An Introduction to Tea Time and British Cooking
What could be more British than the concept of tea time – pots of hot tea, little scones, finger sandwiches and cakes, and all the fun that goes hand in hand with that? Although it is true the British love their tea, there is a whole lot more to British cooking than that. There are famous British dishes like fish and chips, the full fried breakfast, steak pies, and bangers and mash, but there is a whole other side to British cuisine, one which is fascinating to anyone who is curious about cooking in the UK.
What People Think about British Cooking
The main misconception about British food is that it is bland and uninspiring, but the reason for that is when they had rationing during wartime you just could not buy meat, eggs, fruit, sugar, tea and other staples, and just had to make do with meat (occasionally), vegetables and other simple things. Meals during that time (and this lasted up to 1954, remember) were bland and dull, but the war was on and people just had to make do.
Because rationing lasted so long, a whole generation went without previously much-used ingredients, and the rationing policies are largely blamed for the decline of British cuisine in this period. Modern British cuisine really began after the end of rationing, although some ingredients were still hard to find. Olive oil in the 1950s, for example, was only available from the pharmacy, not from a shop!
How Wartime Rationing Shaped British Cuisine
To really understand British cooking, we need to look at British history of food and skip the part about wartime. In the early 1900s and before, meat and fish was plentiful and tinned (canned) foods were introduced. Savoury and sweet pies were popular, along with casseroles, foreign dishes like risotto, Battenburg cake, and all kinds of main dishes which would have been made from scratch.
The Sunday roast is enjoyed, which is made with meat, roasted potatoes and vegetables, homemade gravy and perhaps Yorkshire pudding, stuffing or similar. This dish would become the framework of the following week’s meals, so perhaps cold meat and leftover vegetables would be served the following day or the meat would be used to make some kind of stew with dumplings.
Modern Cooking in the UK
Skip to post-wartime and that is when British cuisine begins to change, sticking with a lot of the old favourites but also adding in new influences from India, the Mediterranean and many other places. British food begins to subtly change with these new influences.
Chicken tikka masala becomes one of the most popular dishes in England, Chinese chop suey and chips becomes as popular as cod and chips, and the British once again fall in love with traditional dishes like shepherd’s pie and cottage pie, roast dinners and sweet treats, sticking to the original recipes or updating them with new, previously unavailable ingredients. Modern British cuisine traits include foraging, blending new flavours, exciting new fusion recipes, and updated classic British dishes.
Tea Time is So British
One thing that never changed through all the time was tea time, and this dates back hundreds of years. In some parts of the country the word ‘tea’ is used instead of ‘dinner’ and tea time can be anything from a pot of tea with sweet and savoury snacks, served before dinner, or a complete replacement for dinner, consisting of any kind of savoury meal.
A lot of meals are not ‘highly spiced’ like Asian or Indian food for example, but more delicately flavoured. A pie might contain only meat, vegetables, meat stock and mustard or Worcestershire sauce, for example, while vegetables might be served with just a pat of butter melting on top and nothing more complex. Keeping the flavours simple means the meat, fish or basis of the dish can be enjoyed and not overpowered. British cuisine is like no other, and needs to be experienced rather than described, to be enjoyed and appreciated to its fullest.
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