England’s food has roots that stretch back for millennia. As invading Romans marched toward London in AD 43, they found a thriving, well-established food market on the southern side of the Thames. It was called the Southwark Fair Market, and it became even more successful after the Romans built the first bridge across the river. By 1014, merchants from all over Europe were traveling to this market to trade. The market was acknowledged as an institution by 1276, and in 1754, the market at Southwark was officially recognized by Act of Parliament, with its 4.5 acres in Central London permanently safeguarded. Still vividly active today, the Borough Market in Southwark is a bustling culinary paradise packed with fabulous seafood, game, fruit, veggies, honey, jams, herbs, and myriad other delights. The crowds include not only knowledgeable shoppers stocking their private larders, but also restaurateurs in search of the freshest and best ingredients. And noshing at the 2,000-year-old marketplace can extend beyond the odd free sample, as many vendors sell snacks and even lunches, so you don’t have to choose between shopping and eating.
The Romans didn’t just view the goodies they found in England; they introduced their own foods and food ideas. Among the most important of these was cheese. England is a dairy farmers’ delight, so cheese culture throve. With moderate temperatures and lush grass, there was an abundance of good, rich milk from cows, sheep, and goats. Some of the world’s most famous and revered cheeses evolved in the verdant English countryside: Cheddar, Stilton, Cheshire, Wensleydale. Though England’s cheese culture was seriously damaged by the two World Wars, a movement that began in the 1970s has seen an emphasis on protecting and promoting England’s wonderfully varied cheeses, and many varieties rarely seen since World War I are now reemerging.
In London, there are no better places to sample the delights of England’s cheese makers than at Paxton & Whitfield or Neal’s Yard. If you haven’t had Stilton, you should try it, but also check out Gloucester, Derby, and Leicester. At these great cheese emporia, you can also find farm-made cheeses that are uncommon even in England, such as Cornish Yarg, a creamy cow’s-milk cheese that is aged wrapped in the aromatic leaves of the Cornish nettle; Ticklemore, a crumbly, flavorful goat cheese from Devon; or Lord of the Hundred, a sheep’s-milk cheese from Sussex. But ask for recommendations—and samples. The merchants in these shops love cheese, and they love talking about it.
And speaking of dairy products, what about Devonshire cream? Afternoon tea with a bowl of almost unspeakably rich Devonshire clotted cream for spreading on your scones is heaven.
We haven’t even touched on the wonderful pie shops, fish and chips, kedgeree, or the full English breakfast, and this piece is already running long. But a word must be said about two of London’s most famous food shopping destinations: Harrods Food Halls and Fortnum & Mason. Harrods Food Halls are gloriously elegant and stunningly extensive. Marble fountains showcase the freshest seafood in the fish and seafood hall. Chandeliers in the fruit and vegetable hall are sculpted to reflect the wares below. The prepared food hall features more pâtés, terrines, and specialty delights than most people can comprehend, and the candy hall is paradise. Most of the décor and even the attire of some who work in the food halls reflect the periods that gave rise to this over-the-top food palace.Fortnum & Mason, founded in 1707, is even more elegant and 150 years older than Harrods. Tales of F&M are woven into England’s history, literature, and lore—and it is important enough to have been alluded to in the film The Madness of King George. (In addition to the interior photo at left, the photo at the top of Part 1 is from a window at F&M.) Knowledgeable clerks in morning coats see to the needs of customers in the remarkable wood-paneled food hall on the ground floor. Stroll to the back, past displays of teas and coffees and glass cases filled with glacéed fruits, decadent pastries, and fabulous prepared foods, and you will find yourself in a lovely restaurant that offers an outstanding Welsh rarebit, as well as an unbelievable chocolate gateau for afternoon tea.
English food is not dramatically different from American fare, and perhaps this is why some are disappointed; the food is not sufficiently exotic. But the food is not entirely the same—and perhaps that creates problems for those who think that, because they speak English, their food will be just like American food. Don’t go expecting giant differences, but do expect some. There is enough familiar to comfort the less adventurous, but also glorious goodies to be enjoyed by the lover of great food. And there are even a few adventures to be had: keep an eye out for jellied or stewed eels, once the almost ubiquitous “fast food” of England’s working class, but still available in some of London’s venerable pie shops.
Of course, the ethnic places are a treat (check out Southall for the newest infusion of Indian eateries), as are the newer, high-end news-grabbers. These can add variety to the menu, if your stay is long and you find you’re tiring of English fare. And yes, to be honest, you can find poor cooking (though I’ve even found occasional mediocre food in France, so this isn’t unique to England), and I wouldn’t recommend English breakfast sausage (more filler than most Americans will fancy), but I have found that one can consistently eat well, and even splendidly. So don’t go expecting to hate English food, because, on the whole, English food is great.
Copyright ©2010 Cynthia Clampitt