Ben Mervis is quick to say that British cuisine is his dream cuisine. For the Philadelphia native, the fare features comforting meals made from the island nation’s wild foods, rich in stories of migration, innovation and preservation.
The founder of Fare Magazine and lead researcher for Netflix’s Chef’s Table’s, Mervis’ time as an impressionable international student in the UK sparked a quest to chronicle the country’s food culture – one that brought him to savor sausage rolls with English mustard in a “ritual -loves calm” and eats its weight in fresh fish and langoustines.
In her new cookbook, The British Cookbook, Mervis is leading a culinary tour across the UK – from crowdie (a traditional soft, spreadable cheese from the Highlands of Scotland) to mulligatawny soup (the Anglo-Indian dish that landed in British cookbooks as early as the 1800s) – which he hopes will be “the first port of call” for those looking to delve into British cuisine.
The culmination of years of work and travels across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the massive red book is a collection of 550 deeply researched recipes, including classics like shepherd’s pie, lesser-known dishes like Dublin Bay prawns, British stories like haggis. , and icons like curry goat. The inspector spoke with Mervis about misconceptions about British cuisine, what it means to be a food researcher and where to find a clanger from Bedfordshire to Philadelphia.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I love this docu-series before you even get into that it’s about chefs and food. My job is to serve as a bridge between the (food) industry and the production of the show. I work with the director of each episode, conducting the research on the leader before production and filming and creating the research document to help structure the narrative.
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British food is about what grows and grazes all over the country. It’s really about making the most of very little and knowing how to preserve certain flavors throughout the year, biodiversity, the kind of things that people here have lost touch with over time.
Typically, you’ll find that a British cookbook is a kind of region-free British food – food that’s not tied to any particular region, whereas this book offers regional dishes from Anglesey and Shetland ( islands) and the Hebrides. It really is a deep dive.
I also worked with a British Caribbean community expert, a British Pakistani, a British Indian and a British Nyonya (descendants of early Chinese migrants who settled in Penang, Malacca, Singapore and Indonesia). I asked them about the recipes that are important to them in their communities, those that were born in the UK or have been adopted in a significant way. It was super important because it’s their experience and their reality.
I say this in the introduction (of the book) but if you choose your last meal, I think there is a good chance that the type of dishes that come from this book will be part of it. Maybe people have had a bad impression of British food in the past because it was cooked badly by someone, or because they go to a chain restaurant or something. There are so many contributing factors that have led people to lose touch with traditional recipes and homogenize those that have remained.
There’s a great place called Stargazy in South Philadelphia. They are named after a fish pie that hails from Cornwall – fish that pops out of a savory pie. It’s kind of an East London pie, but chef-owner Sam Jacobson is really into British food. He made a Bedfordshire clanger, which is a long, dough-like sausage where on one side you have a savory filling and on the other a sweet filling – it’s from an ex-worker’s lunch. He does amazing stuff.