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Weird and Wild British Food Competitions

Weird and Wild British Food Competitions

Forget the London Olympics: Britain’s real medal sports involve gravy, haggis, and stinging nettles

The World Gravy Wresting Championships are held each August.

The Olympics are behind us but this year’s crop of uniquely British competitions is as varied and weird as ever. Whether you’d rather launch a haggis than eat it or if gravy wrestling sounds oddly appealing, there's a gastronomic pursuit — spectator or otherwise — for everyone.

Perhaps the best-known of Britain’s food-based competitive lunacy, the annual Cheese Rolling race at the vertigo-inducing Cooper’s Hill in Gloucestershire promises the illustrious prize of an 8-pound round of the finest cheddar... though it almost guarantees hideous strains, breaks, and bruises. Still, think of all the cheese and crackers!

Click here for the Weird and Wild British Food Competitions Slideshow!

For less adventurous cheese aficionados, there’s Stilton rolling, also in May, in the Cambridgeshire village that introduced the world to this stinkiest of English cheeses.

While you’re mingling the business of competing with the pleasure of, um, winning something that probably won’t be edible after the race is over (if it ever was in the first place) there are any number of contests that don’t involve cheese.

Ignore those custard- and mince-pie eating contests — anybody with an empty stomach and a high tolerance for gloopy pie filling can give those a try — but what about bowling? For a pig. That’s the actual live, snorting, ham-and-bacon kind, which can be won at any number of village fairs, particularly in the east of England. Simply beat the competition in lawn bowling, which is similar to bocce or pétanque, and you win the whole hog.

If swine’s not your thing, you could try the beer-drenched team sport of dwile flonking. It’s not really clear how it works or whether anyone can win, but the loser must chug the "ale-filled 'gazunder,'" so-named because it’s a chamber pot that "goes under" the bed. Again, this sport is mainly confined to the eastern regions, while on the west side of the country there’s a proud tradition of mangold hurling.

The Way We Eat Now: Food has become strange, intense, hysterical

Food has become strange, intense, hysterical and maybe even slightly unhinged if 60 seconds of a mukbang video is anything to go by. Mukbang is the South Korean internet phenomenon typically involving “a slender woman eating unfeasible quantities of fast-food”, while chatting to a video camera. It’s just one of the nuggets of food weirdness from around the world brought to you in Bee Wilson’s seriously thought-provoking book.

The Way We Eat Now, Strategies for Eating in a World of Change is the British food writer’s sixth book, and her most ambitious. Wilson starts with Barry Popkin, a Wisconsin-born professor in his 70s who grew up drinking only tap water and milk, and “made it his life’s mission to study the reasons why our patterns of eating and drinking are so different from those of the past”.

The Way we Eat Not, Strategies for Eating in a World of Change

Popkin coined the phrase “nutrition transition” after living in India in the 1960s for a year where he saw the effect on diet when a country moves from poverty to riches. Prosperity means eating more oil (a staggering slick of it), meat, sugar and snacks and fewer wholegrains and pulses. “Wherever this diet was adopted, Popkin noticed, it brought with it easier lives as well as a host of diseases.”

Wilson deftly sketches four stages of the human diet. Stage one was the hunter-gatherer stage of wild plants and wild meat. Then came agriculture and a move to grains. Stage three involved a bigger variety of vegetables and preserved and pickled foods. We are in stage four now, a bafflingly abundant time for many of the world’s population, but also weirdly homogenous when multiple traditional diets have been boiled down to what Wilson describes as “a single modern one”. Of the 7,000 edible crops, she writes, 95 per cent of what the world eats today comes from 30 of them. Diversity in our diet and food culture is dying. There are 109 words in Icelandic to describe the muscles in a cod’s head, she says. “Much of the food of Iceland is now the food of everywhere.”

Wilson is not snobbish about the delights of fast-food, the pleasures of a Big Mac over a piece of dried cod head (once slathered in butter like bread when Icelanders grew no grain for bread). She doesn’t judge the individuals who consume the junk, but the corporations and governments who allow sugary drinks and snacks to march into the world’s smallest, most remote villages.

Controlling behaviour

It has happened incredibly quickly, the leaps reminiscent of technology both in their speed and the handful of giant corporations controlling the behaviour of billions. “Only in modern times,” Wilson writes in one of her many brilliant passages, “could a person buy a stackable carton of fried crisps made from a slurry of dried potatoes and wheat starch seasoned with barbecue flavouring and sit on a sofa eating them not for celebration, not even out of hunger, but just out of a mild feeling of restless boredom. Only in stage four could another person – in the same mildly bored state – be eating exactly the same crisps at the exact same moment on another sofa somewhere halfway across the world.”

In the global village stacked with crap food choices the impact of technology, time poverty and loneliness is threaded through The Way We Eat Now. Wilson cites a study of Japanese men in the United States, whose increased risk of heart disease was not linked just to an unhealthy diet. Those who were most at risk “had certain behaviour patterns characterised by individualism, impatience and a desperate sense of urgency about time, all qualities that American society strongly promoted.”

Wilson deftly moves from the big picture to her own relationship with food. An eating disorder saw her publicly eating “small pinched amounts of things” like iceberg lettuce with dry chicken but behind closed doors she “comfort ate as if my life depended on it. One of the things I was comforting myself for was my distress at being overweight.”

She paints a picture of the staggering inequality where a Deliveroo biker can get a single chocolate crepe to the desk of a city trader on a whim while thousands of families in the same city are forced to use food banks. She is scathing about superfoods and clean eating, and less so about food substitutes like Soylent, although her experiment with five days lunching on Huel (the British version named from a mash up of “human” and “fuel”) sounds beyond depressing. “The way we grasp at novelties as the solutions to our diet ills, while neglecting the basics, feels somewhat unmoored and manic. This the behaviour of a generation who have lived through so many changes to our diets that we sometimes seem to have forgotten what food actually is.”

She ends with advice to eat from old plates (they’re smaller) and other tips to transition to a hoped-for fifth stage when we can enjoy the plenty, learn to love and cook what’s good for us and escape from the demands of phone and computer “to smell the pungent rasp of garlic against a blade, to watch as halloumi cheese takes on a brown rubbery crust, to feel the waxy rubble of chopped pistachios under your knife”.

Wilson is hopeful for a future where the arc bends back in a healthier direction. For this reader the glaring gap in the book is the question of whether humans can get to that utopian stage five before the plenty is reversed by climate change, much of it caused by vast food systems marching across the globe. Wilson has stories of hope from Chile and Amsterdam where political action has had positive effects on public health. Collective human action is needed to bend the arc. “The consolation of eating in these strange times,” she says is “the best of it is better than anything that came before and the worst of it won’t stay the same forever”.

Don’t leave Wales without trying…

1. Welsh rarebit

Try making your own… rarebit toasts, bangers with Welsh rarebit mash or tasty rarebit muffins.

2. Glamorgan sausage

Try making your own… Glamorgan cheese sausage rolls

3. Bara brith

Try making your own… classic bara brith or our sugar-crusted bara brith.

4. Lamb cawl

With its bright, decorous use of daffodils, St. David’s Day may well be one of the first augers of spring, but let’s face it, it’s still teeth-chatteringly cold out there in March. Help is at hand courtesy of this classic Welsh dish, which has a history as hotly contested as anything in the great Welsh cookbook. Sharing its DNA with lobscaws from north Wales (and, it’s contested, anywhere else within a hundred square miles) and even the humble Irish stew, Welsh cawl (or soup, as directly translated) is a slow-cooked lamb and leek broth whose foggy provenance means that you can embellish it with your own ingredients and little personal touches. The crucial ingredients are well-sourced lamb, time and your patience, for which you’ll be rewarded handsomely. It’s best enjoyed on a cold night in front of a roaring fireplace with a three-piece Celtic folk band playing in the corner. Try even more lovely lamb recipes for every season with our recipe collection.

Try making your own… lamb broth

5. Conwy mussels

6. Leeks

7. Laverbread

Laverbread is known as either ‘Welshman’s caviar’, a luxurious seaweed dish that’s often mixed with cockles, or as that weird, slimy green stuff nudged grimly to the side of the plate when eating a full Welsh breakfast. The great ‘love it/hate it’ item on this list, laverbread encourages great passions either way, especially from diners expecting ‘bread’ of some description to play a part. Much like oysters, laverbread offers an intense taste of the sea, and healthy-eating-types should note that it contains blood-purifying levels of iron.

8. Crempogs

Welsh cakes are all the rage during St. David’s Day celebrations, as are the slightly more obscure Welsh oatcakes, bara ceirch. However, at the risk of being controversial, I’m leaving them out in favour of these wonderful Welsh pancakes. Made with buttermilk and much thicker than normal pancakes, crempogs tend to be served hot, piled into a stack and drizzled with butter and honey in a manner as pleasing to the eye as it is infuriating to your dietician. Moreover, ‘crempog’ is one of the most purely enjoyable words to say out loud in any language.

9. Sewin and samphire

10. Salt marsh lamb

The often miserably rainy conditions that bedevil Wales in the winter are paid for in part by an expansive carpeting of lush green countryside that feeds some of the most prized livestock in the UK. Welsh black cattle has its admirers, but the Elvis Presley of Welsh meat is salt marsh lamb. Grazing on coastal areas that are often waterlogged by seawater (Anglesey in the north and the Gower in the south), salt marsh lamb dine out as much on samphire as they do grass, and their constant free-range roaming makes them much leaner than their slightly more fenced-in compatriots. The meat is luxuriously tender and has an unmistakable sweetness. Unlike a lot of lamb that gets rushed into action in order to be ready for the dinner table come Easter Sunday, salt marsh lamb is allowed to age for much longer, generally being available between July and October.

Read more about… salt marsh lamb

Cai Ross is the manager of Paysanne Bistro in Deganwy, North Wales. He’s also a passionate cinephile and writes for HeyUGuys, Film Inquiry and Cinema Retro Magazine. He has yet to fully embrace laverbread.

Do you agree with Cai’s choices? We’d love to hear about other classic Welsh dishes we’ve missed off. For more rundowns like this, visit our travel section.

Flannel Cakes

The term "flannel cakes" was first recorded in the German novel Munchausen's Travels in 1792. According to food historian Joyce White, flannel cakes have taken the form of crumpets, buckwheat cakes, pancakes and bannocks. In 1878, Mrs. Carrie W. Hamlin of Detroit emphasized the flannel cake's importance to Michigan's French community during Mardi Gras celebrations:

Mardi Gras was one of unusual mirth and enjoyment with the easy-going, fun-loving habitants. The tossing of pancakes (flannel cakes). was an old custom handed down, and even today is still observed. Each guest in turn would take hold of the pan with its long handle, while someone would pour in the thin batter barely enough to cover the bottom of the pan. The art consisted in trying to turn the cake by tossing it as high as possible and bringing it down without injuring the perfection of its shape. A deft and skillful hand was required, and many were the ringing peals of laughter that greeted a failure. The cakes were piled up in a pyramid shape, butter and maple sugar placed between each layer and formed the central dish in the substantial supper which took place later.

"They're sort of a cross between a thicker, heavier pancake and a really, really light crepe," Echeverria explains. "They are a very sweet dish but they're not quite as heavy and big as the pancake. They sit right in the middle."

Served plain, with fruit and yogurt or with whipped cream, the flannel cake was one of the few desserts initially offered at the restaurant. Echeverria describes it as "this perfect mix of a sweet dish that you could also eat for breakfast."

Welsh rarebit. (Jeremy Keith/Flickr Creative Commons)

Marinated halloumi with a mint, pomegranate and red onion relish and bulgur wheat salad

Food Urchin shows us how to fry halloumi to golden, crisp perfection in this stunning bulgur wheat salad recipe, topped off with a rich onion and pomegranate relish.

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You may well be familiar with the Welsh proverb which states that ‘a watched clock never tells the time’, yes? Well here is another - ‘an unwatched pan will almost certainly burn the halloumi.’ Which, OK, isn’t really an old wives’ tale proper. It is sort of obvious really, an unwatched pan will burn anything. Yet in my experience where halloumi is concerned, a family favourite, the degrees of crisping or browning is an intricate and precise process. Whenever I cook it at home, the level of concentration I have to apply is the equivalent to that of a Grandmaster chess champion planning their fiftieth move ahead. Because usually I have to take three different orders. And if I get them wrong, I am in big trouble.

My son’s request is the easiest to deal with as he could easily eat it raw. I’d like to think it was down to a textural thing but as he locks his teeth in, one bite seemingly transforms him into a mouse, such is the well-known sound that the cheese makes. I have since managed to convince him that the briefest of scorching is a good thing, just to harden up the halloumi a little. He still likes to jump around like a small woodland creature whenever it gets dished up though.

My daughter has a preference for smoke to go with her unripened, brined cheese and doesn’t quite understand why I can’t fire up the BBQ every time we have it. Nor can she understand that you can’t really bring a BBQ into the house without an adequate extraction system. Or that sometimes halloumi, a large flat mushroom and a drizzle of pesto is a speedy, vegetarian alternative to a burger. Especially when done in a pan. ‘Alright,’ she’ll sniff. ‘But I only want it cooked on one side.’

My wife, well, she likes her halloumi burnt. Why, I do not know. But having been caught out by the ol’ unwatched pan adage in the past, I have been stopped on the way to the bin before, holding a pan complete with smoldering slices of despair and asked ‘What are you doing? I’ll eat that.’ ‘I’ve burnt the halloumi though,’ I’ll reply, slightly flabbergasted but more often than not, she’ll take the pan and pop the remnants into her mouth for a charcoal fix.

Whether this was a game or some curious health kick, I am not sure but thankfully, all the incidents I’ve just described were actually one-offs from the past. Our little journey in developing a taste for certain Hellenic dairy if you will. And if my family had kept these little quirks up, like I said rustling up three contrasting preferences for halloumi, cooked like steak almost, would be a nightmare.

These days we all speak from the same page, all happy to eat halloumi fried to tanned and mottled perfection but just lately, I have been pushing the boat out by marinating it first. Given the salty kick that it often delivers, it might seem hard to believe you can infuse any sort of flavours into this much heralded cheese but you can with lemon, garlic and za'atar that middle Eastern blend of oregano, thyme and savory.

The key to making sure that this works, is again to keep an eye on the time because if you let it steep for too long, the acids from the citrus will start to break the cheese down. So leave for an hour or two, tops. Tying in the mint, sweet red onion and pomegranate relish also helps cut through the brackish edge and adds some vibrant colour to the dish and when we tried this recently, I served it up with a handsome and filling bulgur wheat salad and some smoked chicken. But this would go down just as well, served up in some wraps, with some fresh herbs and some of that relish.

Just don’t burn your halloumi. Unless you also know someone weird, who likes to eat it that way.

Wild garlic pesto

As an ingredient, wild garlic has definitely become more and more popular over the years, especially for the ambitious home cook. Danny aka Food Urchin is lucky to have wild garlic growing in his garden and shares some of his favourite recipes for the plant, including a spring fresh wild garlic pesto.

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I am not entirely sure whether it is safe to say this but I think spring has finally arrived and I think we can finally throw off the shackles of a long, long, long winter. Just by simply saying that, I might have jinxed everything and Mother Nature could well be sniggering behind her cowl, ready to unleash another Ice Age upon us. But seriously, I think the worst is over. How do I know this? Well just lately there has been a stirring in my mind, a new awakening impetus and a burning desire within my soul. A yearning to take to the surrounding fields and forests and seek new growth, new life and new beginnings. To dance across streams, to climb trees, to run with the stags, to awake the cuckoo, to rip my shirt off and smear badger doo doo all over my face and yell at the top of my lungs, “Aslan is back! Aslan is back!”

I don’t know why but I have always had this strange connection to the changing seasons. Although I do have to say that when I see wild garlic start to sprout up from the ground, I also sort of take that as indication that at last, spring is here.

As an ingredient, wild garlic has definitely become more and more popular over the years, especially for the ambitious home cook. And come April, a rash of the stuff explodes onto restaurant menus across the land with chefs holding the location of their secret stash, close to their chests. However ramsons, as they are also known, are quite easy to find anyway. Usually found in broad clumps in deciduous woodland areas or by river banks, wild garlic can be identified by its long, wide leaves and when in full bloom, pretty white star-like flowers. And if you come across a crop, the surrounding air will have a heady garlic aroma as the wind breezes through, which is all quite enticing really. Although it pays to remember that when foraging wild garlic, or any sort of foraging, do apply the golden rule of ‘thirds’. In other words, take one third of the plant, leave two thirds.

I am lucky enough to have wild garlic grow in my garden and when the shoots begin to appear around our cherry tree and broaden into pungent leaves of green, I do get slightly hysterical with it all grabbing fistfuls to smell and shovel unwashed into my mouth. I kid you not. And this is regardless of the fact that our cats often spray their business in that area.

However, over the seasons, I have to say that I haven’t really utilised our crop as much as I should. In the past I’ve snipped some into salads, scrambled eggs or steamed and wilted very quickly and used as accompaniment for salmon or chicken. But more often than not, I’ve given the stuff away to friends and family. With the intention of using this altruistic act to bribe them for goods, services and favours at a later date. This year I intend to get a lot more experimental. Currently on the cards is wild garlic Chicken Kiev, wild garlic and ricotta ravioli and tempura of wild garlic but things are very much in the developmental stage at moment, i.e. all ideas are currently written down on the back of a beer mat which is in a drawer, somewhere.

A very simple recipe to share in the meantime is wild garlic pesto, which is an absolute humdinger. It is also has pretty big kick and quite frankly it will make your breath stink to high heaven, so make sure your partner or friends also indulge. My son Fin watched me make this once in the past and with wide, eager eyes as I blitzed this everything in the food processor, he constantly bugged with questions such “What was are you doing?” and “Can I have some?” I warned him that it might be a bit too strong for a little boy to taste but Fin was insistent. Cue a minute tip of teaspoon being placed into his mouth, followed by much spitting and wailing and running around. Like I said I did warn him. Strangely enough though when heated through with some pasta, the intensity of the pesto does temper somewhat and Fin always manages to finish his bowlful with no qualms at all.

First off, the entire course was very dusty and breathing in that dust caused all kinds of injuries, including one runner who was hospitalized with hemorrhaging after the dust tore his esophagus and stomach lining. The organizer of the race purposefully withheld water in order to test the effects of dehydration. So the whole thing was a nightmare from the start.

That first-place finisher, Fred Lorz, hitched a ride in a car to the end of the course after he was struck with serious cramping. He got out shortly before the finish line and crossed it, which fooled some of the onlookers. He claimed he did it "as a joke."

That second-place finisher, Thomas Hicks, was given a mixture of egg whites and strychnine, a poison that is often used to kill rodents or birds, as an attempt at a performance-enhancing drug. He was carried across the finish line by his handlers.

That fourth-place finisher, Andarín Carbajal (pictured above), was a Cuban national who raised money to attend the Olympics by running the entire length of Cuba. He gambled away all the money when he arrived in the States, and showed up for the race in dress clothing. Thankfully, another runner used a knife to cut his pants into shorts. Carbajal stopped at a roadside orchard for a snack during the race, but the apples were rotten so he was struck with stomach cramps and had to sleep it off.

Top 10 retro British desserts

Fancy a trip down memory lane? Try our top 10 favourite retro British puddings for some seriously nostalgic sweet treats and modern twists.

Forget lumpy custard and stodgy rice pudding – our old-school homemade desserts never fail to please a crowd. We’re dreaming of soft, toffee-soaked sponge and spoonfuls of seasonal fruity crumbles and if you are too, you’re in luck. Whether you’re deovted to the classics or want to try a fun twist on the original, we have triple-tested recipes to suit every situation. Cut yourself a slice of pineapple-upside down cake while you decide – choosing your favourite bake can’t be rushed.

Try making your favourite childhood sweet treats and re-live these nostalgic British desserts.

1. Arctic roll

Try our twist:
Wrap up two incredible retro puds in one in the form of our Black Forest arctic roll. Who could resist chocolate sponge and tart black cherry jam? Try turning your arctic roll into a baked alaska with our extra special yule log with toasted meringue topping.

2. Pineapple upside-down cake

Try the twist:
Our sticky upside-down banana cake gives an irresistible twist to this seventies classic. Deliciously dark brown caramelised bananas on top of a spice-laced sponge is bound to become an instant classic.

3. Jelly & ice cream

Try the twist:
Make the ultimate picnic treat with our layered boozy Pimms jelly jars. Add your favourite summer fruits topped with a layer of cream, a slice of cucumber and a sprig of mint for a refreshing and portable sweet. Go wild with our guide on how to make jelly shots for your next party. Need something to make ahead of time? Try our fun stripy fruity milk jellies.

4. Bread & butter pudding

Try the twist:
We absolutely cannot resist a mash-up, so we’ve created the roly-poly pudding. These snug whirls of colour set in a delicate custard are a real family-friendly treat. Go for an indulgent chocolate version with marmalade glaze for a lazy weekend option. Or, try our toffee apple bread & butter pudding for a doubly delicious puffed up pud.

5. Sticky toffee pudding

Try the twist:
Try our lighter vegan version, packed with dates, spices and squidgy pears. Want the pudding without the wait? Go for our quick version that takes just fifteen minutes to plate up.

6. Crumble

Try the twist:
Got a glut of fruit to use up? Make our orchard crumble stuffed with plums, figs, apples and blackberries. We even love crumble in an easy-to-slice traybake or in rhubarb muffin form. Looking for a simple spin that keeps your favourite flavour? Bake our apple crumble loaf cake. Even confirmed crumble haters will want a slice.

7. Spotted dick

Try the twist:
Make a super speedy 10 minute version of the original recipe in your microwave. Mix up a boozy sloe-gin fruity pudding for an equally addictive dish that’s not for kids.

8. Rice pudding

Try the twist:
Take this basic pudding up a notch with our dinner-party worthy burnt butterschotch rice pudding. Crack the crunchy brûlée topping to get to the creamy, indulgent vanilla base. Or give your childhood favourite a Spanish twist with our recipe for arroz con leche with plump strawberries in sherry.

9. Chocolate sponge with custard

Try the twist:
Give your sponge a subtle nutty flavour with our chocolate & sesame loaf cake complete with sesame snap shards. Take a walk on the wild side and bake our chocolate & raspberry zebra cake. Or check out our chocolate cake recipe collection for even more inspiration.

10. Roly-poly

Try the twist:
If you just can’t resist a choclatey treat, try our jam & white chocolate roly-poly. Our twist fuses a traditional roly-poly and a spongey swiss roll. Want something a little more bite-sized? Try a swiss-roll style scone with our fruity spiced swirls.

Enjoyed these? Take a look at our other classic recipes…

What’s your all-time favourite retro pudding? Leave a comment below…

Mister Artisan Ice Cream in Vancouver, Canada, is known for its variety of refreshing and artisanal liquid nitrogen ice cream treats. Back in 2017, they offered a breakthrough innovation of yet another weirdest ice cream flavour and that was the savoury smoked salmon ice cream sandwich. It was a limited-edition dessert on the occasion of 150 th Canada Day, and was available for just two days. The smoked salmon ice cream is made of smoked wild British Columbia salmon that is blended into a base of milk and cream cheese and served between two cracker crumb wafers.

At Little Baby’s Ice Cream in Philadelphia, the USA, you can take a taste of one of these strangest ice cream flavours ever. While you must be having memories of relishing an ice cream, after you have hogged that lip-smacking pizza, all equations seem to be changing at Little Baby’s. Made with tomato, oregano, salt, basil, and garlic, it’s one of the greatest inventions in the world of ice creams. What’s more, the ice cream shop is next door to a pizzeria in Philly, called Pizza Brain… Making for a perfect opportunity for pairing your pizza scoop with a pizza slice! This should be the ultimate pizza indulgence ever.

Other Wild Edible Plants

Besides the abundance of wild fruits available, there are also wild nuts, seeds, and greens. While fruits are the most inviting to our palates, there are many other types of wild foods available for harvest year-round. Be sure to positively identify any plant before consuming, as the risk of inadvertently eating a poisonous plant is very real.

Always consult a good field guide, and I’d suggest verifying your ID with at least two sources.

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