I was attending a christening celebration recently, when a great realization struck me. There I was, stood before an abundant buffet of tasty finger foods and tiny sandwiches, and yet something seemed wrong, jarring, out of balance. The smoked salmon sandwiches looked too corally bright next to the somber umber of the glazed chicken wings. The miniature vegetable spring rolls seemed pallid and listless placed right by the breaded fish goujons and the platter of chips. And at the center of the table stood a lonely little pot of English mustard, purposeless and obsolete. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong, but this bountiful buffet was clearly adrift in some essential manner.
It was only as a waitress nudged me aside so that she could place the final platter on the buffet that I realized what had been missing. For that platter was piled high with little golden bite-sized sausage rolls.
And suddenly, that buffet was complete, at least for me. Not only because I happen to adore sausage rolls, but really because I don’t think I’ve ever attended a major social event in Britain at which sausage rolls have not been served. There seems to be some unwritten law here that any birth, marriage, death, or in fact any gathering of more than four people, must be accompanied by a healthy portion of these tasty savoury morsels of flaky pastry rolled around ground meat.
Well this got me to thinking: what are the other unwritten laws of British Cookery? What are the quirks and traditions so ingrained in the British culinary character that they have become canonical in the kitchen? Across classes and generations, what are the laws that still hold true in the British larder? If it were inscribed and notarized, what would the Magna Carta of British Cookery be?
Having pondered, and sampled, and asked around, and pondered some more, here’s what I imagine what I like to call the “Magna Cater” might be:
1. Thou Shalt Serve Sausage Rolls
The British, when faced with any major life event that requires celebration or commiseration, immediately whip up (seemingly from out of nowhere) a tray of sausage rolls. They are the biggest seller during the holiday season party-supplying spree, and are the only standard hors d’oeuvre that remain on food hall shelves throughout even the hottest of summers. Ideally served warm from the oven, they remain satisfying at room temperature, and even in the scrag end of a party or a wake, even though the grease from the sausage has long since deflated the flakiness of the pastry. That said, they are usually the first consumable to be consumed. They are not- in Britain- to be confused with “pigs in blankets”, which here refer to cocktail sausages wrapped in bacon, or just well tended pigs.
2. On The Seventh Day, Thou Shalt Roast
The Sunday Roast is perhaps the great bastion of British culinary tradition. Whether you spend your Sunday cooking it at home, or instead venture out to your local pub, no weekend in Britain is truly complete without a roast dinner (by which they really mean a late lunch) on the Sunday. And not only the meat must be roasted. Be it a chicken, a turkey, a leg of lamb or a rib of beef, said roast simply must be accompanied by roast potatoes. Other side dishes may vary, but those roast potatoes are non-negotiable. In fact, your average British cook is more likely to be judged by the crunchiness of the outside and the fluffiness of the center of their potatoes than by the quality of the roasted meat. Other rules also apply, such as Yorkshire Pudding only being served with beef. And say what you like about this nation’s culinary capabilities, nobody in the world roasts beef as well as the British.
3. Be It Not Buttered, ‘Tis Not A Sandwich
‘Tis true. The British, when faced with a slice of bread, are constitutionally incapable of not slathering it with butter. In this matter the actual sandwich filling is irrelevant. It could be a chicken tikka masala sandwich, or a Mexican three-bean wrap, still the bread involved would be buttered first. They would butter a BLT. At sandwich bars I have had to physically prevent the server from buttering my roast beef, lettuce and avocado sandwich. I’ve even known Brits who would butter a peanut butter sandwich.
4. Deem It A Pie, And It Shall Suffice
The British love pies. They will put anything- sweet or savoury- into a pastry case. This has been true of the British since time immemorial, or at least since eggs and butter were introduced to the hard pastry cases that were first used simply to contain the actual meal. From steak and kidney to cheese, leeks, eels, pilchards and oysters, the pie as a meal is another great British tradition. And beyond that, they love calling things pies. Outside of these sceptered isles, one might think a pie necessarily involved at least a pastry lid.Within these sceptered isles, that narrow delineation is utter tosh. Neither shepherd’s, cottage, nor the dreaded (to me at least) fish pie- or in fact any dish covered with a topping of mashed potato- are in any rational sense a pie. Except to the British.
5. Thy Condiments Shalt Be Caustic
It’s often be said of British cookery that it’s bland, and lacking in heat and spice. That’s a misunderstanding of the British culinary character. In fact the British adore hot and spicy flavours. It’s just that- their burgeoning love for fiery Asian and South American cuisines aside- they prefer them in condiment form. That famous British Sunday roast is pretty much always accompanied by some sort of hot and/or pungent condiment, from the vinegar-sharp mint sauce for lamb (none of that mimsy American mint jelly for the Brits), to the sinus-clearing heat of horseradish for beef, and the hottest mustard in Europe for, well, anything. A good sharp and hot pickle to accompany a ploughman’s lunch of bread and cheese is another British pub staple. And the traditional American cranberry sauce for turkey is a descendant of that great British sauce for game, Cumberland Sauce, in which red currants and orange zest are enlivened by a healthy dose of searing hot mustard powder.
6. Thou Shalt Douse, Ergo Thou Shalt Douse With Cream
If the British can’t face a sandwich without butter, neither can they face a dessert without cream. Cream is poured over every possible dessert dish aside from trifles, only because trifles are topped with cream. Cakes, pies, bread puddings, even jellies; almost no “sweet” is served without at least the offer of cream. The British will pour cream directly onto an acidly sharp fruit salad, which is testament to their digestive fortitude. In fact when Heinz developed a savoury salad dressing specifically for the British market in 1914, they had the sense to call it “Salad Cream.” They knew what the British like to pour.
7. Be It A Dish, There Shalt Be Chips
Fish and chips, steak and chips, gammon and chips, egg and chips, pie and chips, lasagne and chips, chips and chips. Liberally salted and soused with malt vinegar for the true purists, the British love for the deep-fried potato is a bottomless well. As with roast beef, find a good traditional British chippie and you’ll never countenance McDonald’s or the like again.
8. At The End Of Days There Shalt Be Tea.
Ah yes, tea. Though tea as a meal has moved and morphed from the traditional 4 o’clock repast to just what the British call dinner (excluding, of course, those amazing “High” teas still served at Fortnum and Mason’s, glamorous hotels, and Cornish tea houses), tea as a drink remains the blood that runs through British veins. In fact, if you accidentally opened a vein, the first thing a Brit would do would be to offer you a cup of tea. Given how many cups of tea they drink a day, it’s something of a wonder that the British don’t behave in a more overtly caffeinated manner. It is still possible to differentiate generations in Britain by whether or not they have succumbed to teabags, and the question of whether or not one adds the milk to the cup before or after the tea remains a matter of class-related debate. A historical note: contrary to popular belief, the British aren’t actually bitter about the United States winning the war of Independence. They do, however, resent the waste of all that good tea.
9. The Scepter And The Orbs, They Shall Be Verdant And Rule Over All
The British have a reputation for mistrusting green vegetables. Again, this is a common misconception. The British are highly enamoured of at least three: the asparagus spear, the Brussels sprout, and the garden pea. The arrival of fresh asparagus marks the true start of the British summer, and many Brits are so loyal to that tradition that they forsake the (admittedly vastly inferior) asparagus from Peru that is now available in UK supermarkets all year round. And if summer isn’t summer without the Asparagus spear, then Christmas isn’t Xmas without that tight little green ball of gassy goodness, the Brussels sprout. Even those who claim to detest this little brassica don’t feel their holiday meal is complete without having to ingest at least one. British children may loathe the taste, but they are highly amused by the methane-related results. And the garden pea is served all year round, with almost any dinner. And that’s not just because the pea is such a freezer success story and cooks so quickly. Generations of Brits (and even half-Brits such as I) have very fond memories of shelling peas in their grandmother’s kitchen.
10. The Fruit, It Shall Be Abundant. Dried, But Abundant
Given the frequent inclemency of British weather, they quite understandably have a long tradition of drying and candying fruit rather than relying upon its freshness. And they put that dried fruit into almost every dessert, biscuit or cake imaginable. There are many regional variations across the land, but the great British Sweet Christmas staples are the mincemeat pie (originally- and intriguingly- made with actual meat as well as the fruit), the Christmas pudding, and the fruit cake. All are filled with a variety of dried fruits and nuts. The fruit cake is also the traditional British wedding cake. A time-consuming labor of love to prepare- and almost as arduous to eat- the fruit cake is famous for its density and its exceedingly long shelf life. There’s a British tradition that if a bridesmaid takes a piece of the cake home and sleeps with it under her pillow, she will be married within the year. Regardless of any vermin infestations or neck aches that may incur, she would also be provided with a handy blunt weapon should she be faced with an unwelcome intruder. If the fruit cake is now falling out of favor as a wedding cake, that’s only because in this day and age the cake seems to outlast the actual marriage.
11. Thou Shalt Not Trifle With The Trifle
Around since at least the 17th Century in its current form, the trifle is the most singular expression of the uniquely British love for sweet food that is also easy to chew. As such, it is also a catalytic ingredient in the admittedly bleak British dental history. The layers of sponge soaked in sweet booze, jam, or jelly, or jam AND jelly, custard and whipped cream create a dessert course centerpiece that can vary from the garish to the, well, garish. Traditionally, enough sweet sherry is used to render entire families incoherent, but in this modern age other sweet fruity liqueurs are equally acceptable. Before you scoff at the trifle, do bear in mind that the globally popular Italian dessert Tiramisu is in fact a direct take on trifle, which just goes to show that Italians can, on occasion, willingly accept outside culinary inspirations.
12. The Day Is Begun: Gird Thine Arteries
The last tenet of the British Magna Cater is the one that starts the day. The dreaded European “Continental” breakfast is entirely at odds with the British national character, as is the traditional American carbohydrate fiesta. Every day, in home kitchens and greasy caffs across the land, the day begins with what is known as a “fry up.” This repast generally consists of fried eggs (scrambled or otherwise), fried sausages, fried bacon, and fried mushrooms. As a nod to other culinary processes, grilled tomatoes and baked beans may also be present on the plate. This breakfast is of course served with tea, and bread, which is also often fried. Whilst contemplating the arterial sclerosis-inducing properties of such a start to the day, take into account that there is no greater salve for a hangover on this earth. In fact, if one stays up late enough to end a boozy night with such a meal, the hangover may never even occur. Whether or not that would be due to a cataclysmic pulmonary event in one’s subsequent sleep is neither here nor there.
So this is what I imagine the British Magna Cater to be. Had I a scroll to hand, or indeed the calligraphic ability, I would nail it to the doors of town halls and kitchens across the land. Except I really wouldn’t need to. Those laws are already in place. But what do you think? Have I neglected one? Are there more British culinary traditions so entrenched that they belong in the Magna Cater? Answers on a postcard please.