Give me a thumbs up if you’re a fan of British food! Do you even think of it beyond everyday fish and chips or one-liners about much-maligned haggis and mushy peas?  Would you ever consider it a world-class cuisine?  I didn’t think so; it doesn’t get much respect. 

Sadly, we aren’t really familiar with what nourishes the Brits. Ben Mervis is out to change all that with his comprehensive volume titled The British Cookbook, where he explores a highly regional, ingredient-based food culture.  It’s a revelation. 

Surprisingly, Mervis is an American. He moved to England to study history and stayed for the eats.  Now a resident of Glasgow, Scotland, he’s established himself as an authority on the cooking of England, Scotland and Wales despite his heritage. Maybe British cooking needed an outsider to give it the respect it deserves. 

Every few generations, someone produces a comprehensive cookbook covering the food of a particular culture. In America, think about the family tree of Fannie Farmer’s Boston School Cookbook, Irma Rombauers’s Joy of Cooking, and Mark Bittmans’s How to Cook Everything.

Mervis is the latest in a similar lineage to survey British food. His version, contrary to common perception, is tempting, intriguing, and mouth-watering.  His recipes include history and local variations folded into alluring descriptions. With an eye to cooks in his home country, measurements are given in both metric and American quantities. 

Bilberry Plate Tart

There’s no better example of his style than in the section for Puddings and Pies (desserts are called puddings).  The recipe for Bilberry Plate Tart is vividly subtitled Mucky Mouth Tart. Mervis explains that it’s actually a pie with a top and bottom crust.  The mucky mouth nickname comes from the deep purple stain left by the berries. He goes on to explain that bilberries, whortleberries, and blaeberries (as they are known in Scotland) are botanical cousins of the American blueberry.  He then points out that whinberries are, by comparison, slightly smaller and more tart.  More than you wanted to know? Not for me.  I love the language, which can border on poetry.

Before going on to ingredients and method, Mervis points out that the tart should be served warm with ice cream or clotted cream. My kind of guy.

I can crack the book open to any page and find something I need to cook. 

Pictures are salted throughout, giving eye-catching glimpses of the taste pleasure that lies in each recipe. The roast loin of pork, brown and crisp yet moist within, was particularly well turned out. Roasts, of course, are the foundation of Sunday dinner in Britain. 

Mervis recommends “traditional tracklements” to round out the roast pork dinner: apple sauce, sage and onion stuffing, and braised red cabbage, each with their own recipe reference in the book. He suggests a “belly-filling” pease pudding for colder weather. 

As the one-time center of a globe-spanning empire, there’s plenty of international influences that have become part of the British culinary canon. India is perhaps the most visible.  

Kedgeree is one example of the cultural collision. Most often served for breakfast – curried rice is mixed with peas, parsley and finnan haddie (Scottish smoked haddock) and topped with hard cooked eggs. Sounds hearty and delish. 

The book includes a litany of British desserts that are evocatively named: Clootie Dumpling, Jam Roly Poly, Spotted Dick, Sticky Toffee Pudding and Eaton Mess, a name that could only originate at a boarding school. 

Coronation chicken sandwich

To stave off a craving for British food while deciding what to cook (it’s not easy) visit Gruel Britannia in Fairfield for lunch.  It’s our most British local restaurant. They have a Bacon Butty sandwich $8, a Better Bacon Butty $11, a Banger Plate with beans $10, Coronation chicken sandwich $14, the Full English Breakfast $22, and delicious house-made scones. It’s a homey stop for a taste of GB without dirtying any pans. 

As we gear up for the royal coronation in May, The British Cookbook is a helpful tool to create an appropriate menu.  But I’m sure you’ll want to cook from it more often than that.