THE TRADITIONAL recommendation for finding good food in Britian is to eat breakfast three times aday. Besides making the most of a typically excellent start to the day, that avoids the overboiled vegetables and leathery meat that have become part of the British image.
According to Jane Garmey, author of "Great British Cooking: A Well Kept Secret" (Random House, $15.50), this image problem can be traced to the fact that good British cooking is a phenomenon of the home, not generally available in hotels and restaurants, so that tourists rarely experience the practical, uncomplicated dishes that represent the finest in British cuisine.
From the English sausages and deviled kidneys presented in the breakfast section of Garmey's cookbook, through country fish pie, bubble and squeak (leftovers fried as cakes), marbled veal, Scotch woodcock (scrambled eggs on anchovy toast), spiced cabbage, and on through Sister Agatha's rhubarb crumble, cucumber sandwiches and the Trumpington Ladies' Crunchy Chocolate Biscuits, these are recipes that send you racing to the kitchen. Our one complaint: cross-references to other recipes don't give page numbers, so you waste a lot of time referring to the index, which contains a few errors.
Our British friends insist there is no general Anglo cookbook more informative, reliable and engaging than "English Food" by Jane Grigson (Macmillan); and judging from the enormous success rate we have had with "Jane Grigson's Vegetable Book" and other cookery books by this fine English writer, we're inclined to take their word for it -- but will make do with the Garmey until some American publisher has the sense to issue, or re-issue, an American edition, or until we can persuade local bookstores to import the British edition, as Book Annex has done in the past.
For those of you who like as much to read about regional foods as to cook them, "The Cooking of the British Isles" ($14.95), in Time-Life's Foods of the World series, is full of historical and sociological tidbits as well as full-color photographs and recipes. Written by Adrian Bailey, it's not one of the better titles in the series, but gives a competent, if dry, cook's tour of British food and eating habits.
Anglophiles who have had a chance not only to travel in England but to eat in the homes (or wherever the good food is served) will want to look at Elisabeth Ayrton's "English Provincial Cooking" (Harper & Row, $16.95). Ayrton's 200 recipes are organized according to the region of England from which they come, and range from such simple fare as Lancashire cheese scones and Cornish pasties to dishes you're unlikely to find in most cookbooks -- including an incredible dish called Chicken as Lizards, which involves boning two chickens, flopping them over on their backs (cooked), and decorating the final product with cucumber slices and other greenery until you have something that looks like a cross between a dragon and dinosaur. Although this is a fine collection for compulsive recipe readers, local cooks will have trouble locating, or recognizing, a few of the ingredients, such as suet crust, single cream and gammon slices.
Meanwhile, if you are either a bread person or an Elizabeth David fan (and who could not be, and love cookbooks?), you'll want to consult David's "English Bread and Yeast Cookery" (Penguin, $5.95), which at 600 pages is absolutely packed with information on different kinds of bread (widely defined to include items such as crumpets and oatcakes) and the ingredients that go into them. Nothing if not definite in her opinions, David in her section on pizza announces that cheese is an expensive and dispensable ingredient in pizza, a bread on which she prefers onion, tomato, anchovy, black olives, olive oil, oregano and sometimes, but not invariably, garlic.
Although its focus is on herbs and spices, David's "Spices, Salts and Aromatics in the English Kitchen" (Penguin, $4.95), provides an interesting collection not so much of English as of British Empire recipes, ranging from Welsh salt duck and jellied beef to pumpkin and tomato chutney, and spiced quinces. Like Grigson, Davis is definitely a staple of British cookery.
In "A Taste of London" (Houghton Mifflin, $8.95), Theodora Fitzgibbon, who has done similar volumes on Ireland, Scotland and Paris, presents a few recipes, photographs and quotations about the city on the Thames. Although some recipes sound interesting (particularly horseradish-spiked dumplings served with boiled brisket), one can't help but be wary of a cookbook that recommends submitting a sirloin roast to 30 minutes at 400 degrees followed by 20 minutes per pound at 350 degrees plus 10 minutes over, for underdone beef. Thus are reputations for leathery beef perpetuated. (Jane Garmey recommends 1 1/4 hours at 450 degrees for a 4-pound rib roast.)