Having just spent Christmas in Cornwall, England, it dawned on me how big a role food plays in British culture. I wanted to make the festive period as ‘British’ as I could for my three Dutch children and what we ate turned out to be a big part of achieving this.
I think mince pies were the main act as far as my sons were concerned, both shop bought and home made. My two eldest boys were enthusiastic about making them themselves, cutting out rounds with a pastry cutter and filling them with mincemeat (of the dried, spiced fruit variety and not ground beef to clear any confusion up). The smell wafting out of the oven was heavenly, and they didn’t last long. My two year old ran around yelling ‘cake’ whenever he saw a mince pie (though funnily enough he ate the homemade versions but not the shop bought ones). Cake. Mince pie. We won’t quibble about terms. These little bites of heaven are very festive and very British.
Then there was the Christmas pudding, which also comprises lots of dried fruit. Once upon a time there was no choice but to steam a pudding for hours upon hours but these days shop bought puddings are ready to eat after mere minutes in the microwave. Soft and still steaming hot, brandy is dribbled over the top of the pudding and set alight. Watching a pudding engulfed in flames is the stuff of dreams for young boys. Thankfully they haven’t since asked for any other dessert to be set on fire but on Christmas Day their eyes were alight with excitement. Which is as close to the Christmas pudding as they got given that the alcohol content just kept rising. It was served with brandy butter, single cream and custard, just like my mum always served it. So whilst the kids ate a chocolate sponge us adults demolished the boozy Christmas pudding.
A few days after Christmas, at a fish and chip shop in Padstow, I saw a sign advertising the most unusual delicacy of deep-fried battered Christmas pudding. I was intrigued, but I ventured no further into the realms of weird British food. A bit like the deep-fried Mars Bars British thing that never really tempted me either.
And on the topic of puddings, I made a trifle (alcohol free version) on Boxing Day. It was the first time I concocted one for my Dutch family and it was a big hit. Mind you, what is there not to like? What small boy doesn’t like a bowl of sponge fingers, juice, fruit, custard and cream? Watching a huge bowl of good old-fashioned British dessert being devoured in one sitting by my three little Dutch boys made this British mother a proud one for sure.
However, the ten days we spent in Cornwall were not just about classic British Christmas food. Cornwall has some typical, local specialities that are well worth shouting about: cream teas being my favourite one. A good cream tea is a pot of tea served with a homemade scone, a pot of fruity jam and another filled with delicious clotted cream. There is nothing more British than sitting in an old fashioned ‘tea shoppe’ watching the world go by over a cream tea. Or so I thought.
Next on any regional speciality list is the Cornish pasty. It is essentially thick pastry filled with beef, potato, onion and swede or turnip and once made up the contents of a Cornish miner’s lunch box. Pasties were easy to transport, easy to hold with dirty and poison laden hands (the hefty crust was thrown away once the filling was consumed) and a filling, hearty meal all in one pastry wrapped package. Rumour has it that once upon a time one end of the pasty would be savoury and the other sweet giving the hard working tin and copper miners a two course meal for lunch.
Pasties themselves were around for hundreds of years in England before the Cornish made them their own, typically a savoury snack for the wealthy upper classes to get their teeth into. Many years after the pasty’s introduction, cheese and onion pasties, homemade by my mum and then frozen, made up my staple diet during my university years. Delicious. These days there is no denying that the most famous pasties of all are those made in Cornwall. Personally I can take or leave a Cornish pasty, and I discovered during this trip that the notion that they contain vegetables is a turn off to any young boy. However, they are a local delicacy and wildly popular.
Cornwall also has its fair share of locally made ice cream, including dairy farms to visit with viewing galleries above the ice cream factory floor where you can see it all being made. It’s fascinating for children and adults alike, but of course nothing beats the end of the process where everyone can pick their favourite flavour and lick an ice cream cone to within an inch of its life.
Not specifically Cornish, but certainly in abundance throughout the county, no food screams ‘British’ louder than fish and chips. This time around we sat in the dark on a bench on Poole sea front, waiting for the New Year’s Eve fireworks to start, eating our take away tea from a local fish and chip shop. The rain started as a mere drop here and there, and ended in a lashing sideways downpour with a vicious sea gale blowing around and through us. As I sat there listening to my Dutch family complain about the wet, windy conditions, watching them trying to stop the paper wrappers and plastic bags from blowing away, all whilst balancing cardboard boxes filled with chips on their laps, a feeling of contentment washed over me. Smiling, as I stuck my mini wooden fork into to my soggy, battered cod, with my hair plastered to my face, I thought, “This is about as British as it gets.”