The best of British … food
The stove’s been neglected, I’ve chopped barely a handful of onions in the last six weeks, but good food….well my waistline shows the evidence of my gusto for eating, drinking and being merry while in Europe. Leaving the steamy temperatures of a Middle East summer to catch up with my family and friends is something I’ve been lucky enough to do every year as an expat. If you join this exodus, how do you cope in other people’s kitchens? Do you sigh with relief at a break from everyday cooking or long to get back to your familiar pots and pans? Would your perfect holiday be self-catering and well-stocked markets or five-star room service?
When in Europe I gravitate to the markets and small specialist shops. British food has been through its ups and downs. After rationing during the Second World War, the emphasis was on cheap and plentiful, the sliced white loaf was king and in our enthusiasm to try new things we started to neglect the wonderful produce and recipes our islands were famous for. The rise of small producers and an effort to reclaim our own fantastic food culture in the past decade has been really welcome. Although the control of the big supermarkets over our food production, and the nation’s appetite for fast food and pizza chains is the dark side of the story, the culinary diversity and quality of some of our food makes me very optimistic.
As a visitor in my own home country every summer, there are some edible experiences that I would not miss without fail.
Best British food experiences top three:
- Having a traditional cream tea
- Eating at a really good country pub
- Visiting a farmers’ market
As always, where you go is of vital importance so here are my recommendations from this year:
A traditional cream tea
Forget prissy table cloths and fancy doilies, for me a cream tea must include: light, fresh, crumbly plain scones (no sultanas), clotted cream (with a crust), excellent strawberry or raspberry jam (preferably home-made), a china pot of tea (I hate those stainless steel things), a jug of milk and a jug of hot water. Bone china tea cups preferred.
Tear open the scone (it should part horizontally), spoon on a generous amount of clotted cream then smear on a layer of jam. Reunite the halves and eat – it will never be dainty. The best time to eat a cream tea is when you’ve earned it. The Swan Hotel in the Cotswold village of Bibury served an excellent cream tea (scones on slate – the ‘in thing’ this summer). There was good service and it was reasonably priced for such a swanky venue (the bar inside is like a Scottish shooting lodge with tartan walls and antlers everywhere). We sat on their front terrace in our scruffy walking clothes after 6 miles of hiking in the beautiful Gloucestershire countryside (read about the hike and see pictures here). For more of my cream tea recommendations see ‘in search of the perfect scone‘.
A cream tea (pot of tea, one scone with jam and clotted cream) at the Swan Hotel bar is £4.35
The Swan Hotel, Bibury, Gloucestershire, GL7 5NW UK Telephone: 01285 740 695
A country pub
After a few hours of exploring the fields and woods around Blockley on foot, I googled on my Blackberry to find a nice pub nearby. The first result had won the Cotswold Life Food and Drink award for the best pub restaurant so we drove over to the Horse and Groom in Bourton on the Hill. The raised garden at the rear backed onto a field of sheep and had an extensive vegetable patch complete with chicken run. I couldn’t decide which of two local ales to choose so was given a bit of both to try. Home-made elderflower cordial mixed with locally bottled spring water was a delicious non-alcoholic option. The pub has an interesting wine list and local lager and wheat beer. I couldn’t resist trying some organic pork scratchings. KP hates the sounds of crackling being eaten, but he wasn’t here to witness the resounding crunching.
The blackboard menu is a short one – always a good sign. The pub is run by two brothers and one of them explained that most of their ingredients were from the garden and “if we have to compromise we get it up the road” i.e. all produce is fresh and local. We ate in the garden as it was a (rare) nice summer’s evening but the inside of the pub is really cosy with mis-matched wooden chairs and tables. My beer-battered hake and chips came with a lovely pea and mint purée plus home-made tartare sauce, my sister’s slow cooked lamb shoulder could be cut with a spoon and she chose creamy dauphinoise potatoes to go with it, my vegetarian daughter had filo parcels filled with spinach, butter beans, feta and pine nuts. We all oohed and aahed over my other daughters magnificent steak, ale and mustard pie. A dish of fresh vegetables were cooked perfectly.
The puddings board was brought out into the garden for us. Spoonfuls of summer pudding, Granny G’s toffee meringue, apple and rhubarb flapjack crumble and the River Cafe’s chocolate nemesis were exchanged between us all. Good old-fashioned puddings at their best – vege daughter was in heaven with the nemesis. We regretfully drove back to Cheltenham, the evening light finally fading over Cotswold stone villages. But as my sister pointed out, they do rooms…
Starters are from £4.75, main courses from £11.50 (which come with fresh vegetables and a choice of potato dishes), puddings from £5 – see latest menu here.
The Horse and Groom, Bourton on the Hill, Moreton in Marsh, Gloucestershire GL56 9AQ UK Telephone 01386 700413
A farmers’ market
The renaissance of farmers’ markets in the UK is one of the most encouraging developments of the past few years and Stroud is a beacon among them. It has been going since 1999 and has grown to over 60 stalls a week including a good range of organic food and drink, local produce, cooked food stalls plus local crafts. It has revitalised the town centre and it’s easy to spend many hours browsing (and tasting) in the market and the surrounding shops – which we did again this summer.
My first port of call is always for a Hinton Marsh Farm hot sausage fresh from the grill, in a bun, with mustard. The nice people on the Gloucester Brewery stall gave me a guided tasting of all their ales (which were great with the sausage). My daughter came running over to tell me that she’d tasted the most delicious elderflower champagne – and it was. Jessie’s Ladies (her cows) organic thick and creamy yoghurt and small crunchy, sweet, local apples were also added to our bulging shopping bags.
One day I’ll have time to go on a foraging walk, the stall looks so interesting, but the teens were keen to rummage in various vintage shops. I popped one last bottle into my bag. I couldn’t resist some Severn cider. The woodcut label is as attractive as the taste from these traditional hand-crafter ciders made from unsprayed apples of traditional varieties. Their open days at The Old Vicarage, Newnham sound fantastic.
The hours fly by at this market and every visit is different (an account of an earlier visit here).
Stroud Farmers’ Market, Cornhill Market Place (and surrounding streets), Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK Telephone 01453 758060 Every Saturday 9am – 2pm
Do you agree with my top three British food experiences?
P.S. Whether in your own kitchen or someone else’s, you’ve still got time to bake saffron buns (or experiment with another spice) and join me for the Fresh From the Oven challenge this August. Come and join the summer baking bun-fest.