28 Keys to Decoding British Pub Menus
Even pubs tucked into the hills and dales of the English countryside have gone global—or at least continental—in recent years, offering such fare as gazpacho and rillettes, but traditional British food abides. Meanwhile, English menus can still befuddle Americans. While most of us know that American “fries” are British “chips” and American “chips” are British “crisps,” it can get trickier. Here’s a glossary to help you out of puzzling menu muddles.
From Molly Malone peddling her cockles and mussels, you knew cockles were some kind of shellfish. Well, to be exact, they’re a type of clam, Cerastoderma edule, found in coastal areas of the eastern Atlantic.
2. PUDDING/PUDDING WINE
Your first instinct on being offered a pudding wine is probably, “Thanks very much, but I’ll pass,” but you needn’t. Pudding in British English isn’t just the soft, creamy stuff; it’s any kind of dessert, and a pudding wine is a dessert wine.
3. BLACK PUDDING
On the other hand, you might want to pass on this one. It’s not a dessert but a large sausage made of blood and suet, sometimes with flour or oatmeal.
4. YORKSHIRE PUDDING
That said, many Americans know and love this popover made of baked unsweetened egg batter, typically eaten with roast beef.
Gammon can mean the bottom piece of a side of bacon, including a hind leg, but usually refers to ham that has been cured or smoked like bacon.
You may have first encountered the word treacle in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when the dormouse talks about a trio living at the bottom of a treacle well. And you may know that something overly sentimental is described as “treacle,” meaning it’s something sweet and sticky. That's because it’s the British word for molasses.
7. HIGH TEA
Not to be confused with “afternoon tea” (the posh pinkies-extended, four-o’clock indulgence with crustless cucumber sandwiches, petit fours, and cream tea), “high tea” is a working-class supper that includes a hot dish like meat pie or sausages and is served around 5:00.
8. WELSH RAREBIT
This name for seasoned melted cheese on toast is an alteration of the original early 18th century name, “Welsh rabbit,” a teasing reference to the Welsh who were too poor to afford rabbit.
Jugged refers to a whole game animal, most often a hare or rabbit, sometimes a fish, stewed in a tightly covered container such as a casserole or an earthenware jug.
Potted meat or fish is preserved in a sealed pot or jar.
With or without the hyphens, the name refers to meat, usually sausages, baked in batter. In 1792, Fanny Burney called something “as ill-fitted as the dish they call a toad in a hole,.. putting a noble sirloin of beef into a poor paltry batter-pudding.”
12. (VEGETABLE) MARROW
Marrow refers to several types of summer and winter squash, especially the white-fleshed, green-skinned kind resembling large zucchini. Squash to the English usually means either a racquet game or a soft drink such as lemon or orange squash.
The British use the French word courgette, which translates as “little gourd,” for the squash Americans call by the Italian name zucchini, which also means “little gourds.”
14. SCOTCH(ED) EGG
A Scotch (now often written “Scotched”) Egg is a hard-boiled egg enclosed in sausage meat, coated in breadcrumbs, and fried— typically served cold.
Did you ever wonder, when listening to “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (“’Twas the night before Christmas…”) How much does a bowl full of jelly shake? Imagine instead a bowl full of Jell-O. Although he was an American, Clement Moore was probably using an older meaning of jelly still prevalent in Britain: gelatin.
Don’t worry. Your salad isn’t going to shoot into the sky and explode in a pyrotechnical display. Rocket is English for the leafy vegetable Americans know as arugula.
Sultana is short for "sultana raisin," a golden raisin made from the sultana grape, known as the Thompson Seedless in the U.S. It is commonly used in pastries.
A swede is a rutabaga.
19. BANGERS AND MASH
Bangers and mash is a slightly slangy way to say sausages and mashed potatoes. Norman Schur in British English A to Zed, tells of a pub that offered “sausages and mash” for one price in its “public bar” and “sausages and creamed potatoes” at a higher price in the fancier “saloon bar.” Same dish. By the way, in British English, potato (puh-TAY-toe) does not rhyme with tomato (tuh-MAH-toe).
Biscuit can mean either cookie or cracker. The American use of "cracker" is creeping into Britain, but generally cracker in the U.K. refers to the sausage-shaped party favors wrapped in tissue that explode and drop tiny prizes when tugged sharply at both ends. The closest equivalent of the American biscuit is the scone.
Porridge usually means oatmeal, but it can also be a thick soup. When in doubt, ask.
Perhaps a blend of “pickle” and “chili”, piccalilli is a condiment made from a mixture of chopped vegetables, mustard, and hot spices.
Since around 1600, "bap" has meant small loaf or roll of bread, made of various sizes and shapes in different parts of Scotland. More recently the word has become a slang term for breast.
24. SHEPHERD’S PIE
A shepherd’s pie usually consists of chopped or ground meat topped with mashed potatoes and baked.
25. PLOUGHMAN’S LUNCH
A ploughman’s lunch is a cold meal, usually including bread and cheese with pickle and salad. “No ploughman ever survived on these scraps,” grumbles a character in Barry Maitland’s 1994 novel The Marx Sisters, but the combination has been a pub standard since the early 19th century.
Soldiers are thin strips of bread or toast, lined up like soldiers on parade.
27. KNICKERBOCKER GLORY
Mentioned by Graham Greene in Gun for Sale (1936), the Knickerbocker Glory, an elaborate ice-cream parfait that may contain gelatin, cream, fruit, meringue, and sometimes liquor, is still seen on pub menus.
28. CRISPY PIG’S HEAD/ CHARGRILLED OX TONGUE
Sorry. These are just what they sound like.
All images courtesy of iStock.