How Margot Henderson Learned to Love 'Plain' British Food
British food’s plainness is its brilliance. Food that has a giving unctuousness, food that is cooked with love and also gives love—massaging you from the inside out.
Back in the day, when I didn't really understand British cooking and was boning and rolling and tying and interfering, I would cook hard and pour jus over everything. Well, it was the 80s.
But in my heart, I knew there was another way. I began to discover beautiful, gentle British cooking.
Generally cooked slowly in a very straightforward way, British food's plainness is its brilliance, with dishes that celebrate the produce. Food that has a giving unctuousness, food that is cooked with love and also gives love—massaging you from the inside out.
Dishes like Lancashire hot pot, boiled ham and parsley sauce, stews, and braises. Lamb neck, barley, and turnips—you couldn't get anything more straightforward. Take a few kilos of lamb neck kindly chopped into nice chunks by your butcher, cover it in water, add turnips and onions chopped also into happy chunks, a handful or two of barley, a little mace, and simmer until soft and giving.
There it all is in one pot. A dish born of hard-working people, who sensibly popped it in the oven so that when they returned home—probably from some massive industry in the North—they had a beautiful stew.
Lancashire hot pot is similar but different. Every county probably has their version and Lancashire's is very good: layers of lamb or mutton with onions and potato and a cheeky kidney popped in. The potatoes take on all the flavors of the meat and fat, and it's all topped with a crispy layer. Very delicious.
Beautiful pottery is also made especially for the dish. A Lancashire hot pot is a big, brown earthen pot with a lid and a hole to gently let the steam out. The pot would get better in time, taking on the flavors. I am very proud to own one.
God, they must have been healthy. It's not rocket science: eat like a peasant and you will live long and happy lives.
Of course, we love a young lamb slow or fast-cooked all sweet and juicy, but with a hogget or mutton, the depth of flavor can suit the moment better. The meat is leaner and more savory, and lends itself to slow-cooking. Our mutton is supplied from Swaledale, a company based in Yorkshire who specialize in rare breeds and game—"Swaledale" being a breed of sheep named after the valley in Yorkshire. A very handsome animal with a black face and curly horns, it's happiest on rough ground.
There is nothing better than seeing a large pot slowly blipping away with a piece of ham and just an onion spiked with a few cloves.
There is nothing better than seeing a large pot slowly blipping away with a piece of ham and just an onion spiked with a few cloves. It should be served with whole carrots and onions poached in the ham stock, with jugs of parsley sauce to give it sex appeal. Of course, the parsley sauce must be made with curly parsley. Flat parsley would never work (way too scratchy and not giving enough) but somehow curly parsley lends it the heat and smoothness it needs. It is a tender, loving sauce, to jazz it up would be a sad tale.
Parsley sauce makes me think of bread sauce, and it took me a long time to understand this British staple. Served hot, it is happiest with a bird—especially a grouse—but Christmas dinner would not be the same without bread sauce nustled up next to the meat. To me, it is a very still dish and always shows the power of the onion. A lot of these brilliant dishes from days gone past are perfection and need no fancy modern ways to improve them.
British food is rich and complex, and is so much about the world now too. London is so multicultural and we are reaping the benefits by having one of the most diverse food cultures in the world. But there is a strong base to this in the food that came from the Industrial Revolution, when women were working all day and crafted simple, slow-cooked food to make their lives work.
Tripe and onions might not be everyone's favorite but it's a tecturally soothing dish. Served with mash (ah, mash!), it's creaminess puts a smile on any hungry worker's face.
Probably nicked from the French but I think the Brits can now own their mash and be proud.
For more on classic British cooking, check out the MUNCHIES Guide to British Food, running every day this week on MUNCHIES.
Illustration by Nilina Mason-Campbell.