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

Babbel’s Didactics editor Matthew Youlden shares his thoughts on British and Irish Food.
cibo britannico e irlandese

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.

cibo britannico e irlandese

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!