the heat slightly and add the mince and cook for 10 minutes, or until very well browned, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon as you go.
Add the thyme, oatmeal and white pepper and stir in well, then cook for 5 minutes. Pour in the porter and stir over the heat, scraping up all the bits stuck on the bottom of the pan, then add the stock, bay leaf, Bovril, mushroom ketchup and Worcestershire sauce, if using. Reduce the heat and simmer for 40 minutes, until the sauce has thickened and taken on a deeper colour. Check and adjust the seasoning, if necessary.
Meanwhile, bring a large saucepan of well-salted water to the boil. Carefully add the potatoes and boil for 15–20 minutes until tender and a fork pierces easily through them. Drain, return to the pan and leave to steam-dry.
Add the butter to the potatoes, then mash together. Check the seasoning and add salt and more butter to taste as desired. Serve the mince and tatties inelegantly.
Bacon chops with parsley sauce
Bacon chops – thick, fatty, crispy – work very well with fluffy mashed potatoes and a gentle, creamy parsley sauce. A satisfying, soothing combination, which would also benefit from steamed or buttered cabbage.
A classic English parsley sauce is made quite simply by adding chopped parsley and cream to a basic white sauce. In Wales, however, parsley sauce was made by using the starchy water from boiled potatoes, which was thickened with flour and flavoured with just a splash of milk. Parsley sauce can be served with any fish and poured over either gammon (ham) steaks or bacon chops.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 45 minutes
4 bacon chops with fat attached, about 2cm thick
50ml cider or water
Mashed potatoes and steamed or buttered cabbage, to serve
For the parsley sauce
500ml whole milk
1 small onion, quartered
1 bay leaf
1⁄4 nutmeg or 1⁄2 blade mace
2 black peppercorns, lightly crushed
40g plain flour
100ml single cream
75ml double cream
3 tbsp finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
Juice of 1⁄2 lemon
Begin by making the parsley sauce. Pour the milk into a large saucepan, add the onion, bay leaf, cloves, nutmeg or mace and peppercorns and bring gently to a simmer over a medium heat. Cover with a lid and simmer for 10 minutes, or until infused. Strain into a jug and set aside.
Melt the butter in the saucepan over a medium-low heat for 2 minutes, or until foaming. Stir in the flour and cook for 2–3 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent lumps and without colouring. Slowly whisk in the reserved milk, making sure it is fully combined before you add more. Reduce the heat to very low and simmer, stirring frequently, for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the cream or more milk and season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir in the parsley and cream. Add the lemon if serving with fish and season with salt and pepper. Serve.
Put a heavy frying pan or skillet over a medium heat. Put the chops into the pan with the ridge of fat against the pan and cook for several minutes to render the fat until it has become crispy – it should render enough fat to fry the chops.Turn the chops onto one side and cook for 3–4 minutes, before turning again and cooking the other side for the same time.
When they are cooked, remove from the pan and set aside, then add the cider or water to the pan and stir over the heat, scraping up all the crispy bits that are stuck on the bottom of the pan. Tip it into the parsley sauce and pour into a jug or sauce boat. Serve the chops with the sauce and mashed potatoes on the side.
A friend to roast dinners, this classic dish has evolved from simple creamy cauliflower, or cauliflower au gratin, of Victorian times into the much cheesier dish known today.
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 50 minutes
500ml whole milk
1 bay leaf
1⁄2 onion, studded with 2 cloves
1 whole cauliflower, outer leaves removed
30g plain flour
200g Cheddar, grated
3 tbsp grated Parmesan
150ml double cream
Pinch of cayenne (optional)
1 tbsp dried breadcrumbs
Pinch of grated nutmeg
Put the milk, bay leaf and clove-studded onion into a large saucepan and slowly bring to a simmer over a medium-low heat for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Meanwhile, put the whole cauliflower into another large saucepan with a tight-fitting lid and pour in enough water to cover the cauliflower by about 2.5cm. Cover with the lid and bring the water to the boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 15 minutes, or until the cauliflower is tender. Carefully remove the cauliflower from the pan and set aside.
Melt the butter in another saucepan over a medium-low heat for 2 minutes, or until foaming. Whisk in the flour and cook for 2–3 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent lumps and without colouring. Remove the bay leaf and onion from the hot milk and slowly whisk a third of the milk into the butter and flour mixture until smooth and the milk is fully combined. Keep adding the milk in this way until it is a smooth sauce, then reduce the heat to low and simmer gently for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile, heat the oven to 180C/160C fan/gas mark 4. Cut the cauliflower into florets and arrange in a large baking dish.
Remove the sauce from the heat and stir in all the cheddar and three-quarters of the Parmesan. When the cheeses are incorporated, add the cream, then season with the cayenne pepper (if using) and some salt and black pepper. Mix gently to combine, then pour over the cauliflower.
Mix the remaining Parmesan with the breadcrumbs in a small bowl and sprinkle over the top of the cauliflower. Grate over a little of the nutmeg and bake in the oven for 30 minutes, or until golden brown. Serve.
The British Cookbook: Authentic home cooking recipes from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland by Ben Mervis is out now (Phaidon, £39.95)