British Cuisine—Not an Oxymoron

For good food, writes Brian Yarvin, Brits can look proudly to their traditions.

Edison author/photographer Brian Yarvin says backpacking and food “are the two best things, for me, about the British Isles.”
Courtesy of Brian Yarvin.

Asked how he came to write a book about the cooking of the British Isles, Brian Yarvin, a food scholar and photographer based in Edison, responds, “In addition to being a fan of forlorn cuisines, I’m a backpacker.
“I like going places where there are great trails,” he explains. “I’ve been a passionate British trail guy for many decades, and I came to enjoy British food along with British walking. When you’re walking the countryside, then arrive at a country pub and have a great meal, it totally contradicts everything I’d come to expect visiting my in-laws in London.”

Presumably, his in-laws will forgive him, because in The Ploughman’s Lunch and the Miser’s Feast (Harvard Common Press), Yarvin has written (and photographed) a book that is as visually appealing as it is comprehensive and readable (as in the book’s series of “Pilgrimage” stories). In his extensive walks and drives, Yarvin says, “I discovered that the Britain I came to love wasn’t in the cities,” though in recent years, he adds, “even the urban dwellers have become totally focused on good food.” Now England his its own crop of celebrity chefs, including Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver and Heston Blumenthal.

“British food has as many regional variations as any other cuisine, they just aren’t given the same level of attention,” Yarvin says. “If Staffordshire oatcakes were in Italy instead of England, people would be smuggling them home in their luggage.”

In his research, Yarvin says he experienced every dish “in a vile version and a sublime version.” In compiling and editing 100 recipes for publication, he promises he has weeded out the former and ensured that the latter are easy to make. The recipes range from classics most Americans have heard of—like Welsh rarebit, beef Wellington, and fish and chips—to British stalwarts that Americans will find fascinating if only for their colorful or outright bizarre names—like bubble and squeak (fried potatoes, cabbage and corned beef), spotted dick (a raisin-spotted pudding), clapshot (mashed turnips and potatoes with chives), cullen skink (Scottish smoked haddock and potato soup), faggots (meatballs), and the title dishes, ploughman’s lunch (cheese and cold meat with salad and chutney) and miser’s feast (Welsh potatoes and pork).

As for Yarvin’s personal favorites, “I like the tripe with white sauce and the smelts, and I love chicken tikka masala. Indians deny that it’s Indian, and Brits say they don’t know. A lot of people in Britain say curry is British. As a passionately interested outsider, I would agree.”

For the recipes for bubble and squeak, cockaleekie soup and Scotch eggs, see

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