The British Isles have a rich culinary history, and each region has its own favourite recipes. I’d like to introduce you to some traditional British food dishes that have stood the test of time.
Fish and chips (pictured above) is an enduring favourite amongst the British – and any visitors from overseas who try it for the first time are surprised that something as simple as deep fried battered fish and potatoes can taste so good. But sometimes simple food is best. I think that fish and chips taste better when eaten at the seaside, preferably while still in the paper wrapper, sprinkled with lots of salt and malt vinegar. Other accompaniments are mushy peas, tartare sauce, pickled onions, and gherkins (pickled whole cucumbers.)
This is a popular dish all over the British Isles. But every county has its regional favourites. Britain is an island, surrounded by the sea, so fish features often in our national dishes. But we also have lush, abundant grazing land and forests, where you can forage for mushrooms, wild garlic, sloe berries and hazelnuts, to name but a few of our treasures. And different times of the year bring seasonal produce.
Scotland, Wales, and Ireland have a wealth of home grown fruit, vegetables, cheese and meat, along with locally-produced honey, chutneys, cakes and bread. You could spend a lifetime travelling the length and breadth of this country and never taste everything it has to offer.
Here is a round-up of my favourite regional specialities from around the British Isles, listed by the county they originate from.
This area includes the counties of Lancashire, Cheshire, Yorkshire, Northumberland and Cumbria, known as the Lake District for its many beautiful natural lakes and stunning scenery. Traditionally, food from this region was hearty and economical, made to feed working men and women in an often cold climate.
Each region has its own local dishes, some recipes going back many years, and passed down from mothers to children to keep the tradition alive. Local produce is used, like beef and lamb, and milk to make local cheeses such as Wensleydale, Cotherstone and Blacksticks Blue.
People in northern England worked on the land, down coal mines or in the mills. These were labour-intensive jobs and the workers needed good, hearty food to fill them up and give them the energy to work long hours, in what were often harsh conditions. Dishes such as Lancashire Hotpot, made from layers of lamb, potatoes and onions baked slowly in the oven, or cottage pie, meat and vegetables with a mashed potato topping, were just the thing that these hungry workers needed to keep them going. Pies such as steak and kidney with a warming gravy, or tripe and onions, were also popular. Cheap, filling and warming, these dishes are still eaten today.
Cakes and biscuits were made by hand, rich fruit cake (often served with a hunk of cheese) parkin (a ginger cake originating in Yorkshire) and Fat Rascals, a kind of drop scone cooked over an open fire.
This region encompasses the counties of Warwickshire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Derbyshire, Shropshire, Herefordshire, Staffordshire and Leicestershire. Known as the heart of England, the food produced here owes its quality to the lush agricultural land, the richest in the country. From here comes prime British beef, pies, cakes, cheeses, hops for making beer, fruit such as apples, pears and plums and some of the purest mineral water in the world.
Hereford cattle thrive on the abundant grass and large parts of Derbyshire and Northamptonshire are devoted to rearing sheep. The game is plentiful, the rolling, wooded countryside providing cover for pheasants, rabbits and hares. The town of Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire is famous for its pork pies and is justifiably proud of them.
Stilton, called the king of cheeses, is made in this region. In fact, it is a registered trademark and can only be made with milk produced in three counties; Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire. Other cheeses native to this region are Shropshire, Sage Derby and Red Leicester. This cheese has a vivid orange colour which was originally made by adding carrot or beetroot juice to milk left over from making Stilton.
Hearty dishes like oxtail stew, beef cobbler (a beef stew with a scone topping) and rabbit braised in wine all hail from this area. Sweet treats such as Bakewell tart, fruit and cider cake and Shrewsbury biscuits were regularly made, using local butter and apples.
The South East and London
This region has a wonderful range of produce. London has been an important trading post since Roman times; its deep-water port, access to the continent and proximity to the sea meant that London thrived. And it still does. The counties surrounding the capital city, Sussex, Hampshire, Kent, Surrey and Berkshire supply rich grazing land for sheep and cattle. The Isle of Wight, a tiny island just off the coast of Hampshire, is known for its fertile grazing land and locally produced garlic.
The Weald of Kent is exceptionally fertile. Known as the garden of England, some of the finest fruit in the country is grown and harvested here. This dates back to the 16th century, and you can still find the iconic Oast Houses dotted around the Kent countryside. These were built to dry the freshly-picked hops before they were sent to the malt houses to make beer.
Of course, now these listed buildings are beautiful family homes. But I love the rounded turrets with their little white caps, known as cowls, and the charm of these old structures.
With a wealth of fresh fruit, fish, meat and poultry the food of South Eastern England is generous and full of flavour. Things like jellied eels, pie, mash and liquor, potted shrimps, beef cooked in red wine, pheasant casserole and sweet dishes like summer pudding, plum tart and Sussex pond pudding ensure that the food of this region remains as popular today as it was in times gone by.
This region is made up of the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire and Essex – my home county. East Anglia is flat, you can see for miles across the open landscape of the Fens, where crops such as sugar-beet, wheat, barley and rapeseed oil have been farmed for centuries. It has been described as the bread basket of Britain, because so much of our produce comes from here – and has done for many years.
Horticulture is a thriving industry, the farms in East Anglia supply the majority of salads, fruit and vegetables that we buy from our shops. Potatoes, pears, cauliflowers and soft fruits grow easily in these open fields.
The Essex coast has warm waters where oysters and shellfish are plentiful. Colchester in Essex produces some of the finest flat oysters in the country. Cromer in Norfolk is famous for its crab, and lobster, and mussels, cockles and whelks are found in abundance along the coastline.
Such lovely produce is showcased in dishes like asparagus soup, crab souffle, Norfolk turkey with all the trimmings, gammon glazed with local honey, game pie and substantial puddings like spotted dick and classic bread and butter pudding. This is a county worth visiting if you love your food.
The West Country
This is a place that I love to visit. It has rolling green pastures, a beautiful coastline and pretty villages and fishing ports. And the famous English cream tea can be found wherever you go. It includes the counties of Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Cornwall, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire, which all have their own special charms.
Tourists have flocked to this part of England for years, attracted by the scenery and the fact that it has the warmest climate in the British Isles. Spring arrives early in the south west, ripening fruit and vegetables so that they’re ready for the market. The rich, green grass means that west country milk has a high butterfat content, perfect for making the famous clotted cream, as well as butter and cheese.
Cheddar is made in Somerset and has been produced here for centuries. Although cheddar can now be made all over the world. purists argue that only cheddar made in Somerset can be classed as true cheddar. Other local cheeses are Double Gloucester, Blue Vinney, Devon Garland, Cornish Yarg and Sharpham cheese from Totnes in Devon. All are delicious and well worth trying.
Somerset is also home to an apple drink called cider, or scrumpy as the local brew is known. This is made from apples allowed to naturally ferment in barrels and varies from rough and strong to dry, smooth cider made from single apple varieties. It makes a great partner to a ploughman’s lunch and is used in cooking, particularly with chicken and pork.
Great west country dishes include Cornish pasties, macaroni cheese, crab or lobster thermidor, cheese souffle and hake with tartare sauce. Apart from scones with jam and clotted cream, there are Cornish fairings, clotted cream vanilla ice cream, saffron cake and Dorset apple cake.
We’re now going to take a detour and head back north, to Scotland. Although Scotland has more mountains than anywhere else in the British Isles, it also has low lying, fertile grassland, producing some of the finest food anywhere. Scottish lamb and beef are renowned all over the world for their excellence, while game such as grouse, pheasant, deer, and hare are plentiful.
In Scotland’s busy seaports huge catches of mackerel, haddock, sole, cod and whiting are brought in every day. Crabs and lobsters are caught off the coast of Fife and scallops and winkles can be found in the Western Isles. Anglers come to Scotland for the beautiful salmon and trout that swim in the lochs and rivers that criss-cross the land.
Scotland’s climate is suited to growing fruit and vegetables too. Potatoes, peas, turnips and leeks are all grown here. But Scotland’s finest product has to be whisky, especially the single malt variety, which is one of the best-selling spirits in the world.
Traditional Scottish fare includes smoked fish, haggis, venison casserole, neeps and tatties, jugged kippers, Scotch fillet steak and fresh salmon served simply with lemon and herbs. For those with a sweet tooth, there’s cranachan, Scots pancakes, gingerbread, bannock, toddy cake and oat flapjacks.
Wales is actually two nations; the north, where rugged mountains support nothing but oats and sheep and Welsh-speaking farmers have to struggle against the elements to make a living. Then there’s South Wales, which is more English, where beef and dairy cattle thrive. Milk, cream, cheese and butter feature heavily in Welsh cooking, as well as leeks, lamb and oats.
Seafood includes salmon from the rivers and a pony and trap is still used to go out onto the sands to gather cockles. Cheese is made here and Welsh goat cheese is said to be the best in the British Isles. Caerphilly cheese is the most popular but in the past few years, small-scale producers have rediscovered neglected cheeses like Llangloffan, Llanboidy and Caws Fferm.
Welsh cuisine makes good use of local produce, from the cheese used to make Welsh rarebit to lamb and venison dishes served with home grown vegetables. Bara Brith is a fruit bread usually served sliced and buttered, then there are Welsh cakes, treacle tart and Snowdon pudding.
Now we’re taking a trip across the Irish sea to Northern Ireland, which is part of the British Isles. For centuries, Irish cooking has been based on wholesome, simple ingredients like bread, meat, butter and potatoes. Irish stew, a concoction of lamb, potatoes and onions was cheap, filling, and it warmed up workers on a cold day.
Potatoes have long been a staple of the Irish diet and they are cooked in all sorts of ways, but are also used to make soup, bread, pies and pancakes.
Ireland has a wet climate, but this helps the grass to grow lush and green, making the region famous for the quality of its butter, milk and cream. And earning it the nickname The Emerald Isle. Anglers come to Ireland for the trout, pike and perch; a quarter of the bacon eaten in the UK comes from Ulster, and every high street has a bakery with shelves laden down with barm brack, soda bread, farls and potato bread.
Ireland is a rival for the Scottish malt whisky mentioned above. But theirs has an ‘e’ between the k and the y. Or as the Irish are fond of saying ‘between the tumbler and the lips.’ Another favourite drink is stout, a type of dark-brewed beer. Guinness is the most popular and is famous the world over.
The food of Northern Ireland is good, wholesome and filling. Expect to find dishes like cabbage with bacon, beef cooked in stout, colcannon and of course, Irish stew. For those with a sweet tooth, there are fresh fruit tartlets, Irish porter cake and barm brack.
I hope that you’ve enjoyed this culinary tour of the British Isles. If you have any comments or questions, please leave them below.
See this post for some delicious English food recipes
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