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Eating and Drinking

Eating

The English once perceived food more as fuel for the body than as something to be enjoyed for its own sake. Consequently they never really applied themselves to the art of cooking, until they became aware of the sheer awfulness of their own cuisine.

Of course it is not all dust and ashes. The rest of the world does acknowledge the supremacy of the great English breakfast (chosen from bacon, eggs, sausages, grilled tomatoes, mushrooms, potatoes, kippers, kedgeree and so on) and French chefs tacitly compliment them on their "rosbif" which is found the world over. Universally acclaimed, too, are their puddings - steamed jam roll and apple crumble. The unwary should take care with "Yorkshire" and "black" puddings. Neither is quite what it seems. The first is baked batter eaten with roast beef, and the second a ferocious blood sausage, taken, by the brave, at breakfast.

On the whole, England has always been, culinarily speaking, the underdog. The puritan backlash is ever present. "Good plain cooking" and "honest simple fare" continue to be held in semi-religious awe in many quarters, with the clear implication that complicated and pretty dishes are neither good nor honest.

Nevertheless, continental habits have insinuated themselves, not least in the matter of eating out. Restaurants have proliferated and, as the interest in foreign food has grown, so have the choices. The supremacy of French and Italian fare is now challenged by others - Thai, Chinese, Mexican, Spanish, Russian, American.

There are even restaurants specialising in English food. One highly successful example in London calls itself "School Dinners". There tired and overwrought businessmen can go and enjoy such nursery fare as rice pudding and "spotted dick" all served by well-developed girls wearing school uniforms.

Drinking

The English have been accused of starting life two drinks behind the rest of the world. This is a shame, for they have an extraordinary expertise in the matter of alcoholic beverages.

While the charge of sophistication has never been levelled at English food, the English have consumed it for hundreds of years accompanied by a bewildering range of the world's finest wines.

The best ones from France have always been shipped over the Channel in bulk for the English to drink and enjoy. For centuries they have imported the lion's share of Portugal's port and Spain's sherry in addition to brewing their own pale imitations of them.

Of the more successful native English drinks, English ale has now been partially eclipsed in popularity by lighter lagers from the Continent and the antipodes. But for years beer was one of the country's greatest sources of pride and even today there is still a sizeable number of local breweries producing regional beers which are sold extensively in pubs up and down the land.

The catalogue of English alcoholic triumphs continues with London Gin. This is drunk all over the world along with Indian (English Imperial) tonic water and provides the base for thousands of cocktails. Whisky, of course, comes from Scotland but the English consider it peculiarly their own, keeping the choicest malts for themselves, perhaps because they do not want the rest of the world to get more than two drinks ahead of them.

What is Sold Where

Until a few years ago the English used to shop at their local greengrocer, butcher, baker and so on. Now these small shops have all but capitulated as their customers pile into their cars and get everything they need at huge out-of-town-centre hangars filled with all their hearts' desires.

The only shops to have survived the march of the supermarkets in any numbers are the corner shops, known in some quarters as "Patelleries" since so many of them are run by Ugandan Asian immigrant families. These corner shops are often supermarkets in miniature and sell anything from sweets to sweat bands, nappies to newspapers. Many of them are also open all day and half the night.

In all this cultural upheaval, there appears to be only one golden rule. You can get anything you need in very small or very big shops and nothing in medium-sized ones.

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