In 2005, former French president Jacques Chirac was famously quoted as saying the only thing worse than English food was Finnish food. While we haven’t sampled enough Finnish food to pass comment, Chirac’s disdain reflects a somewhat stereotypical view of English cuisine (ie it’s not very good).
But things have changed in the past decade. Gastro-pub culture has taken London by storm, while a string of English restaurants have been awarded Michelin stars (even when Chirac was cracking funnies in 2005, Heston Blumenthal’s Berkshire eatery, The Fat Duck, was voted the world’s best restaurant). Young, talented chefs, inspired by the likes of Marco Pierre White’s hell-raising genius in the ’80s and ’90s, have realised just how much they can do with the country’s abundance of fantastic fresh produce.
St George’s Day, celebrated annually on April 23 to mark England’s patron saint, is often associated with shaved heads and football shirts. Yet Time Out has decided to mark the date by taking a closer look at some of England’s most celebrated dishes, finding out a little about the history behind them and, most importantly, where you can sample them in Dubai.
What is it? Roast meat, usually chicken, beef, pork or lamb, accompanied by Yorkshire pudding (a light, crispy dish made from batter), roast potatoes, veg including parsnips, carrots and cauliflower, condiments such as mustard and horseradish, and gravy.
What’s its story? Perhaps the most famous British meal of all (yes, even more so than fish and chips, as far as we’re concerned) has a long, celebrated history. Henry Fielding’s 1731 Grub Street Opera praises roast beef, the cornerstone ingredient of a Sunday lunch, as an integral part of any good Englishman’s diet. ‘When mighty roast beef was the Englishman’s food, It ennobled our brains and enriched our blood. Our soldiers were brave and our courtiers were good, Oh! the Roast Beef of old England, And old English Roast Beef!’
Though modern dieticians will beg to differ, author William Kitchener stated in his 1871 book The Cook’s Oracle that around 3kg of beef, 2kg of bread and a pint of hop-based beverage was necessary for a healthy diet. Of course, red meat was a luxury of the wealthy, and was enjoyed by the poor only on Sunday – thus the tradition of the Sunday roast. In fact, to save on meat, families would offer second helpings of beef to the child who could eat the most Yorkshire pudding (the thinking being that everybody would fill up on Yorkshires and thus less red meat needed to be served).
Where can I try it? With the weekend in this region falling on Friday and Saturday, many of Dubai’s ‘Sunday’ lunches take place on Saturday, or occasionally even Friday. There’s Nineteen’s traditional roast lunch at Address Montgomerie (04 390 5600), with prices starting at Dhs235 per person. Raffles Dubai (04 324 8888) themes its Friday brunch around this English pastime: the soft drinks package costs Dhs200, while food and selected house beverages costs Dhs350. For traditionalists, The Wharf (04 366 6152) offers a roast dinner for Dhs120, Links at the Address Montgomerie (04 390 5600) does likewise from Dhs75 per person, and The Talk at the Mövenpick JBR (04 449 8888) serves roast dinner for Dhs165.
What is it? While many of us will be familiar with a ploughman’s in sandwich form, the dish is traditionally served as a platter of cheeses (stilton and cheddar), pickle (mostly diced and pickled swede, carrots, cauliflower, onions and gherkins), ham, pâté, apple slices (Granny Smith, naturally), pickled onions, crusty bread and celery.
What’s its story? Sir Walter Scott first coined the phrase ‘ploughman’s lunch’ (or, more specifically, ‘lunch for a ploughman’) in 1837. However, it’s thought that he wasn’t referring to the aforementioned ingredients, rather, he was simply referring to a meal a ploughman might eat. There has otherwise been some debate about the origins of the meal, which conspiracy theorists claim isn’t as old or ‘traditional’ as we’re led to believe. For instance, a BBC documentary concluded that the ploughman’s lunch was ‘invented as a marketing ploy to sell cheese in pubs’, after it was quoted in the minutes of an English Country Cheese Council meeting. Writer Ian McEwan even went as far as to call one of his films The Ploughman’s Lunch. The film itself explored themes of rewriting history to suit the present – the link being that the ploughman’s is believed to be a relatively recent English meal that has been romanticised to suit the needs of a canny cheese industry.
Where can I try it? Whatever the truth behind this simple dish’s surprisingly complex history, we’re happy to report that a traditional rendering is served at The Wharf at Mina A’ Salam (04 366 6152) for Dhs75. Spikes at Al Badia Golf Club (04 701 1127) also serves a ploughman’s salad for Dhs55.
What is it? Tea, finger sandwiches, jam, scones and pastries.
What’s its story? The English aristocracy didn’t have a great deal to do other than socialise and eat, so afternoon tea was a way to fill time between lunch and late dinner. It’s said that the Duchess of Bedford started taking a light snack in the afternoon – a pick-me-up, if you will – and started inviting her friends to join her. Other similarly inclined ladies of leisure followed suit and afternoon tea became customary. Afternoon tea is often confused with high tea, traditionally a meal for the English lower classes, who would have high tea (‘high’ because it was served as a high dinner table) at about 6pm instead of a late evening meal.
Where can I try it? Dubai likes nothing better than a spot of pomp and ceremony, so it’s not surprising that there’s an abundance of great afternoon teas across the city (listed on page 64). For something different, however, we’d suggest hopping aboard floating restaurant Bateaux Dubai (04 399 5600). Otherwise, Ritz-Carlton JBR (04 399 4000) does a nice afternoon tea for Dhs125. Expect very English creations by the very English chef Gary Rhodes, who recently launched the Rhodes in Residence tea at Grosvenor House Tower Two (04 317 6000) for Dhs150 per person.
What are they? The English take great pride in the eccentricity of their dessert names. When they’re not serving jam roly poly, they’re tucking into spotted dick or making an Eton mess.
What’s their story? Jam roly-poly – a sponge-based pudding with jam rolled inside – was a popular Victorian-era dessert, although the savoury version gets a mention in Dickens’ Bleak House. Traditionally, roly-poly pudding was boiled in a pudding cloth, though today it’s more common (not to mention easier) to bake it. Spotted dick is widely believed to be the handiwork of Alexis Soyer, head chef of the Reform Club in London (the very same place Jules Verne’s fictional character Phileas Fogg placed his famous wager) in 1849. The second part of the name was a colloquial name for a dessert in the 1800s, while the prefix refers to the raisins that dot the pudding. A popular fable surrounding Eton mess is that it came about when someone accidentally sat on, and squashed, a strawberry and pavlova pudding. However, it’s more likely that it was a treat served at the Eton tuck shop during the 1930s.
Where can I try them? We can thank Gary Rhodes for some of Dubai’s tastiest English desserts. Rhodes Mezzanine (04 319 8785) serves the British pudding plate, costing Dhs65, while Embassy Club (04 399 8888), serves a decent Eton mess for Dhs70.
More traditional English dishes to try
Fish and chips It’d be criminal to exclude fish and chips from this very English round-up. While there are plenty of decent chippies around Dubai (The Fish & Chips Room at JBR (04 427 0443) is always reliable), our pick is the new Rivington Grill’s take on the dish, which is as filling as it is delicious. Dhs125. Rivington Grill & Bar, Madinat Jumeirah (04 366 6464).
Steak and kidney pie Meat pies were an effective (and tasty) way in which the poor could enjoy lesser cuts of meat (ie kidneys). Happily, however, the fillings at Alfie’s are of top quality. Dhs105. Alfie’s, Jumeirah Emirates Towers (04 319 8785). Toad in the hole Yet another eccentrically named dish, toad in the hole marries sausages and Yorkshire pudding to glorious effect. Its origins are shrouded in mystery, though it’s agreed that toad in the hole never contained the animal from which it takes its name. Phew. See ‘The Sunday roast’ for details.