LONDON, Feb. 19, 2009 -- Among the abundant sources of English national pride, food is seldom mentioned. But a recent revival of England's culinary heritage and a spate of Michelin stars may now be changing that.
"Potted meat, soggy pastry and vegetable mush" has long been the popular stereotype, as The New York Times wrote earlier this month. Hard to believe then that 200 years ago, English food, specifically country estate fare of hearty pheasant feasts, refined afternoon teas and rich dairy treats, was the toast of the continent.
In January, Great Britain earned a record number of Michelin awards (the gold standard of cooking accolades), including four new two-star restaurants. Significantly, many of the newcomers won for their traditional English ethos of simple cooking with superior native ingredients.
"English food's reputation for drab stodge was once justified but no longer," said author and food critic Tom Parker Bowles. "We've always had incredible raw materials, as befits a temperate island."
As stepson of the Prince of Wales, and food editor of The Sunday Mail, Parker Bowles has tried the full gamut of British food -- from boarding school gruel to regal banquets. For him, English cuisine "is all about good ingredients, cooked with respect. Done lazily, or uncaringly, it becomes stodgy and bland," he said.
His favorites. he said, include "Dover sole, whole braised oxtail, potted crab, rare roast beef, skate and samphire, homemade cracklin' cockles cooked in cider, gull's eggs, fresh asparagus draped with good butter and good black pudding."
"Simple food, simply served has become a mantra for many more Britons over the past decade, and quite right too," said Tony Turnbull, food editor of The Times of London, who favors "freshly picked crab and a simple roast chicken.
"We should be proud of Shepherd's Pie and of Lancashire Hotpot. They are great dishes that stand up to world scrutiny," he said.
Big-name British chefs such as three-star Gordon Ramsay ("Hell's Kitchen"), Jaime Oliver ("The Naked Chef"), and Nigella Lawson ("Nigella Bites"), who all host popular television shows, are also helping spread the popularity of higher-quality cooking as lesser-known chefs raise standards by reworking old classics into delicious modern dishes at restaurants throughout the British Isles.
"Chefs like Fergus Henderson and Mark Hix have been serving new English food, the likes of bone marrow and parsley salad, fried skate nobs, home-smoked salmon, good pies and roasts and braises, potted shrimps and rare breed beef," said Parker Bowles.
Turnbull also credits Henderson and Hix with helping turn around the starchy, downward spiral of English cuisine, as well as chef Oliver Peyton. For him, the Roux brothers arrival at renowned London restaurant Le Gavroche in the 1960s signaled the start of the cuisine scene's slow climb upward.
Turnbull is also heartened by the "massive improvement" in domestic ingredients and a renewed interest in carefully sourcing them. "Nowadays everyone likes to know where their lamb came from or that the bacon is Gloucester Old Spot," he said.
Britons have also full-heartedly embraced the organic, locally grown, British-bred ideology. But some believe that may not hold up in the economic downturn.
"It will be interesting to see how strong our organic principles are now that the weekly shop is being credit crunched," said Turnbull, who is generally skeptical about the extent to which the higher-quality revolution has reached the masses.
In the broader market he still sees an unhealthy dependence on "ready made" meals, which he said have helped drag down English food's reputation for decades.
"For me the fundamental problem -- and I think this might go back to some form of collective memory of rationing -- is that we equate choice with quality. … It's the sign of a far more-civilized culinary nation to offer a no-choice menu, but each course made with love and passion," Turnbull said.
Parker Bowles identified a similar dilemma starting earlier in the 19th century.
"After the Industrial Revolution, we began to lose touch with the country and source of our food. Huge population growth allied with the advent of processed and canned foods created cheap, low-quality food. Add in two World Wars … supermarkets and rubbish food began to be the norm," he said.
Though standards may have slipped, the current trends are undoubtedly upward. "Good food has become a national concern. … We still, though, have a long way to go," he said.
Tom Parker Bowles's new book "Full English: A Journey Through the English and their Food," comes out from Ebury Press in September. Click here to read an excerpt of his last book "The Year of Eating Dangerously."
Click here for a simple roast chicken recipe from Camilla Parker Bowles, duchess of Cornwall.
Click here for Nigella Lawson's steak on a budget recipe.
Click here for fast food recipes from 3-star chef Gordon Ramsay.