Four or five centuries ago, British food was sensational, featuring a dizzying range of local and imported ingredients and flavours. Then it wasn’t – the Industrial Revolution spread waves of bland across the land. And then, miraculously, it was again: British menus have been freed from the shackles of substandard steak-and-kidney pies and soggy fish and chips. These ten top gastronomic destinations will get your mouth watering.
1. Borough Market, London
Farmers markets have proliferated across Britain of late. Borough Market, though, has been trading on or around this spot south of London Bridge for over 700 years; today, early-morning wholesalers are replaced by stalls touting artisan breads and cheeses, game and meat, fruit, vegetables, and pan-global delicacies.
2. Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire
The simple pork pie - seasoned meat and jelly in a firm pastry case - embodies all that’s best and worst about British grub, which can be greasy and heavy or lip-smackingly delicious. Melton Mowbray pork pies have been made in England’s 'Rural Capital of Food' for at least two centuries; the best are still baked around the town, also a centre for production of the 'King of Cheeses', blue-veined Stilton.
3. Padstow, North Cornwall
It’s not hyperbole to suggest that Rick Stein started a revolution with his Seafood Restaurant, which opened in 1975 in Padstow. Using local fish, the restaurant – and his subsequent outlets, including a cafe, deli, cookery school and fish-and-chip shop in the fishing village – paved the way for a gastronomic rethink of Cornwall.
4. Abergavenny, South Wales
This market town at the foot of the Black Mountains explodes into a culinary frenzy in mid-September, when the annual Abergavenny Food Festival brings masterclasses, tastings, talks and demonstrations, along with scores of stalls touting fine local fare. Respected restaurants and inns dot the town and surrounding countryside.
5. Whitstable, Kent
In Whitstable, the oyster’s your world – and has been since Roman times, when the tasty molluscs were first harvested. Today they’re celebrated during July’s Oyster Festival, and morning-fresh seafood can be picked up at the long-standing fish market.
6. Balti Triangle, Birmingham
Strange but true: in surveys, Brits name the creamy curry chicken tikka masala their favourite dish. Britain has legions of restaurants serving cuisine from the Indian subcontinent, but heartland of the curry is surely Birmingham’s Balti Triangle, where scores of restaurants serve up countless varieties of chilli-tinged delights.
7. Ludlow, Shropshire
Some kind of invisible gastronomic gravity – that, and a galaxy of passionate food suppliers in the surrounding countryside – has transformed Ludlow from being merely a quaint, castle-topped town into a powerhouse of culinary excellence. Now it’s practically drowning in Michelin stars and AA rosettes, home to an array of gourmet restaurants, specialist food shops and breweries, and the annual Food Festival in September.
8. Bray, Berkshire
As of 2010, only four restaurants in Britain hold three Michelin stars – and two of them are in this bucolic Thames-side village: Michel Roux’s Waterside Inn and the Fat Duck, regularly named the UK’s best restaurant and famed for chef Heston Blumenthal’s innovative ‘molecular’ approach to gastronomy. Bray also hosts numerous other acclaimed restaurants and gastropubs.
9. Castle Douglas, Dumfries & Galloway, Scotland
One of Britain’s designated ‘Food Towns’, Castle Douglas has long been a trading centre and livestock markets are still held each week. The attraction isn’t so much in big-name chefs or award-laden restaurants as in high-quality local produce, from meat sold in independent butchers to brewers, confectioners and bakers.