You’ve just arrived in London. After surviving the 26-hour transit, taking a brief crowded tube trip, trudging your heavy pack up the four flights of stairs to your room in the hostel, and washing all the travel sweat off you, what do you do?
For me the answer was pretty simple. You go to the pub.
So around the corner I went to the local tavern. Once I pushed past the crowds to the bar I ordered a pint and my first plate of food on British soil: bangers and mash.
There’s something so evocative about that as a dish, so English. This was a pretty exemplary version, too, with fat, sweet free-range pork sausages and rich gravy over sharp, mustardy mash. It was a perfect introduction to the Kingdom’s cuisine.
Britain seems to have a number of these classic dishes, of foods that are so inherently tied up with how people see the country that they verge on cliché. And I intend to try as many of them as I can.
As such, I have written up my Deport List, which is like a Bucket List for those on limited visas. These are ten experiences that sum up the stereotype of the UK that has formed in my head after years of TV and films. I will endeavour to do all of them before I get kicked out of the country.
The Deport List
1. A Cornish pasty in Cornwall
The perfect self-contained meal. This parcel of meat and veggies wrapped in pastry became the standard lunch fare for Cornish tin miners in the 18th century, cementing this as one of the great working class foods.
Reason enough to head west and lunch on one of these glorious golden pasties, eaten end to end as they are intended, right on the Cornish beaches.
2. Cucumber sandwiches and Pimms at a garden party
From a stalwart of the British working class to the ultimate upper-class cliché, I want to eat cucumber sandwiches. Sliced, salted cucumber and butter on soft white bread with the crusts cut off, a morsel of food with next to no nutritional content, is so clearly connected with the British ruling class in my mind that just one bite makes me feel like a colonial overlord.
This is the food of people who made leisure their life. Eaten with a glass of Pimms Cup outside in the English summer, it’s enough to make anyone give a hearty “pip-pip”.
3. Strawberries and Cream at Wimbledon
Speaking of summer, when the boys and girls in white hit the grass to play some tennis, thoughts turn to strawberries. Top quality berries from Kent, picked the day before and shipped down to be sold at outrageous prices to the hordes of people hoping for a glimpse of Federer or the Williams sisters, this dish is as much a part of the Wimbledon tournament as the tennis itself.
People have warned me off this one, though. They say that it’s too early in the season, that the strawberries are bland, and that you can get the exact same thing outside the tournament grounds for a fraction of the price. Given the seemingly absurd process involved in getting in to Wimbledon, eating the cheaper ones outside might be an option, but the intention is still there.
4. Fish’n’chips, by the water, wrapped in newspaper
Few things say England more than fish’n’chips. Even if it is now a staple around the world, it still seems particularly English, particularly when malt vinegar or mushy peas are involved. The Brits may not have been the first people in the world to batter and fry a piece of cod, but they do seem to have been the first to serve it with fried potatoes, wrapped in piece of newspaper, and thus made the world a better place.
To me, though, fish’n’chips is always better in sight of the ocean. Even if the fish is just as fresh at the local city chipper, there’s something about the whiff of salt spray from the waves that enhance the flavour. It was an obvious choice for this list.
5. Haggis, tatties and neeps in Scotland
The Scots get a bad wrap when it comes to food. They are universally known for one dish that a large number of people wouldn’t even consider eating. Haggis is a pretty serious dish of offal, with sheep heart, liver and lungs minced with onion, oatmeal, fat, spices, salt and stock, then stuffed into the sheep’s stomach, then simmered for a few hours.
To some, it sounds awful. But me, I love that stuff. I can’t wait to head north of Hadrian’s Wall to get that rich, savoury goodness, served with mashed potato and turnips. Maybe a dram of whiskey, too. Who wouldn’t love that?
6. Go to the home of Stilton in the Vale of Belvoir
There are not many things in the world as wonderful as a great blue cheese, and Stilton is one of best. So when I discovered that five of the six places legally allowed to make Stilton are located in a region that sounds like it’s from a George RR Martin novel, there was no way I could resist.
Evocative name aside, the Vale of Belvoir seems like a typical piece of the English countryside, but one that happens to produce one of the world’s great cheeses. Also, there is a town in the Vale called Melton Mowbray, famous for a particular type of pork pie, which doesn’t hurt either.
7. A perfect trifle
I love trifle. Layers of boozy sponge, jelly, fruit and custard make for a simple but eminently enjoyably way to end a meal. And, given that the Brits have been making some form of it since the late 16th century, it seems like a good fit for the list.
But just any trifle would be too easy, so the search for a perfect version is on. Though what makes a perfect trifle? To me, it’s all to do with getting the balance of the levels right, as well as the quality of the custard. It’s going to be a fun search.
8. “Support” the Campaign for Real Ale
Back in 1971 a bunch of Irish guys started getting annoyed at the British beer industry. They felt that the choice of beer was being limited, that brews were becoming mass produced, homogenous and dull. So they began an organisation, the Campaign for Real Ale (or CAMRA) to champion traditional British ales, made in casks and served without carbonisation. Now, more than 40 years later, they are the largest single issue UK consumer group, and has facilitated a revitalisation of great, limited production beers.
It’s hard not to approve of such excellent goals. Maintaining tradition, choice and quality are all things I strongly approve of. As such, I am going to make sure I support CAMRA in the best way you can in our free market world: by buying real ales in abundance.
9. Chicken tikka masala at a late night curry house
I love the story of chicken tikka masala. As a nominally Indian dish, supposedly created in Glasgow, that became one of the UK’s most popular plates of food, there’s something so unlikely about it that it’s almost romantic. It is chicken tikka in a spiced tomato sauce and often served with near fluorescent colours, and this nation loves it.
It does seem a little wrong in a nation with such a history of food from the sub-continent to go with what is arguably a bastardisation of the cuisine, but it is a list of British clichés. I’ve watched a lot of UK cop shows and they always go to the curry house after the pubs closed and order this. There was no way I could leave it out.
10. A Brick Lane salt beef beigel after midnight
Every city has their late night drunk food. In Melbourne, a night on the turps is never complete without a souvalaki dripping with garlic sauce. Here in London I am told that the position is filled by the salt beef beigel. Hot salt beef, a cooked, brined beef brisket, is sold as a hot sandwich in traditional beigels (alternative spelling to ‘bagel’). This classic of the Jewish community is served in various locations, most notably Brick Lane, 24 hours a day.
To be honest, I hadn’t heard much about them until a friend was living here, but a hot beef sandwich after midnight sounded like an ideal way to round out this list.