Frying the flag for British grub
In his new book, food writer Pete Brown insists we should be proud, not ashamed, of a full English
22 August, 2019 — By Peter Gruner
HE adores many of our local and unfashionable greasy spoons and declares that pie and peas are the “most criminally underrated meal in the world”.
When it comes to eating out, food writer Pete Brown, who lives in Stoke Newington, has access nearby to a plethora of tasty dishes from all over the world.
But in his entertaining new book Pie Fidelity, he admits that his heart is often back in Barnsley, the Yorkshire town of his birth, where he enjoyed the “most exquisite” fish and chips ever.
He remembers the “smell of vinegar evaporating from steaming hot chips,” as one of the “most rousing scents”.
Britain does pies, he suggests, better than any other nation. “Pies are cosy and familiar. They are not romantic or mysterious. The debate over whether a stew with a pastry lid on it qualifies as a pie or not, or whether a true pie must be encased in pastry, is the second most divisive topic in our current national discourse.”
Pete is in no doubt which are the “Holy Trinity” of comfort food. They are fish and chips, Sunday roast, and, of course, the full English breakfast.
He argues that we should be proud of British food and take it seriously rather than be embarrassed and see it as an ingredient for humour. One YouGov survey asked 60,000 Britons what they liked most about their country. The Queen, Big Ben, the BBC and the countryside were among the top choices. But the top three were a bacon sandwich, a cup of tea and roast dinners.
Foreign visitors to London who exit the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras will be disappointed if they are looking for examples of quintessential English cooking.
They will be surrounded by French patisseries, boulangeries, Italian food, and champagne, sushi and American burger bars.
How many will be aware, for example, of the Betjeman Arms, in Euston? Pete writes that it is one of the few outlets that do provide “high quality” classic English dishes within walking distance of the terminal.
He says he discovered that one of Soho’s greatest greasy spoons, The Star Café, in Great Chapel Street, had been turned into the Soho Gin Club. Owner Mario, whose father had opened the café in 1933, died in 2014 and was given a star-studded funeral. Pete writes that the café was blighted by Crossrail development.
Another popular local eatery, Andrew’s Café in Gray’s Inn Road, Holborn, has so far managed to avoid the developers although the threat is still there. The café counts many of Channel 4’s news team as its regulars, including Jon Snow and Krishnan Guru-Murthy. They helped launch a petition when developers wanted to demolish the site. Diners have also included Nigella Lawson and David Walliams.
Pete writes about that café’s various combinations of breakfasts, from traditional to full English, adding: “The menu is a work of daunting complexity in the guise of simple, honest food. Everyone has their own favourite breakfast items, and these preferences are hard wired.”
Pete also has a great fondness for ethnic food, including curry. But he warns that, just like old-fashioned fish and chip shops, we’re in danger of losing our beloved Anglo-Indian restaurants.
An estimated two or three curry houses are having to close each week, according to Pete. Brick Lane, he writes, has lost more than half its curry houses, most of them replaced by the same generic, branded chains that are colonising high streets.
The generation of Bangladeshis who came to Britain and opened restaurants in the 1970s were fleeing war and famine and searching for a better life for themselves and their families. Pete writes: “They succeeded, and their success enabled their children to have higher aspirations. Many descendants of curry-house cooks would rather be doctors, lawyers or bankers than curry cooks.”
For those running the curry restaurants, this leaves the problem of how to get new staff. In the old days they could send home for more friends and relatives who can do the job in a way no one born in Britain can or would want to.
But successive governments appearing tough on immigration make it difficult to recruit.
Pete adds: “I’m not one for eating out in the latest high street restaurant. My book is a lot about traditional English food but it also covers ethnic outlets. Like most Londoners I’m only too aware of how lucky we are living in the capital with such a vast array of wonderful dishes from all over the world.
“Incidentally, I am a fan of the Camden Tandoori. It’s very old school with fantastic food. I was there recently before an event at the Roundhouse.”
• Pie Fidelity (In Defence of British Food). By Pete Brown, Particular Books, £16.99.