Pub food in England was for years the butt of comedians who told jokes about pub-goers singing “happy birthday” to a 10-year-old cheese sandwich. But there’s been a revolution in pub food in recent years, with even top London chefs accepting the challenge of cooking for a demanding pub audience. Writer Susan Nowak checks out the night of the long knives.
Pub food has become a billion pound business with pubs now England's main eating-out destination.
When I began researching pub food in the 1980s, if you went into an English pub and asked for a bag of “crisps” (potato chips to Americans), the landlord was quite likely to riposte: “What do you think this is⎯a ******* restaurant?”
Those were the days when you might spot a curled-up sandwich under a plastic dome. There was even a choice, ham or cheese⎯and a sausage roll. Sausage roll? Anemic-looking, pink processed meat wrapped in fat-saturated, soggy pastry.
Hot food? Certainly, sir⎯factory-made steak pies that could be microwaved still in their wrapping or frozen lasagna also served to the accompaniment of the dreaded ping.
So when I tell you that I launched my latest Good Pub Food guide for the Campaign for Real Ale in a London pub selling authentic Japanese sushi, you’ll see that something’s happened.
In fact, we’ve progressed to the point where I can take you to a pub confident that you will enjoy one of the greatest pleasures this country has to offer: delicious real food accompanied by well-kept real ales.
Not, sadly, every pub. For while pub food has become a billion pound business with pubs now England’s main eating-out destination, so lousy pub food has increased at the same rate. To eat in some pubs with their identi-menus of bought-in, frozen dishes is to understand why our traditional term for pub meals is “pub grub.”
The Main Eating-Out Place
Why are pubs now the main place to eat, surpassing even Indian and Chinese restaurants, pizza and burger bars? Several reasons. Relaxed licensing laws have now opened up our pubs to families who want inexpensive meals in informal surroundings where children are welcome.
Our drinking-driving laws and growing health concerns mean that people want more than alcohol in a pub. Higher disposable incomes, holidays abroad, celebrity chefs on TV all make consumers more sophisticated and demanding. And, if pubs want their customers, they must serve what customers demand. For our threatened rural hostelries, in particular, which would certainly not survive on booze alone, food is a lifeline.
And let’s not forget the profit-hungry major pub chains, which see every plate that crosses the bar as a zero on the balance sheet.
But what I love about our pub food, apart from the fact you can drink beer with it instead of wine, is its diversity and value for money.
Simple repasts can be memorable. What better than the perfect ploughman’s lunch⎯fresh local bread, fine stilton or cheddar cheese, a stick of celery, spicy homemade chutney⎯accompanied by a pint of hoppy bitter?
I believe our pies are the best in the world and pubs the best place to eat them. Most do their own version of our classic steak pie of long-braised beef, often with ale in the gravy, under a melting short crust pastry. (Do beware of those pubs that plonk a ghastly, inflated puff pastry balloon on a bowl of stew and call it a pie.)
I could take you to pubs that specialize in proper pies⎯chicken with ham, lamb with apricot, white and smoked fish in parsley sauce, venison and pheasant in red wine; heaven on a plate from as little as $7.50.
Pubs more than restaurants are preserving our traditional and regional dishes. I hope you’ll look some out while you are in England. I’m talking Sussex bacon pudding, a long-steamed roll of golden suet pastry filled with onion, sage and bacon; Somerset pork braised with honey and cider; Devon crab cakes; hearty Cornish pasties; and Yorkshire puddings filled with onion gravy⎯if you find a sausage in it, that’s toad-in-the-hole.
Vegetarian food has, if you’ll pardon the pun, mushroomed in pubs. Again, much of it is factory produced: I think a frozen vegetable lasagna is just about the biggest insult you can inflict on a non-meat eater. But much is homemade and imaginative. In my travels I’ve found vegetarian pudding of celeriac, asparagus and tomato bread; spinach and peanut pancakes; and four cheese and fresh herb soufflé, to name but a few.
Pubs for the Connoisseur
Some of our up-and-coming chefs now run pubs rather than restaurants, so you find clever, modern cooking in what our foodie restaurant critics like to call gastro pubs. Recipes sent by pubs for my current Good Pub Food guide include filo parcels of sander in muscadet sauce; halibut with a crab, coriander and couscous crust; or dessert of strawberry, horseradish and black pepper sabayon.
Ethnic pubs abound. You don’t have to leave the pub to go and have an authentic curry or Chinese meal, but there are also hostelries serving Thai, Indonesian, Mexican, Italian, Maltese, Moroccan, Turkish, Spanish, Polish and New World flavors.
Quite recently, I have found more pubs willing to experiment with beer cookery, both British and Belgian dishes, sporting beer boards with tasting notes on the range available.
So join the revolution: pick up a pint and a tasty meal in an English pub.