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Greasy, stale and watery: what discerning visitors really make of British food

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With a roll call of dubious specialties to our name - Spotted Dick, mushy peas, steak and kidney pies - it's perhaps no surprise that British cuisine has come in for a bad press over the years.

And while our gastronomic output has transformed dramatically in the past decade, with world-class restaurants and street food festivals pushing the boundaries of innovative cuisine, certain commentators still see fit to make our food the butt of the joke.

Latest to join this food-shaming bandwagon is Portuguese professor Joao Magueijo, who has laid in to our "deplorable, greasy, artificial" cuisine in a new book titled Undercooked Beef. He comes hot on the heels of the US ambassador to the UK, who was less than diplomatic in revealing his frustration at repeatedly being served lamb and potatoes at official functions. These people have clearly never sampled overcooked shepherd's pie hacked from the bottom of a canteen vat - it would give a whole new meaning to the concept of bad food...

But anyway, it's fair to say that this lot are less than impressed by the dry, bland and "terrible" grub that they've encountered on stays in the UK. Come read their brutal assessments of our national cuisine and vow never to eat a deep fried Mars bar again:

"The food is so greasy it needs detergent"

Fish and chips - "a thin layer of the animal covered in many inches of batter"

Joao Magueijo is a Portuguese physics professor at Imperial College London but we doubt he'll be joining the queue at the student canteen any time soon.

In his new best-selling book Bifes Mal Passado ("Undercooked Beef"), the academic lays into British food with a vicious humour that is suggestive of a good few very bad meals.

He slams the British as "unrestrained wild beasts who eat food so greasy it needs detergent". Our national diet is "deplorable", he says, and "based on greasy stuff and unspeakable artificial lard".

Seaside favourite fish and chips comes in for the worst criticism, with Magueijo describing it as "a thin layer of the animal covered in many inches of batter, sometimes ten times bigger than the actual fish."

The professor is also scathing of our drinking culture.

"It is not unusual to drink 12 pints, or two huge buckets of beer per person," he writes.

"Even a horse would get drunk with this but in England it is standard practice. In England, real men have to drink like sponges, eat like skeletons and throw up everything at the end of the evening."

Harsh. But fair.

"I’ll tell you what I would not serve — lamb and potatoes"

US Ambassador Matthew Barzun is fed up with lamb and potatoes

The new American Ambassador to the UK, Matthew Barzun, came under fire recently when he appeared to suggest he was tiring of certain aspects of British hospitality.

"I’ll tell you what I would not serve — lamb and potatoes," Barzon told Tatler magazine, in an interview out this month. "I must have had lamb and potatoes 180 times since I have been here. There are limits and I have reached them."

Ouch. But it's perhaps not surprising that Barzun, a Kentucky-based businessman, is finding the go-to fare of official British receptions and events a tad limiting.

Since being appointed to Britain last November, he and his wife have become famed for throwing lively and laid-back parties at their Regent's Park residence, with appetisers including catfish, corn dog canapes and pyramids of Ferrero Rocher topped with cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.

All of which makes lamb and potatoes sound well, just a little bland and unimaginative.

"One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad"

Haggis - just one example of bad British cuisine, according to Jacques Chirac

Former French president Jacques Chirac famously took a dig at British food at a Nato summit in 2005.

Believing he was out of earshot of the press, the statesman remarked to Gerhard Schrder, the then German chancellor, and Vladimir Putin, that his country's difficulties with Nato sprang from the fact that an official from the organisation once forced him to eat Haggis.

He then joked, "one cannot trust people who have such bad cuisine", adding that British food was the second worst "after Finland".

To add insult to injury, President Chirac went onto take aim at British beef and the row over BSE, commenting that "the only thing they [Britain] have contributed to European agriculture is the mad cow".

Coming from a land heralded for its fine quality cuisine, we can perhaps forgive Chirac's blistering assessment.

But certain people took umbrage at his comments, among them food critic Egon Ronay, who shot back that "a man full of bile is not fit to pronounce on food".

... The claws are out.

"Toughened rawhide parading as pork and a watery dribble of trifle"

Travel writer and honorary Brit Bill Bryson has many wonderful things to say about our country, but his descriptions of our food count among the more witty and acerbic of his observations.

Recalling a meal at a restaurant in Bournemouth in his 1995 bestseller Notes from a Small Island, Bryson describes how he was presented with "vegetables served with nested spoons and circlets of toughened rawhide parading under the name medallions of pork".

And come dessert time, things did not improve:

"I was left to choose," writes Bryson, "Between a watery dribble of trifle, a meringue confection that I knew would explode like a party popper as soon as I touched a spoon to it, or any of about a dozen modest cuplets of butterscotch pudding, each with a desultory nubbin of crusty yellow cream on top."

In another classic excerpt, he hits the nail on the head when observing how the British favour bland, lesser-flavoured treats:

"The British are so easy to please, " he says. "It is the most extraordinary thing. They actually like their pleasures small. That is why, I suppose, so many of their treats - teacakes, scones, crumpets, rock cakes, Rich Tea biscuits, fruit Shrewsburys - are so cautiously flavourful. They are the only people in the world who think of jam and currants as thrilling constituents of a pudding or cake.

"Offer them something genuinely tempting - a slice of gateau or a choice of chocolates from a box - and they will nearly always hesitate and begin to worry that it's unwarranted and excessive, as if any pleasure beyond a very modest threshold is vaguely unseemly.

'Oh, I shouldn't really,' they say.

'Oh, go on,' you prod encouragingly.

'Well, just a small one then,' they say and dartingly take a small one, and then get a look as if they have just done something terribly devilish. All this is completely alien to the American mind. To an American the whole purpose of living, the one constant confirmation of continued existence, is to cram as much sensual pleasure as possible into one's mouth more or less continuously. Gratification, instant and lavish, is a birthright. You might as well say 'Oh, I shouldn't really' if someone tells you to take a deep breath."

"English food is terrible"

A traditional British meal of steak and kidney pie, chips, mushy peas and a pint

Bernardo Hees, the then global boss of the fast food empire Burger King, got into hot water in 2011 when he described English food as "terrible".

Brazilian-born Hees was addressing a conference in Chicago when he recalled his days spent studying in UK, where he undertook an MBA at the University of Warwick.

He said there weren't many distractions to get in the way of his studies since, "the food is terrible and the women are not very attractive".

Flattering his audience, he added: "Here in Chicago, the food is good and you are known for your good-looking women."

Unsurprisingly, his impromptu remarks struck a sour note and the CEO was forced to backtrack and say sorry.

"Mr Hees apologises if his comment has offended anyone. It... was intended as a humorous anecdote to connect with his audience," a spokesperson said.

"Puddings have stale white bread as the main ingredient"

Sarah Lyall is an American journalist who worked as London correspondent for The New York Times, a job that gave her a front row seat to the oddities of being British.

In her 2009 book, The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British, Lyall expresses her wonderment at the nature of British desserts, remarking: "some of my husband’s favourite puddings have stale white bread as the main ingredient".

She also points out the practicality of our tough "Bronco loo paper" to deal with the consequences of eating such food.

And our tendency to binge drink comes in for a drubbing too, with Lyall noting:

"Brits aren't very good at just having a few drinks and relaxing. As a culture, they really enjoy binge drinking to the point when they're completely insensible. And this has been a theme throughout the decades for them — throughout the centuries, really."

Well, that's said it.

What do you think of British cuisine? Is it now the best it's ever been or are there still improvements to be made? What's your favourite traditional English dish? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter @StylistMagazine.

Photos: Rex Features, Words: Anna Brech

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