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Ahead of the Olympics, 10 things to know about British food

Addie Broyles, Relish Austin

Staff Writer
Austin 360
Alberto Martínez photos Alice Bachini-Smith and her husband, Shadrach Smith, specialize in British favorites such as a meat and potato pie, left, at their South Austin restaurant, Full English Cafe.

It's been a big year for England.

With the Royal Wedding, the Queen's Jubilee and now the Summer Olympics, which start Friday, Brits had have three once-in-a-lifetime events within a single year. For better (that kiss) or worse (those riots), a lot is happening on an island that's only a fifth the size of Texas.

"Everyone is suddenly feeling super patriotic again, which is rather nice to see," says expat Sophie Parrott, who recently moved to Austin to start her Marvelous Vintage Tea Party Co. "It's been a long time since I've seen that in England."

We'll be thinking and talking and watching and learning a lot about England in these next few weeks, so what better place to start than food. (Learning obscure details about obscure athletes who are masters of obscure sports will have to wait.)

With the help of three English food entrepreneurs (and one visit to London and Cornwall over the Christmas holidays a few years back), we present 10 Things You Should Know About British Food:

1. It's not boring and lifeless. Full English Cafe owner Alice Bachini-Smith, a Brit who lived in London for 15 years before moving to the States about eight years ago, says that characterization is yet one more lingering reminder of wartime and how it shaped the country. "That (idea that English food is dull) came from the post-war period," Bachini-Smith says. "People forget that there was (food) rationing until 1954." British families spent 14 years relying on canned goods, rationed meat and whatever you could grow in your victory garden, and it wasn't until a British food revival in the 1980s that foods like toad in the hole became cool again.

Now, of course, England is a culinary capital, with London among the best cities in which to eat in the world. Some of my favorite cookbooks so far this year have been from Brits, including Sophie Dahl's "Very Fond of Food" and "Leon: Baking & Desserts" by London bakers Claire Ptak and Henry Dimbleby.

Just like in the U.S., there has been a resurgence of interest in artisanal, locally grown and produced food, and Bachini-Smith and her husband, Shadrach, who started their business at the Sunset Valley Farmers' Market and who continue to use sustainably sourced meat and eggs, are part of that movement here.

England, home to offal giant Fergus Henderson, also sits comfortably on the cutting edge of nose-to-tail eating because, with dishes such as steak and kidney pies and black pudding, it's always been part of the food culture there.

2. Curry is as popular as fish and chips. "Modern British food is a mixture of cuisines," Bachini-Smith says, thanks in no small part to the global reach of the British Empire.

For hundreds of years, British ships traveling the world brought back exotic ingredients and dishes that are now embedded in the country's culinary consciousness. Doner kebab shops and curry houses, just like the pubs selling fish and chips, can be found throughout the country, and curry, specifically chicken tikka masala, has been considered England's unofficial national dish for years now. (A reminder: India didn't gain full independence from England until 1947.)

"It got so popular because Brits were craving something spicy," Bachini-Smith says. At her South Austin cafe, you won't find curry, but Bachini-Smith serves chutney with many of the dishes, just as an American diner would ketchup.

3. But don't take away the back bacon and bangers and mash. Some things will never change, including the "streaky bacon"/back bacon divide that separates American breakfast from the English one and the widespread affection for bangers (fat, flavorful sausages) and mash (mashed potatoes).

The good news: Bangers and mash would be pretty easy to serve for an opening ceremony watch party, if you can find some thick, well-made British-style links at your local butcher counter, and traditional British bacon is easier to find than in previous years.

Full English makes its own American-style bacon, but buys most of the back bacon from R.J. Balson and Sons, a butcher shop that dates back to 1535 and is still owned by the same family. Mike Balson, a professional soccer player who played for several U.S. teams in the 1980s, opened a U.S. outlet of the business in Atlanta in 2007, making it much easier for fans of back bacon and bangers to get the real thing. (You can order their products online at, and Full English sells the bacon by the half-pound.)

4. Flapjacks aren't pancakes. In England, flapjacks are oatmeal bars made with golden syrup, a lightly colored but flavorful cane syrup that you can find in specialty stores here. (Full English sells flapjacks individually or by the dozen.) A crumpet, on the other hand, is a pancake-like griddle cake, often served with butter.

5. It's always time for tea. "It's a chance to sit down, stop what you're doing, and have a good old chat with a friend," says Parrott, who caters vintage tea parties. "As soon as you walk into someone's home, the first thing they will do is offer you a cup of tea."

In England, there's the elevensies, a mid-morning tea, and afternoon tea, traditionally taken around 4 p.m. Anna Maria, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, introduced the latter in the mid 19th century. "She couldn't bear the hiatus between lunch and dinner, and she insisted that she was brought tea and cakes between 2 and 5 to stop her hunger pains," Parrott says.

(A handful of Austin restaurants, including The Steeping Room, Tea Embassy, Mozart's and the Four Seasons, offer high tea, a more complicated event than a basic afternoon tea.)

6. Biscuits, scones and cookies. What we call cookies, the Brits call biscuits, and what we call biscuits, the Brits call scones, but whatever you call them, find an excuse — say, drinking a cup of tea — to nibble on one.

The cookie-biscuits, often called digestive biscuits, are a little harder, perfect for dunking in tea, but Bachini-Smith says the American-style of soft sweet cookies has jumped the pond, too. "I've never had such good chocolate chip cookies as in the U.K.," she says.

Parrott makes her own biscuits for the tea parties she hosts through her company, but she goes weak in the knees for a chocolate-covered biscuit that McVitie's makes called HobNobs. Years ago, Parrott and other expats had to order products like this online, but now, specialty stores such as Cost Plus World Market and even Fiesta Mart carry brands like McVitie's that are hard to find in regular grocery stores.

Another thing to pick up at World Market or even Central Market: clotted cream, which goes perfectly with a warm scone and some strawberry jam.

7. Spotted dick is not what you think it is. Despite the name, it's actually a sponge pudding made with suet, a type of animal fat, and dried fruits. Black pudding isn't a dessert but a sausage made with blood. Other things to note: Eggplants are called aubergines, zucchini are courgettes, cilantro is called coriander and crisps are potato chips.

8. A little nibble on a sweet goes a long way. A candy here, a pudding there, a little cake right after this next cup of tea. "The British sweet tooth is notorious," Bachini-Smith says. Chocolates, including the popular varieties from Cadbury (which is now owned by Kraft, incidentally), are quick and easy, and many Brits fondly recall eating 99 Flakes, a soft serve ice cream cone with a little chocolate bar stuck in the top.

Hot puddings are another favorite, and nobody knows this better than Tracy Claros, the England native who runs the Austin-based Sticky Toffee Pudding Company. "We have a strong tradition of hot puddings, but sticky toffee isn't a traditional flavor," she says.

Steamed treacle sponge pudding (made with cane syrup, which is known as treacle in the U.K.), jam roly-poly and rhubarb and custard have been around for a while, but sticky toffee pudding emerged in the British food revival in the 1980s. "I didn't grow up with sticky toffee pudding," Claros says. "My mum sent me the recipe for it while I was living here in the ‘80s, and it was startling to see people when they tried it for the first time. It really blows you away."

Now you'll find sticky toffee pudding on the menu at many pubs and restaurants in the U.K. and the U.S. Claros' puddings have been sold in Whole Foods Markets stores across the country for several years now. She's since expanded the product line to include lemon, ginger, and chocolate and almond puddings. Early next year, she's adding a new line of bars, including flapjacks, millionaire shortbread and chocolate tiffins.

9. Cornwall isn't the only place to eat a pasty. Many countries around the world have their own version of handheld meat pies, but in England, they are called pasties, and they started as an easy-to-eat lunch for the working class. (In the early days, they used to make them with savory ingredients in one end and sweet ingredients in the other, Bachini-Smith says.)

Now, everyone eats them, and there are a number of fast food restaurants that specialize in hand pies. Cornish pasties, made with beef, potatoes, rutabaga and onion, are perhaps the most famous, but you can find them filled with everything from pork and apples to curried chicken.

10. Beans aren't the only breakfast of champions. Beans on toast are notoriously British, but if you're looking for something new to try on your perfectly browned piece of sliced bread (and think of yourself as a brave eater), consider Marmite, the love-it-or-hate-it spread made from brewer's yeast. Like its Australian cousin, Vegemite, the salty, umami-rich ingredient is embraced for its health benefits (rich in folic acid, riboflavin and niacin) and pungent taste.

Not feeling so adventurous? Try Nutella instead, if you haven't already. The chocolate hazelnut spread is surging in popularity in the U.S. and you can find it just about anywhere.

A warning, though: You and your fellow Olympic die-hards and British wannabes might finish the whole jar during one round of prime-time gymnastics, so stock up.

Stay up-to-date with the latest food news by following food writer Addie Broyles on Twitter (@broylesa) or on her Relish Austin blog, Contact Addie at 912-2504 or

Toad in the Hole

A true British classic. Once you've mastered the basic recipe, try experimenting. Wrap bacon strips around the sausages before baking, or put whole-grain mustard in the batter. Or try it with your favorite fresh sausage. However you make it, toad in the hole is best served with onion gravy.

1 cup all-purpose flour

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 large eggs

1 1/4 cup milk

A few sage leaves, chopped

8 good-quality fresh pork sausages, such as Lincolnshire sausages

1 Tbsp. olive oil

Sift the flour into a bowl with a pinch of salt. Create a well in the center, crack in the eggs and pour in a little of the milk. Stir with a wooden spoon until well combined. Gradually add the remaining milk, beating all the time, until you have a smooth batter. (You may find it easier to use a whisk.)

Season the batter with a little salt and pepper and stir in the sage. Leave the batter in the refrigerator to rest. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Put the sausages into an ovenproof dish. Drizzle with the oil and cook in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until the sausages are golden.

Remove the dish from the oven, and carefully pour over the batter. Return to the oven and cook for about 15 minutes more until the batter is rising and golden. Serve with mashed potatoes and onion gravy.

— From "Sausage: A country-by-country photographic guide with recipes" by Nichola Fletcher and Caroline Bretherton (DK Publishing, $22)

St. Clement's pudding

An old-fashioned steamed pudding with a sticky, gooey top and the flavor of clementines infused throughout. A pudding basin is the ideal baking vessel, but you could play around with other baking dishes. The key is to steam the pudding by placing the pudding basin inside a roasting pan filled with water and covering the baking vessel with parchment to trap the steam.

1 clementine

1 vanilla bean

1 1/4 sticks unsalted butter

2/3 cup superfine (also called caster) sugar

3 eggs, lightly beaten

1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 tsp. baking powder

2/3 cup whole milk

For the syrup:

Zest and juice of 2 clementines

1 cup superfine sugar

2/3 cup water

Heavy cream, to serve

Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter a medium, deep ovenproof dish, such as a round pudding basin.

Grate the zest from the clementine and scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean. Set the zested clementine and seeded vanilla bean aside for later.

In a large bowl, cream together the butter, sugar, clementine zest and vanilla seeds with a handheld mixer until light and fluffy, then gradually add the beaten eggs. Sift in the flour and baking powder and fold in thoroughly. Add the milk and set aside.

To make the syrup, put the clementine juice and zest into a small pan with the sugar, water and the vanilla bean. Heat gently, stirring until the sugar has dissolved, then bring to a boil and simmer until the mixture has reduced to a syrup.

Cut the zested clementine in half and place in the ovenproof dish with the cut sides down. Pour over three-quarters of the syrup, reserving the rest for later.

Spoon in the sponge/pudding mixture and place a round of baking paper on top, then cover the basin with a second larger piece of baking paper (with a generous pleat in the middle) and secure with an elastic band or string. (If using a square or rectangle baking dish, cut the parchment to fit the dish.)

Put the basin into a deep roasting pan and pour enough hot water into the pan to come halfway up the sides of the dish. Steam for about two hours, or until well risen and firm to the touch (remember to keep the water filled). Turn out on to a large serving dish deep enough to catch the syrup and pour the last of the syrup over the top. Serve with heavy cream. Serves 4 to 6.

— From "Leon: Baking & Puddings" by Henry Dimbleby and Claire Ptak (Octopus, $29.99)

Opening ceremony party