LONDON — Market day in any English town reveals a delectable array of fruits and vegetables fresh from the farm--new potatoes from Guernsey, fresh asparagus, bright-red raspberries.
What frequently happens to these ingredients on the way to the table has given British cooking a reputation for bland, overcooked dishes. But all that has changed.
Throughout England, and especially in London, bright young chefs are creating tasty new renditions of traditional British dishes.
Brothers Colin and Malcolm Livingston own a trio of London restaurants--the English House, English Garden and Lindsay House--that serve excellent British specialties at reasonable prices.
"We do new interpretations of traditional British cuisine," says Michael Mayhew, manager of the English Garden near Sloane Square, as we sat down to a Sunday lunch. "We've taken some 18th- and 19th-Century recipes and updated them to make them more palatable to modern tastes. But we've kept the essence of the dishes intact."
Roast on Sunday
His point was made in a first course of cheese pudding, a traditional nursery dish in England. Here it was made with three British cheeses and topped with toasted cheese breadcrumbs. Every Sunday a traditional roast is served, and today it was rack of lamb, coated with crushed hazelnuts and served with tarragon jelly.
We also sampled a chicken stuffed with apricots and ground almonds and served with a honey sauce and toasted almonds. For dessert there was lemon flummery, a light, fluffy concoction of lemon and eggs made from an 18th-Century recipe, and a ginger fruit pudding, a traditional flour-based pudding served with brandy orange marmalade and shavings of preserved ginger.
At the English House and the Lindsay House we sampled such variations on old themes as a chicken and almond soup (sometimes called "feathered fowlie"), an updated Victorian recipe for parsleyed baby chicken, a Cornish fish pie, calf liver with Wiltshire bacon, and a horn of plenty--puff pastry filled with fresh vegetables in a light cream sauce, Welsh rarebit and a ginger trifle.
Restored Town Houses
All three restaurants are in refurbished London town houses. The English House, near Knightsbridge, opened about five years ago. Tables in the cozy front room are set around a fireplace; floral prints decorate the walls and table linens.
English Garden, opened about two years later, has the feel of a country house conservatory, with curved skylight, bouquets of dried flowers and furniture of wicker and bamboo. It's a favorite hangout for Sloane Rangers--London yuppies who live near Sloane Square.
The newly opened Lindsay House, a refuge from harsher elements in Soho, has an elegant ambiance with fabric-covered walls, quilted taffeta table coverings and candlelight.
Prices run about 20 to 25 per person without wine ($34 to $42 U.S.). English House has a set menu on Sundays that costs about $30 U.S.
The chefs at these and other London restaurants have rediscovered the richness and variety of British produce.
"The quality of certain ingredients is higher in England than anywhere," says Eddie J. Fitzpatrick, executive chef at the London Hilton on Park Lane. "English apples and strawberries are wonderful; the fish is phenomenal, and Angus beef is the best in the world. A lot of the great chefs in the old days were continental, and they didn't understand the local food. But today there's a greater appreciation of what we have here."
Fitzpatrick serves regional British specialties in the hotel's British Harvest restaurant. The menu, which changes seasonally, includes such traditional dishes as steak and kidney pie, Cornish crab soup, squab pie with Somerset apples, Kent duckling with Devon heather honey, and Lancashire Hot Pot, a lamb, potato and vegetable stew from the north of England.
"We smoke our own salmon," says Fitzpatrick, "and we have a selection of old, unpasteurized British cheeses."
We sampled such cheeses as a Devon garland, a Cornish yarg, a Bozeat goat cheese from Northampton, a double Berkeley from Gloucestershire and a Stilton from Nottinghamshire.
Prices at the British Harvest are about $34 to $42. A prix fixe luncheon menu featuring daily specials is about $26 for four courses, including beverages. On two visits we found the food very good but the service slow and inattentive.
The seasonal nature of British produce adds another dimension to dining in London.
"I always look forward to salmon season," says Armando Rodriguez, chef at the Stafford Hotel restaurant in St. James's Place. "And I love getting the first asparagus of the season. If you could get those things all year round, it wouldn't mean as much."
Rodriguez came to the hotel from Barcelona in 1964. His menu has a continental flair, but he always uses the freshest of British ingredients.
Sea Gull Eggs
We sat in the quietly elegant dining room and prepared for a special treat--sea gull eggs taken by youths who had scaled the cliffs of Dover to fetch them.