If we were to run a poll on what Britons would be eating for Christmas Dinner this year, there’s a good chance turkey would be at the top of the list.
But did you know that it took centuries for turkey to become the main course?
Legend has it that King Henry VIII was the first English monarch to enjoy turkey on Christmas Day.
So keep your head about you and do as kings do—tuck into the turkey!
In medieval England, the wealthy dined on goose, woodcock, venison, and with the king’s permission, swan.
If the poor folk were lucky, they might get some of the “pluck” from the venison—the heart, liver, tongue and brain.
Known as ‘umbles, it would be mixed with vegetables and spices and made into a pie.
Ever heard the expression “to eat humble pie”? This is where it comes from.
For dessert, the medieval folk would have enjoyed a pudding made from spiced oatmeal, currants, dried fruit, and egg yolk.
It was the forerunner to our perennial favourite, the Christmas Pudding.
By the time Queen Elizabeth I came along, people were feasting on sweetmeats, including collops (slices) of bacon, coated with ground almonds and sugar.
Sounding more like something you’d choke on was a beverage called “lambswool”.
It was made from hot cider or ale, nutmeg, ginger, and mashed baked apple.
When the baked apple mash was whisked or poured vigorously between two large vessels, it created a froth resembling lambswool.
For Georgians of the 18th and early 19th centuries, Twelfth Night on January 5 was a highlight of the Christmas festivities.
It was celebrated with Twelfth Cake, a precursor to our modern Christmas Cake, which traditionally included a dried bean and a dried pea.
As part of the fun and games on Twelfth Night, the man who had the slice with the bean was made King for the evening, and the woman whose slice contained the pea was crowned Queen.
During the earlier years of Queen Victoria’s reign, most families couldn’t afford turkey at Christmas so made do with beef (in the north) and goose (in the south).
Poorer folks caught their own rabbits.
In Charles Dickens’ story A Christmas Carol, it would have been very unusual indeed for someone in Bob Cratchit’s position to receive such a large turkey on Christmas Day.
Our seasonal favorite mince pies were originally made from meat, but tastes changed in the latter half of the 19th century to the spiced fruit filling that we prefer today—even though we still call it “mincemeat”.
By the turn of the 20th century, most people were feasting on turkey for Christmas dinner.
And it has remained the most popular Christmas main course ever since.
Choose your favourite trimmings below.
Do you like all the trimmings with your Christmas dinner?
Walking around today’s British supermarkets, it’s hard to imagine a time when food was rationed.
At the start of the Second World War in 1939, Britain imported 70% of its food.
A principal strategy of Germany was to starve Britain into submission by attacking shipping bound for the British Isles.
To deal with potential shortages, the British Ministry of Food instituted a system of rationing.
Each person was provided a ration book with coupons that were exchanged for food at certain shops. The government ensured those shops were kept sufficiently stocked.
Not all food was rationed—bread for example, wasn’t—but meat, eggs, cheese, butter, sugar, tea, jam, biscuits, breakfast cereals, lard, milk, and canned fruit all went on ration.
And did you know that rationing in Britain stayed in place until 1954—a full nine years after the war had ended!
Since that time, advances in agricultural production, logistics management, and retailing have been enormous. Looking around the supermarkets, it’s almost impossible to think of rationing ever happening again.
And decades of efficiency improvements have driven costs down too.
In a world of rising prices, it’s good to know some things are still pretty cheap.
Pick your favorite cheap treats from our list—all available in British supermarkets for around £1 (~$1.25).
There’s much more to British food than fish and chips and bangers and mash.
Centuries of invasion and conquest have influenced British cuisine. Ancient Celts cultivated a wide variety of foodstuffs, Anglo-Saxons refined methods for stewing meat with herbs, Normans brought exotic spices, and Britain’s own global explorations introduced South Asian cuisine.
Some think the austerity following World War II gave Britain a reputation for bland cuisine.
Today, it’s a different story—Britain has gone back to its roots and is winning international acclaim.
Here are 10 traditional foods from across the British Isles that have remained firm favorites.
1. Arbroath Smokie – Angus, Scotland
A type of smoked haddock, the Arbroath smokie originated from a small fishing village near Arbroath in Angus, Scotland.
Legend has it that one night a local store caught fire and barrels of haddock preserved in salt were cooked inside the burning wood. When the fire was put out, people discovering the barrels found that the contents were very tasty.
A special barrel containing a hardwood fire is still used today—creating a very hot, humid, and smoky fire to cook the fish imbued with the strong, smoky taste that is unique to the Arbroath smokie.
2. Balti Curry – Birmingham, England
An area in the Midlands known as the “Balti Triangle” hosts over fifty Balti restaurants of this delicious South Asian cuisine.
A consequence of Pakistani and Kashmiri communities who brought Balti curry recipes to Birmingham in the 1970s, it is thought to be named after the metal dish that the curry is cooked in. The word “balde” is Portuguese for bucket or pail and traveled to the Indian subcontinent via the Portuguese traders of the 16th century.
Balti curries are cooked quickly over high heat in a method similar to stir-fry.
3. Haggis – Scotland
When is one of the least appetizing recipe descriptions actually one of the most delicious? Answer: when it’s Haggis.
Sheep’s innards (heart, liver, and lungs) wrapped in the casing of a sheep’s stomach does not conjure the most appealing of images, but the results of mincing with onion, spices, suet, and oatmeal makes for what Larousse Gastronomique (a French gastronomy encyclopedia) describes as “an excellent nutty texture and delicious savoury flavour”.
4. Lancashire Hotpot – Lancashire, England
Originating from the time of the Industrial Revolution in North West England, working families needed a convenient way to make a quick hearty meal for sustenance.
Essentially a lamb (originally mutton) and vegetable stew topped with sliced potato, the name sounds like it derives from a cooking pot but actually refers to the “hodge-podge” of ingredients that sometimes included lamb kidneys and even oysters.
5. Cornish Pasties – Cornwall
Pasties are baked pastries filled with meat and vegetables—the Cornish variety using beef, sliced or diced potato, swede (rutabaga), and onion.
Popular in many areas of the world due to the spread of Cornish miners, the Cornish pasty began as a snack for royalty but became a staple of the working class in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Cornish tin miners found it very convenient as a complete meal that could be eaten without cutlery—and one that tended to stay warm for hours due to the dense folded pastry casing.
6. Yorkshire Pudding – Yorkshire, England
Cooks in the north of England devised a way to make a filling first course from low-cost eggs, flour, and milk that could be eaten with gravy to save on the more expensive meat of the main course.
Initially called “dripping pudding” because it used the dripping fat from a roast for flavor, it later became known as the Yorkshire Pudding.
If you see your baked Yorkshires rising beyond what seems normal, do not fret—the Royal Society of Chemistry says that “a Yorkshire pudding isn’t a Yorkshire pudding if it is less than four inches tall”.
7. Devonshire Tea – Devon, England
Devon’s mild climate and fertile grasslands make it ideal for producing high-quality dairy products.
Devon clotted cream is made by heating full-cream cow’s milk with steam and is a key ingredient in Devonshire tea, also known as Devon cream tea.
Together with scones (or Devonshire splits as they’re locally called), strawberry preserves, and a pot of tea, Devonshire tea forms the basis of the tradition of afternoon tea.
8. Welsh Cakes – Wales
Popular since the late 19th century, Welsh cakes are made from flour, sultanas, raisins, and/or currants and sometimes spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg.
In Wales, the cakes are known as bakestones because they were traditionally cooked on a thick cast iron griddle placed over a fire or cooker.
Served either hot or cold with caster sugar, Welsh cakes are normally eaten plain, but sometimes buttered or split and spread with jam.
9. Cumberland Sausage – Cumbria, England
A local specialty of Cumbria for the past 500 years, Cumberland Sausage takes its name from the Cumberland Pig—a hardy breed that could withstand the harsh weather of Northern England winters.
Rather than divided into links as with most sausage, the Cumberland is a continuous coil of about 50cm (21 in).
Traditionally the meat content was very high at 85-98%, but mass production has lowered it to around 45% in some cases. The original version was also mixed with more spices—a consequence of the influx of spices into Britain during the 18th century.
10. Irish Stew – Ireland
As with some of the other examples listed here, Irish stew tells a story of hardship, of making the very most of basic local ingredients.
Although Irish stew is generally made with lamb, potatoes, carrots, onions, and parsley, purists maintain that it should be made with stronger-flavored mutton and only potatoes, onions, and water.
Mutton was originally used because sheep wool and milk were both economically important commodities and therefore it made sense to only slaughter older livestock for food.
The tougher meat needed hours of slow cooking. But what a result. One of the most delicious stews in the world.
There’s hardly a more British custom than a nice cup of tea. This magical elixir helps Brits get through the day and seems to make problems disappear … at least temporarily! It is said that tea was our secret weapon during the dark days of World War II.
80% of Britons drink tea and consume 165 million cups daily, or 60.2 billion cups a year!
Tea drinking in Britain has spawned several lasting traditions over the centuries.
Here are 7 facts that you might not know about British tea traditions:
1. 10th-century monks invented Cream Tea
Not much remains today, but these ruins were once a Benedictine Abbey at Tavistock in Devon.
There is evidence in manuscripts that Monks served bread with clotted cream and strawberry preserves to local workers who helped rebuild the Abbey after it was damaged in a Viking raid in 997AD.
It was an instant hit among the locals, and the monks started serving it to passing travelers.
The Devonshire cream tea was born.
Today, Devonshire cream tea typically comprises a pot of tea, along with scones, strawberry preserves, clotted cream, and sometimes curds and butter.
2. A hungry Duchess originated the tradition of Afternoon Tea
It was around four o’clock in the afternoon at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, England, during the early 1840s. Anna Russell, seventh Duchess of Bedford noticed she had a “sinking feeling” at this time of day.
Dinner would not be served until eight o’clock, so she ordered tea with bread and butter to help stave off her hunger.
When the Duchess asked friends to join her, the idea soon spread, becoming the popular social occasion of Afternoon Tea that we know and love today.
3. Low Tea is “posher” than High Tea
Isn’t tea just a drink?
“Tea” is used to denote both a beverage and different types of meal.
Two terms sometimes used in the Victorian Era were “low tea” and “high tea“.
Low tea was served on low lounge chairs and sofas with low tables (similar to today’s coffee tables), and high tea was served on high chairs around a table.
But here’s the surprising part: “low tea” was enjoyed by the aristocracy and “high tea” by the working class.
Confusion has arisen because “high tea” simply sounds classier than “low tea“.
Which leads us to our next surprising fact …
4. High Tea is not the same as Afternoon Tea
Afternoon tea is derived from the social tradition started by the Duchess of Bedford. Taken at around 4 – 6 pm, it typically comprises Devonshire cream tea and an assortment of delicate crustless sandwiches, sweets, and cakes.
In short, this is the “posh” tea, served today in country tea rooms or city hotels.
High Tea is traditionally an end of day meal for the working class, comprising things like cold meats, pies, salad, pickles, bread and butter, cakes, and a pot of tea.
Usually shortened to just “tea”, the term is still used in the Midlands and the North of England.
If you visit the north of England today, you may hear someone say, “I’ve got to get home and make the tea for the kids”, or the northern tendency to personalize with “our/us”, as in “what’s for us tea?”
5. Cream Tea in Devon and Cornwall are different
Anyone trying Cream Tea for the first time may wonder “do I add the cream first or the preserves?”
Thanks to the rivalry between Devon and Cornwall, it doesn’t matter. Phew, that’s a relief!
A subtle distinction between the way Cream Tea is eaten in the counties of Devon and Cornwall is the order of applying the silky-smooth clotted cream and the delicious strawberry preserves.
But in Devon, the clotted cream is applied first, with the strawberry preserves second.
6. How you pronounce “scone” says a lot about where you’re from
Research conducted by YouGov
According to global market research and data analytics company YouGov, the pronunciation of the word is influenced by two main factors: region and social grade. Individuals in the North (60%) and Scotland (80%) predominantly pronounce scone like “gone”, whereas those in the Midlands (56%) and London (50%) are more inclined to opt for pronouncing scone like “bone”.
Social class also influences the pronunciation. Those in the working class (semi-skilled/unskilled/unemployed) tend to be evenly split on how they pronounce “scone”, whereas those in the middle class (professional/skilled) tend to favour pronouncing scone like “gone” by a significant margin.
7. For a “proper cuppa”, add milk last
If you really want to drink tea like they do on Downton Abbey, you will add your milk last.
Inferior china cups were inclined to crack when hot tea was poured into them, but the finest china was much stronger and didn’t crack.
So putting the milk in last became a way for the upper class to show they had the best china.
Milk in last also lets you judge the strength more easily—too much milk can ruin the perfect cup of tea.
8. “Pinkies Up” is out
According to etiquette expert William Hanson, an outstretched little finger has apparently become one of Afternoon Tea’s most common faux pas and is considered rude in most social settings. One misconception is that it somehow helps balance the cup.
Here’s a video from William giving us some useful etiquette tips on how to enjoy Afternoon Tea the “proper” way.
In cockney rhyming slang pork pies, porkie pies, or just porkies, means lies.
But rest assured it’s no word of a lie that Brits love pork pies!
Pork pies are made with roughly chopped or minced pork and pork jelly sealed in a special pastry used for making savory pies called “hot water crust”.
The jelly helps preserve the pie’s freshness by filling in air gaps within the pie, which is usually eaten cold.
On a sunny day, it’s difficult to beat sitting at a bench in a pub garden and tucking into a ploughman’s lunch and a pint of ale, or a hearty sandwich with pork pie and Branston, or even pork pie on its own with Branston pickle and mustard. Oh yes!
Pork pies can be found all over the UK under various brand names in supermarkets. But there is one place that is so special, it has its own signpost.
Melton Mowbray Pork Pies
There are pork pies and there are Melton Mowbray pork pies.
Named after the market town in Leicestershire, Melton pies have been handmade in Melton Mowbray since the late 18th century.
The uncured meat is chopped rather than minced and the crust is formed by hand to give an irregular shape. Unlike molded pies, the pies are cooked free-standing so that the sides bow outwards during baking.
Melton Mowbray is a beautiful town surrounded by ancient monuments and hundreds of buildings with special historical interest.
The name “Mowbray” dates back to the Lords of the Manor of feudal Norman rule—namely Robert de Mowbray, described by English chronicler and Benedictine monk Orderic Vitalis as,
Powerful, rich, bold, fierce in war, haughty, he despised his equals and, swollen with vanity, disdained to obey his superiors. He was of great stature, strong, swarthy and hairy. Daring and crafty, stern and grim, he was given more to meditation than speech, and in conversation scarce ever smiled.
It’s a shame pork pies hadn’t been invented yet—they would have given him reason to smile more often.
A Melton Mowbray Pork-pie
Strange pie that is almost a passion!
O passion immoral for pie!
Unknown are the ways that they fashion
Unknown and unseen of the eye.
The pie that is marbled and mottled,
The pie that digests with a sigh:
For all is not Bass that is bottled,
And all is not pork that is pie.Richard Le Gallienne.
In the town center sits Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe with the black and white fronted Half Moon pub next door.
The shop is home to Dickinson & Morris who have been baking pork pies in Melton Mowbray since 1851.
Since 2009, Melton Mowbray pork pies have enjoyed PGI status (Protected Geographical Indication), which means that only pork pies made in a zone around Melton can use the Melton Mowbray name on their packaging.
A British tradition lives on!
Other pork pie shops worthy of note
The Pork Pie Hat
The pork pie hat refers to several styles of hat popular since mid-19th century—and bearing an uncanny resemblance to a pork pie!
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