You Are What You Eat

If this old saying is true, then I' m a bowl of muesli because that' s what I had for breakfast. Obviously I' m not, but there' s a lot of truth in the proverb, though perhaps it should be modified to read" You are what and how you eat" . Food and eating habits are two of the most defining traits of a people and culture and, though Britain has a rather bad reputation in this area, meals have always been a very important part of our society. As culinary customs differ from place to place and family to family in Britain, what is described here is a combination of what I believe is customary and my own experience. No doubt other British people would have different ideas and opinions.

What' s for breakfast?

British people usually eat three meals a day - breakfast, lunch and the evening meal. There are numerous myths about the traditional English breakfast. Many foreigners believe we eat a huge plateful of fried eggs, bacon, sausages and goodness knows what else. No doubt they have this idea because many of them stay at hotels or bed and breakfasts, where they do get offered such a meal. But normally we don' t eat this sort of thing. I might have a cooked breakfast about once or twice a year, but then I' ll probably go without lunch.

If you get up late in the morning a popular alternative to breakfast and lunch is a meal we call brunch. This, as you' ve no doubt guessed, is a combination of breakfast and lunch and may well be something like a classic English breakfast.

Instead of that huge fry-up, the vast majority of British people eat a healthy breakfast. The most popular item is a bowl of cereal, for example Corn Flakes, with cold milk. The popularity of cereals in Britain is so great that a multitude of them exist on the supermarket shelves. New types come and go all the time, but Weetabix, Shreddies, All-Bran and Shredded Wheat are a few of the most enduring that I haven' t yet seen in Poland. After our bowl of cereal we' ll often have some toast. And the traditional thing to put on your toast at breakfast time is marmalade.


In the past lunch, traditionally eaten at one o' clock, was the main meal of the day. In the fifties and sixties, when it was normal for shops and businesses to close for lunch, my grandfather used to leave his office and go and eat at home. My grandmother would have spent the morning preparing the meal, probably cooking the classic 'meat and two veg' , of which a common variation could be a pork chop with peas and potatoes, or perhaps she would make an Irish stew or a steak and kidney pie. But since the 1980s very few businesses have closed for lunch, and today, if they have a lunch break, most working people grab a chicken tikka masala sandwich from a kiosk or have a quick Greek salad in a lunch bar. And of course most wives go out to work as well. But working lunches at a restaurant, where business will be discussed, are very common. These occasions are sometimes known by the formal title of 'luncheon' . Schools usually have a one-hour break for lunch.

The more traditional or formal lunch will be composed of two or three courses. A two-course meal - the more common, but less formal variation - consists of a main course and pudding. A three-course meal usually consists of soup, the main course then pudding, which may be given its more formal name of 'dessert' . In fact soup is rarely eaten in Britain nowadays, and few people find the time or energy to make a pudding, though it is still popular. Most restaurants in Britain serve foreign food, but increasingly pubs provide food, and this is usually of the more traditional British kind.

At home people cook a mixture of things. For the main course a family may have one of the most famous of English dishes - Cottage pie, also known as Shepherd' s pie. This is cooked minced beef and beef stock mixed with chopped onions and carrots, covered with mashed potatoes and baked in the oven. It is usually served with boiled vegetables and, very often, gravy. Gravy is the most popular sauce and is traditionally made from meat dripping, meat stock and flour to thicken it. Any number of herbs or spices can then be added. We pour it over everything - pies, chops, roasts - and usually like a lot of it. Nowadays you can buy it in granules and simply make it by adding boiling water and stirring, but it' s better to make it in the proper way. My personal opinion is that many Polish dishes, such as pierogi or kotlet schabowy are too dry and would be improved by the addition of gravy.

There are numerous classic British puddings: trifle, Apple Charlotte, rhubarb crumble, Summer Pudding, cheesecake, Baked Alaska, jam tart, treacle sponge, gooseberry fool, Spotted Dick, Queen of Puddings and Death by Chocolate, to name just a few. Unfortunately there' s no room to describe them all here, but I' m sure you can get an idea of what they are like from their names. Some of them really are very good - and of course very fattening! Puddings often come with either fresh cream or custard. Custard is the sweet equivalent of the ubiquitous gravy. It' s a thick yellow sauce made of fresh cream, egg yolks, flour and sugar and can be eaten hot or cold. One favourite pudding of mine when I was a child was banana custard - cold custard with chunks of banana mixed in.

Supper' s ready!

Nowadays the evening meal is often the main meal of the day and as a result many of the lunchtime dishes described will instead be served in the evening.
Other popular meals are spaghetti bolognese, lasagne or similar pasta dishes, chillis and curries, which may also be served for lunch. Puddings may be eaten in the evening too, especially if you' ve got guests. In this case the evening meal is not called supper, but rather 'dinner' , a more formal name which derives from the verb 'to dine' , meaning 'to eat a meal' . Dinner can also mean lunch, as in Christmas dinner, when lunch is the biggest meal of the day. Many British people don' t call the evening meal supper at all. 'Tea' is a very common alternative, but may occasionally cause confusion as many families refer to tea as the snack they have in the late afternoon. The difference is often regional, with the former meaning of tea being more often used in the north and the latter meaning more common in the south.

Well, it' s one o' clock and I feel quite peckish. A good-sized plateful of cottage pie, carrots, peas and gravy, followed by an apple and cinnamon crumble just like my mother makes it would go down a treat. But as I' m here in Warsaw I don' t think it' s going to happen. I' ll go and see what they' ve got at the local bar mleczny...

Barnaby Harward