Travelers have always seemed to come home from France or Italy raving about the wonderful meals they had there. People returning from England, though, rarely mentioned the food. If they did, it was lumped in with other trip misfortunes, like lost luggage or a nosebleed. British food may have gotten its bad reputation back when restaurants there had relatively few choices on their menus. Those tended to be organ meats, and the method of preparation was either boiled or burned.
In the last decade or so, however, the quality has improved greatly; I’ve had excellent meals in London at places like J. Sheekey and Le Caprice. I also have to confess that I’ve enjoyed the food in places with names like Bag O’ Nails, Lamb and Flag, Museum Tavern, and The Prospect of Whitby. It may not be fashionable to admit, but… I like pub grub.
A few pubs offer little more than peanuts and pickled eggs; others serve burgers, lasagna, and so help me, even Thai cuisine. I like those things too, but they aren’t really what I think of as classic pub food. Among my favorites in that category are:
• Ploughman’s Lunch This is served with various components, but is always a cold meal. It usually consists of cheese and bread, complemented with a salad or half an apple or occasionally a hard-boiled egg. The cheese is the attraction for me. As you probably know, the Brits make some good ones.
• Jacket Potato In the U.S., this is known as a baked potato, but the pub version is frequently served with jazzier toppings, such as peppercorn sauce, bacon bits and/or cheese. Jacket potatoes can also be “twice-baked”; that is, the baked innards are scooped out, mixed with other good stuff and put back into the oven — basically it’s seasoned mashed potatoes in a crispy potato skin.
• Shepherd’s Pie This dish has mashed potatoes as the “pie crust” that encases ground meat, vegetables, and gravy. Shepherd’s pie is often made with lamb mince; when ground beef is used, it is sometimes called Cottage Pie. Either way, it’s delicious.
• Fish and Chips are a mainstay on pub menus; you probably don’t need a description, do you? A couple of items that may need some explanation are…
• Bangers and Mash This is a dish made of sausage (“bangers”) and mashed potatoes, often accompanied by fried onions. It’s a little too greasy for my taste, but some patrons find that a generous application of ale helps it go down more easily.
• Bubble and Squeak is something like hash browns; it’s made from leftover vegetables, primarily potatoes and cabbage, which are fried. The name supposedly derives from the sound it makes while cooking, and it may also apply to the sound it makes when it reaches your stomach. For some reason the Brits tend to think of Bubble and Squeak as a breakfast food, but it shows up on pub menus, too.
Pub food isn’t elegant (or healthy), but it tastes pretty darn good. The bonhomie or fellowship or whatever you want to call it is nice, too — eating in a pub is sort of like a church social, only with lots of beer.