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British and Irish food: It’s not as bad as you think

Posted on November 19, 2014 by

British and Irish food

Matthew Youlden, editor in our Didactics department (pictured here with senior project manager Maren Pauli) and one of our favourite polyglots, has created a new Babbel course about British and Irish food. He tells us why food from his country has such a bad reputation, what to do with old bread, and why he has to choose whiskey from Ireland over Scotland.


Why did you want to do a course about British and Irish food?

We looked into doing a food course especially for Britain and Ireland because even though it’s focused primarily on cuisine, it also highlights the various regions that make up Britain and Ireland.


How did you break it up? Into which regions?

There’s Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and I decided to split England up into several regions including Cornwall. A lot of people learning English aren’t aware that Cornwall is different from the rest of England, due to its history as a Celtic nation.

Internationally, British and Irish food is often considered poor and usually mocked or looked down upon. I wanted to change that impression.


You say it’s got a bad reputation.

Unfortunately it does. I think a lot of it goes back to the first and second world wars, when because of the state of emergency there was a strict system of rationing and you could only get certain ingredients. So this idea of bad, very bad food, tinned food, ready-made food that wasn’t of a high quality, I think, has carried on right up to the present day, even in the minds of British and Irish people. I’m glad to see that over the past decade chefs like Jamie Oliver and Donal Skehan are starting to make a name for British and Irish cuisine. I hope our course can help convince people of this good name!


How did you try to reflect the regional variety?

I decided to select certain dishes or specialities from each region. Some were obviously famous, like haggis from Scotland, and I even mentioned fish and chips at some point, and whiskey and cider and ale and stout. But I also wanted to focus on things that people learning English wouldn’t come across, unless they’d had the opportunity to go to Britain. It was important to reflect the diversity not only in the dishes but the regional cultures. So we have three lessons about Celtic nations, Wales, Scotland and Cornwall, and one dedicated to Ireland – also a Celtic nation.

In order to make it more authentic we decided to include people from different parts of the islands to do the voiceovers. People think there’s this one form of British English, but there are actually so many different ones. You travel from one place to another and within ten minutes you hear a completely different accent.


Where are you from? What’s your food?

I was born in Manchester in the north of England, and half of my family is Irish. As a northern English lad you’re brought up with certain specialities from your region – pies, puddings, potatoes. My grandparents’ cooking was all about potatoes, cabbage, meat – meat was incredibly important. What a lot of people overlook, however, is that there is a lot of vegetarian food in England. There are also many good cheeses that are internationally renowned.


Do you have a favourite food-region?

I think you’d have to take a few things from different areas. Maybe whiskey from Ireland – I won’t say Scotland cause my grandparents would kill me – cider from the south, apple pie from the east, haggis from Scotland (even though a lot of people would be scared about what exactly haggis is).


What is it…?!

Haggis is sheep’s stomach filled with lovely yummy stuff such as… well, basically the insides of a sheep. It’s cooked with neeps and tatties (turnips/swedes and potatoes).


If you had to pick one favourite meal, what would you choose?

I have to stay true to my region and go for rag pudding, which is a meat pudding that used to be wrapped in a tablecloth (which also doesn’t sound too appealing!) and then cooked. You can have it with potatoes and peas. Simple stuff, but when you think about home… That’s the first thing I’m having when I get back!


Tell us about some of the things in the course. What’s poitín?

The word poitín comes from pota [Irish], a pot, and the -ín is a diminutive. It’s a home-made alcoholic beverage made from potatoes, as you might expect in Ireland. It was usually brewed illegally at home, in a pot on the stove.



This comes from the Irish word crúibín, another diminutive like poitín with -ín, and it means ‘(pigs) trotters’. It doesn’t sound particularly appetising, but I think it’s definitely something you would appreciate after having a heavy night of poitín drinking. They’re often fried.


Gur cake?

It’s a Dublin-English shortening of ‘gutter’. Gur cake comes from Dublin, and the pastry is usually made from old bread. There are several ingredients that recur in Irish cuisine: cabbage, potato, and old bread is another one. It dates back to the time when Ireland was a backwater colony of the British Empire, and you made the best of what you had.



It’s a dessert that originated in Cornwall. Hevva is a Cornish word for a shoaling place. People called ‘huers’ used to stand on the cliffs and call out “Hevva!” when they saw a shoal of fish below, and the fishermen would reel them in. It’s called hevva cake because the criss-cross pattern represents the fisherman’s net. The fruit currants inside it are supposed to be the fish.


London Particular?

London at the time – at least until the 1950s – was heavily affected by smog. London Particular is a thick green pea soup with bacon, which made the inhabitants think of a particularly bad case of smog!


What’s your favourite food from Britain or Ireland? Let us know in the comments!



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I’m particularly biased to the cuisine found on the West Coast of Ireland (Galway area). My favourite would have to be the variety of meat pies and some decent fish & chips (with garlic mayo!)

I do no know English or Irish fooi
d, buit after the descriptions ithink i would not like it very much.i am Belgian ,so i am used to very nice food.

I love British food and I am a Yank! Bangers and Mash, proper Fish and Chips, Steak and Mushroom (or Kidney) Pie, and many other meat and potato dishes are awesome! I actually think that the British Breakfast is the best breakfast in the world!!! In 1981 the British loved KFC and Chinese food but now a Yank can get American Fast Food in England and Paris (so sad) when a Yank gets home sick! The UK has diversified their taste buds and even British Chefs like Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver use pasta from Italy (which my English ex-wife hates). My English mother-in-law makes the best Chicken Curry I ever tasted and I have had it from Kenya to Hawaii. The British have evolved and you can get almost any food you desire including African and Caribbean foods! The reason people do not call British food British Cuisine is because most of it consists of staples like meat and potatoes like what we have in traditional North American food!

There is no worse, overhyped and disappointing modern cuisine than so called Kiwi cuisine from New Zealand – at best the same roast lamb and kumara roast as last week and next week, etc; At worst just the tired leftovers of British empire – fish and chips, eggs with fried mushrooms and tomatoes, or sausages on plain white bread. For variety you get cheese rolled up in plain white bread. Hamburgers are topped with beets, egg and pineapple- disgusting. Even the seafood in this island nation is largely frozen and reheated. How do you ruin something as simple as onion dip? Try it the kiwi way made with heavy canned condensed milk, instead of sour cream. Some of the cheeses are good, but a finger sized piece will cost you the same as a bottle of champagne. Ridiculous.

Matthew, is quite traditional British. To think that all the food mentioned here will not be considered mainstream Contemporary British food now. I like the idea that most of them are home-generated recipes. Contrary to our commercial menus now!

If you go back in history there are some wonderful English dishes– What about “babies head pudding”? (so called because of the shape not the content) made from oysters, and steak and sometimes kidney? (oysters being used to bulk out the much more expensive meat) Or good pork pie, steak and kidney pie with light fluffy pastry,; scouse, lancashire hotpot, and if all else fails roast beef and yorkshire pudding. What about the Faversham oyster fishery company. the oldest food business in the world listed in the Faversham Oyster Fishing act of 1930 as having been in existence since time immemorial, i.e. before 1189A.D. showing that there were oyster recipes in England before anywhere else!

I’ve lived here in the UK for 8 years and only carefully ever dare to try British food. This article scared me away from it again. I’m gonna stick to curry. Thanks God for British Asians saving this land’s cuisine.

Great ales, porters and stouts, really great booze from Scotland and Ireland both and salmon from Scotland is wonderful. Outside of that, desserts and Scot’s eggs, the only thing worse than British food is British weather.

JMW parrots what I’ve said for years – England ruled the seas because every guy over 15 wanted to leave the island in search of a decent meal.

The first time I went to England I found the food bland(1994)
The second time was 1997 and the menus had improved. Now after reading these comments I can’t wait to return to Britain and taste everything mentioned here. A trip to Scotland and Wales plus Ireland would also be in order.

What about good old bacon ,eggs, sausages and black pudding?

Hi I am Dutch have been regulary in England since 1972.
Particulary in Southern Part: South Hampton and other. I had excellent french styled food in 1976. In 2009 in the London museum restaurants the food was superb. In Spain in Costa Blanca had great experiences in English restaurants. English chefs made a new Cuisine. Herman

I’m not sure that this article has done anything to enhance the downtrodden image of British cuisine. Talking about haggis is certainly not going to lift it very much. I am no expert, but coming from post war England myself I would be excited to know what exists on the local English menu now.

How can you not like haggis? Delicious…

my favourite is Cornish pasty which I make at home in Australia

The linguistic origin of the desert known as Spotted Dick demonstrates that English is a constantly evolving language.

It started off as “Spotted Dough”, a pudding with lots of currants in it. This in time turned into “Spotted Dog” and then onto “Spotted Dick”.

Since, in modern parlance, “Spotted Dick” has vulgar overtones, some bakers now call it “Spotted Richard”.

Which is a tad amusing, for both “Spotted Dough” and “Currant Pudding” would have worked just as well, without inviting knowing sniggers by those of low mind when they read the new labelling…

He mentions all the cheeses made in England and I agree they are fabulous. I lived in Cornwall 2 years and loved sampling all of the various cheeses. Cornish pasty? Not so much.

I’m with Vic…I LOVE haggis–and I’m not even Scottish!

My theory is the following; France and Italy have few conquests, neither army wanted to be late for dinner. German food was very hearty, able to carry on long campaigns. British however, had it really bad. They built an empire not to gain power, but they were always in search of a decent meal.

I Loved haggis. It was prepared so many different ways. And there is no breakfast in the world to compare with a UK breakfast: Tattie scones, grilled tomatoes, mushrooms, sausages, eggs, black and white pudding. Oh boy, I’m getting hungry!!

I am signed up with you (?) but do not understand how/where I get the lessons.

Hey John – what happens when you go to Did you subscribe, or have you signed up? If you’d like a little help just send an email to and we’ll help you out.

Matthew was quite right to spell whiskey with an “e” since he was referring to the Irish version. Real whisky (scotch that is ) is never spelt with an “e”.
My favorite British dish is a Cornish pasty.

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