does not suck. Well, most of it, that is. There are now more Michelin Star-rated restaurants in London than in Paris. French chefs are moving to England to work because London is fast becoming the centre of culinary excellence – much to the French chagrin. Because Britain has something to prove on the food front, it often ends up well beyond average. The trend over here is to use fresh, local and, most importantly, seasonal produce. The menus are simple and the dishes lovely. Not necessarily ground breaking in originality, but proper food that you can feel good about eating. Sometimes it’s really posh and other times, it’s all about comfort – food you eat in a pub in front of a roaring fire after a brisk walk on an October afternoon. Muddy welly boots allowed. Heaven.
Where the food fails in Britain is in café or fast food. There are exceptions to this but for the most part it tends to be bad to average. Pre-packed dry sandwiches, salads with no dressing, burnt toasties (Britain’s version of grilled cheese) and flavourless chilli served on top of baked potato. Difficult to get excited about lunch. The average tourist doesn’t necessarily want to sit down for a long leisurely lunch, so they will seek out a moderately priced café or pub for a quick bite while museum hopping. Unfortunately, chances are they won’t wander into one of Britain’s little gems. It’s much easier to find a hell-hole serving crap food by a waitress who wouldn’t bother to spit on you if you were on fire.
Roadtrip food is the worst. Truly terrible. A few service facilities (rest stops) have now opened Marks and Spencer’s Food Halls which is a Godsend, but there are too few. I have made mental notes of all of them on the M1 between London and Leeds. It’s the only way I’ll eat on the motorway. Some may say I’m a spoilt brat and perhaps that’s true, but come on people… Little Chef? I rest my case.
In theory the idea of Little Chef is a good one, it being the only option for a sit down meal on UK motorways. If the food wasn’t so terrifying, I suppose you could compare it to Cracker Barrel. Oh how I miss Cracker Barrel-corporate, conveyer-belt food, churned out for the masses, that actually tastes good. It’s not good for you but that’s not the point. Neither is Little Chef. Both will make you fat and give you a heart attack but only one will be worth it.
This little issue of bad fast-ish food is somewhat surprising when almost everyone in this country knows how to cook. There are countless amazing restaurants over here but no matter how good the restaurant might be, this is not where you get your best meal in the UK. For this you need friends, something that most visitors won’t have. This makes me sad because you can’t possibly experience the best of British food without being invited to someone’s house for dinner. This is where British cuisine comes to life.
Hospitality comes first with the English. If you do not live an easy cab ride away, you will often be invited to spend the night. This ensures you are able to drink and enjoy all the lovely wine they have picked to go with the meal without censorship. Upon your arrival, you will be greeted with the smells of homemade deliciousness and a drink. Dinner is rarely late. The meal will begin with a starter, followed by an often-complicated main course, dessert, then cheese with port (cheese always comes at the end of the meal, not the beginning). The courses come at a relaxed pace. Everyone slowly fills up as the wine flows. All of this is pulled off with zero pretense. The format may seem stiff to some Americans but when this is the way you are accustom to entertaining and being entertained, it flows with ease. It’s their culture. It’s not a buttoned up dinner with people talking about stocks but if it is, it will be a lively debate- not at all boring. To top it all off, breakfast (usually a bacon sandwich) will be served the next morning.
I try to live up to this kind of entertaining but I find it a challenge to be so organized. I’ve almost found my balance after almost 9 years now. I tend to skip the starter because if the truth be known, I don’t know how to make any. I put out chips and dip and call it day. I tell people that it isn’t traditional to serve a formal starter in America (something I’m not sure is entirely true), that we do ‘appetizers, not ‘starters’. I’m let off the hook once I put some guacamole or American shrimp cocktail under their nose. I just get away with my inadequacies by being foreign.
We are headed to Cornwall with two other couples for New Year’s this year. We’ve rented a house where the size and comfort of the dining table was a big deciding factor in picking out the right place. For New Year’s Eve dinner, one couple will be responsible for the starter, one for main course and one for dessert, and we’ll all bring one or two cheeses. This year I have the starter and am already stressing. Haven’t a clue what to make. I’m sure the other two courses will come from a Gordon Ramsey- or the like- cook book, so I can’t be messing about with guacamole. This is serious. I should probably get practicing.
I felt it was necessary to defend my new homeland’s reputation regarding food. By and large the negative press is undeserved. But If England could just get this tiny little issue of fast (I don’t mean McDonalds – I just mean faster) food worked out, then their reputation would change overnight. England doesn’t need any more five star restaurants. It just needs a little salt and some salad dressing. In the mean time, if an English person invites you to their house for dinner, say yes.