Is food in England really that bad?
comment 11 Written by on January 7, 2010 – 9:20 am


Is food in England really that bad? I don’t think so. Quite the opposite. I miss it when I’m away. (Though I am a vegetarian living in Argentina and so times can be hard.)

Yet still the myth persists that eating in England is some sort of punishment. I often talk to travellers who have very nice things to say about my homeland but can’t resist a final dig. "But the food… urgh," they say, wrinkling up their nose.

Where are these people eating? Not where I am. Or am I just used to food in the UK? We all have a fondness for a taste of home that can cloud our judgement. And also a "taste of home" for me is less about the traditional dishes and more about the international variety. Like most British expats in Argentina, I miss our adopted national dish: curry. In fact, I miss spices in general. And I miss having black pepper on the table in restaurants.

I love the fact that you can get any world cuisine you want in London. And done properly too. I’m currently staying near Upper Street in Angel – where you can pop out for an Afghan meal if you so desire.

The gastro pub trend gave us a good boost, with people taking pride in the good, old-fashioned basics. Meanwhile, the quality and variety you can get in British supermarkets is quite remarkable. We may not be a full nation of foodies, like our neighbours across the Channel, but we have more than our fair share. 

For one of my Argentinian friends living in London, the main gripe appears to be fish and chips. Yes, he did that wrinkly nose thing again about our dear fish and chips. Although I confess, to some extent, I see his point. I tucked into a portion with gusto here last week, but I admit that my plate –  which I’d over-enthusiastically ‘garnished’ with with a spoonful of mushy peas, beans, tomato sauce and an onion ring – was pretty unsightly.

I enjoyed it though.

But it’s not all fish and chips in the UK.

I would love to hear from travellers who have actually enjoyed British food. Those that didn’t – was it really so terrible? And Brits – what do you miss when you’re away?

Photo: Fish and chips by Ordinary Fool on Flickr.

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11 Responses to “Is food in England really that bad?”

  1. Yum, my favourite subject.

    First, it doesn’t really bother me when people lay into British food. In fact, I quite enjoy it. There are certain national stereotypes which can cheerfully survive all the “corrective” hype and propaganda that is thrown at them. We all know funny Germans, ugly Danes, sheepish Italians and gays who wear socks with Crocs. But the myths endure, don’t they? (It’s important, of course, that everyone sticks to the *agreed* myths. I wouldn’t like to hear anyone saying that the English smell bad. Because it’s the French who smell bad, not the English.)

    Second, London is a long way from England. London isn’t only the best place to buy/eat food in England – it may well be the best place to buy/eat food in the world. And the myth that eating in London is prohibitively expensive *is* a myth worth exploding. One or two specialities aside, eating *really* well in London costs less than it does here in Buenos Aires. A world-class, unbeatable bagel from Brick Lane costs what these days, two quid? And you only need six or seven of them to fill you up.

    What do I miss? That’s easy: discounts. Who doesn’t love scooting around Waitrose half an hour before closing time and filling a basket with marked-down fresh products?

    And, somewhat preciously, I also miss Maldon sea salt.

    By Matt on Jan 7, 2010 | Reply
  2. Welllll…., I DO love the international food in London, but we have also had MANY *really* bad meals in the UK and Ireland. Even the favorite pubs here in Spain that the Brit expats rave about (that are owned by Brits with UK cooks) have what we consider some of the worse tasting food on the planet.

    That said, I’ve had some fabulous food in the UK, some of it very typical English, like a rabbit stew pie we happened upon at a small pub in the Cotswold’s. Yum! We were recently in London and had some to-die-for desserts at some high end high tea places.

    London as well as Vienna ( & surprisingly Trogir, Croatia) had the best Chinese food that we have found in Europe (something we have found *extremely* hard to find all over Europe to please our California taste buds & prices are soooo much higher than in US for it).

    Most of the popular Brit places in Spain are inedible for us, but 1 small restaurant with a UK owner/chef is one of our faves. We had never heard of “sticky toffee pudding” before finding it, but now it’s one of our “must haves” when we return to Spain in the winter. Most everything on the menu is scrumptious.

    I’ve been traveling to the UK for almost 40 years and love it, but I think there is a reason why it has the food reputation that it does. Some of it is really awful to most palates, just as most of the simple dishes in most any small place in Italy will tend to be quite pleasant to most palates.

    I have had bad pizza in Italy and bad food in France, but I have had the MOST bad food in the UK and Ireland. Much of the UK food that I have disliked has tasted very bland, tasteless and dry…inedible for us & I don’t mean fish & chips although I am no fan of that.

    Understanding another culture’s “comfort food” is interesting and often probably impossible to understand for those outside that culture.

    Probably as hard to understand for my beloved Brit friends as to why I never want a “cuppa”. Since I don’t drink coffee or tea, it is as foreign to me as yerba mate! Still, they never stop asking & you have to love them for that and I DO love the conversational part of a “cuppa” or a Swedish “fika” even if I don’t care for the beverage. 😉

  3. Oh, I fogot to mention how much we LOVE the big English breakfast. Now THAT’s a meal that tends to be great all over the UK!

  4. You can find crappy food everywhere. McDonalds, anyone?

    And I think if you look hard enough, you’ll find amazing food everywhere – yes in England AND Scotland. I miss a nice handmade scone when on the road, but have to say you can find some pretty awesome pastries around the world.

    I even found Scottish tablet in Cambodia of all places (masquerading as ‘palm sugar’) so if that’s possible, I think you can find anything to satisfy your homesick foodie cravings.

  5. I’ve been living in London for two years and I have to admit that maybe now it’s quite easy to find good food than it was before. I’ve heard so many horror stories about English food that I was pleasantly surprised to acknowledge that the situation is not that extreme. Price-wise, too, it’s not difficult at all to find good deals.
    However, I think the variety and better quality of the food in London is due to the presence of so many foreigners: if we go to a Chinese restaurant we eat proper Chinese food. Try to go to a Chinese restaurant in Rome: food poisoning.
    The same applies to Indian, Moroccan, Ethiopian, Japanese food: in London you have a huge choice. I think this is why Vicky misses the curry!
    As for strictly English food, I have tried some, but didn’t really enjoy it. I don’t like the stew, hate fish and chips (makes me feel bad for two days) and find heavy all sauces used on meat or vegetables. I think we miss the “taste of home”: I’m Italian and sometimes I miss Italian food, so the exact same thing must happen to expat Brits!
    I think even expats adapt their tastes to the hosting community. I used to go to “Strada” for a pizza with friends sometimes, until an Italian friend of mine on holiday told me: “If you like this pizza, it means that you’ve been away for too long!”

  6. This is a subject that has been debated for years it seems. I recently found an essay by George Orwell In Defence of English Cooking.

    England has an impressive roll call of great food: Full English Breakfasts, The Sunday Roast, Fish and Chips, Cornish Pasties to name a few.

    I think it all comes down to the price and the preparation outside of London that gives English food its reputation.

  7. For Italians, British food has always been a synonym for bad food, or tasteless boiled vegetables with dry meat! But personally, I believe those who think like that have not been in England for a while or have eaten in really bad places.
    I have been going to England quite regularly for 20 years (oh my God, that’s scary when you write it!) and I have seen the quality of food, both in terms of presentation and taste, really improve.
    Over the past few months I have spent 5 weeks in the UK on various occasions and I have to say that I have had some fabulous and, compared to Italy, inexpensive meals.

  8. British food was pretty bad from World War II to the mid 1980s. Since then it’s had a revival, and I’m not just talking about the international food. It’s now really good. Yet the stereotype pervades.

  9. I’ve only been to London (never travelled anywhere else in the UK) and only half a dozen times, each time for a week or so over a period of ten years, and I’ve had very few memorable eating experiences. Aside from the gastronomic restaurants headed by name chefs, I’ve found the food uniformly average, and I’ve been to all the so-called great places recommended by Time Out and supposedly ‘in the know’ foodies.

    Totally disagree with Matt that “eating *really* well in London costs less than it does here in Buenos Aires”… c’mon, Matt! You can pay US$100-150 for an outstanding meal at BA’s best restos including a great bottle of wine, but in London you’re paying three times as much for the equivalent.

    Having lived in the Middle East for so long – and therefore spoilt for choice as far as food from the region goes, as well as food from India, Pakistan, Iran – I’m a purist in that I love authentic Indian curries that taste the way they do in their home regions in India. Absolutely loathe the British versions, sorry. But then I’m consistently disappointed with any kind of Asian cuisine outside of Asia. Chinese food in Australia and the UK tastes absolutely nothing like it does in China, Thai food outside of Thailand is a water-down version of Thai. Although I’ve had amazing Korean in Milan, sublime Japanese in Kuwait, and authentic Peking duck in Paris… there are always exceptions, right?

    I’m looking forward to our week in London in February and hoping I can experience places that change my mind, so welcome any tips.

  10. Ah, but you’re twisting what I wrote to suit your argument, Lara! I never mentioned the word ‘restaurant’ in that context. In fact it never occurred to me to that anyone looking for a country’s best food at the lowest possible prices would go anywhere *near* a restaurant. As you very well know, only a proportion of what you pay in a restaurant covers the cost of the food.

    Your quest for good-value good food in London should take you to markets first, shops second, takeaways and caffs third and restaurants fourth. Some may dispute that order, but the principle is basically sound.

    So I’ll issue you a challenge. Forget all this meal-with-wine nonsense. You get 10 quid, I get 10 quid. You buy food in Buenos Aires, I buy food in London. We’ll present an unbiased third-party with the fruits of our labour and see who comes out on top.

    And I’m speaking as someone who ADORES the food here. But in terms of the freshness, quality and diversity of ingredients available, there’s no comparison. *Yet*.

    (BTW, you have to pay for my flight to London. Hope that’s cool. Are we on?)

    By Matt on Jan 18, 2010 | Reply

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