There is a certain honest earthiness to good English food that I find appealing (being English, I realize I may be biased). While in Britain recently to visit family and friends, I did a lot of eating and drinking up and down the country - from Whitstable to Lyme Regis, Bath to Buxton and, finally, a three-day party in Princes Risborough - before staggering back to Heathrow and home (almost 10 pounds heavier and many pounds sterling lighter).
Whitstable is famous for its oysters. When the tide is low, they can be found in large numbers all over the mud flats stretching out from the pebble beaches.
My fondest food memory of that seaside town, however, is of a tiny shop in the high street called the Cheese Box, which specializes in artisanal Kent cheeses. Regional cheeses seem to be flourishing all across Britain. Some of them are of a remarkable quality, and many have been newly assigned a Protected Designation of Origin by the European Union.
Pubs, too, are going through a transition as they adjust to changing social habits, smoking bans and stricter drinking-and-driving laws. Almost all of them offer hand-drawn, real ales from the area, and in the West Country small-production ciders, which were popular with Benn, my teenaged son.
The quality of pub cooking has improved, too. Some of it approaches restaurant level in ambition, and usually at better value. However, there is still a lot of grim cooking that must be avoided. If in doubt, it's best to ask a resident.
Of all our restaurant meals this trip, my best experience was a grilled plaice I ate at Hix Oyster Bar and Fish House in Lyme Regis, Dorset, overlooking The Cobb (the harbour wall that features so largely in both Jane Austen's Persuasion and John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman). The fish was excellent, caught in nearby waters, simply cooked and served with no fuss in casually sophisticated surroundings.
That experience would be difficult to replicate here, so the recipe I offer you today is one I have eaten and made many times and seems to me to encapsulate the best of English cooking. It's absolutely in tune with the season, humble, yet packed with flavour and colour (and, yes, there is a 'u' in those words).
About 1½ pounds of mixed ripe berries*, rinsed, drained and picked over
1/2 cup sugar (more or less to taste)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
8 to 10 slices good quality white bread
Toss the firmer berries (such as currants and blueberries) with the sugar and lemon juice, then place in a suitable pan. Bring to a simmer. Add the softer fruit and continue cooking just until the juices start to run (overcooking will spoil the fresh flavours). Remove from the heat and reserve.
Line a 1.5-litre glass or china bowl with the bread, overlapping slightly and pressing the edges of the slices together.
Pour in the fruit. Cover the top with more bread to completely enclose. Press down using the flat of your hand; juice will start to seep up and through the bread.
Place the filled bowl on a large plate. Then place a smaller plate (small enough to allow some downward movement within the bowl) on top. Place a weight of about 3 pounds on top of the small plate and leave in the fridge overnight.
The next day there will be a good amount of juice either on the large plate or in the bowl on top of the small plate: Reserve this juice.
Remove the weight and plate, run a knife around the bowl. Turn the pudding out onto a serving dish, pour over the excess juice and serve with thick cream.
* Blackcurrants, redcurrants, blackberries, raspberries and blueberries are all excellent choices in any combination for this recipe. I find that strawberries tend to get a weird texture, and avoid using them.
Keith Froggett is co-owner and executive chef of Scaramouche in Toronto