Sunday, October 31, 2010

My Sunday Best

One thing that Americans do share with the English, in a food sense, is the idea that Sunday is meant for a nice homemade meal that the family enjoys together.  It is on Sunday that the house fills with lovely aromas, mom doesn’t really seen to mind slaving away in the kitchen, and everyone gets along, even if it’s just during that meal.  However, when it come to English Sunday dinners, the type of food is a bit more specific.  I present, the Sunday Roast, also commonly known as the Sunday Joint.

By roast, I just mean any type of meat that is slow roasted in the oven.  The meat generally used is beef, pork or lamb, but anything could work.  It is usually accompanied by gravy made from the meat juices, a vegetable of sorts, perhaps stuffing or Yorkshire pudding, and some sauces or condiments that complement the flavors.  The Sunday roast is not a new invention by any means.  In fact, the tradition has been done since the medieval times.  The working people spent all day Monday through Saturday doing hard labor so Sunday was their day to relax and were rewarded with beef roasted on a spit over an open fire.  Today’s roast is prepared in much less rugged forms but is still a lengthy and messy business.  But at the end of the day, when you are left with something that is so comforting and filling, and will usually provide leftovers for the next two days, the effort seems much less irksome.

My first experience with a Sunday roast was in a pub called The White Hart in Stratford.  Most pubs do a traditional array of roasts every Sunday, and some require reservations, but this pub actually had the fare on the Tuesday I was there, and it was just what I needed to warm up.  It was the most traditional of roasts: beef with gravy, potatoes and mixed vegetables, and Yorkshire pudding.  And it was really quite good.  The beef was moist and tender, the gravy not overpowering in onion flavor, and the Yorkshire pudding was fun to try; I had never had it before.  Contrary to its name’s implication, this English side dish is actually a savory pudding.  Made from a simple batter, similar to an unsweetened crepe batter, it, when cooked correctly, forms a steam pocket and rises as it bakes.  The end result is what looks like a muffin with a crispy and crunchy exterior.  But on the inside, it is mostly hollow and warm and soft.  And it is perfect for mopping up gravy juices.

So after this delicious lunch, I really wanted to try making my own roast.  I have only ever singlehandedly roasted a chicken and have never really done the whole gravy deal but I decided to take the plunge and headed to the market for ingredients.  I got a piece of lovely pork loin with a beautiful big fat cap from the butcher at The Ginger Pig.  He gave me a bit of a funny look when I told him I only need enough for one person (roasts are usually meant for a whole family) but patiently carved me a little personal cut of meat.  I stocked up on veggies and herbs and headed home anxious for my feast.  Now I did make this Sunday roast on a Thursday, but sometimes you just crave something and all conditions are perfect (like no homework and an empty flat) so I decided just to forget tradition and give it a go.

I used Jamie Oliver’s recipe for roasted pork with gravy and crackling with roasted potatoes and carrots on the side, but quite a bit downsized for the single serving.  It turned out beautifully too.  The meat was so moist and tasty because the fat layer really helped to keep in the juices, the gravy was brimming with sweet caramelized onion flavor, and the veggies were roasted to crispy perfection.  The potatoes were so crunchy I could have sworn they were deep-fried rather than roasted, and the carrots, now fluffy and tender on the inside, were so sweet and concentrated in flavor.  This is something I will definitely have to make for my family back home.  I wish I could have added in the Yorkshire pudding but as I have mentioned, my kitchen here is a little ill-equipped so I had to pass on that one.  A sage and onion stuffing would be a nice addition too.

Roasted Pork Loin with Gravy for one

1 500 gram cut of good-quality pork loin
1 stalk celery
half of an onion
1 large carrot
1 clove of garlic
olive oil, salt, pepper

Take the roast out of the refrigerator about 30 minutes ahead of time to let it come to room temperature and preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. While the roast is hanging out, roughly chop the celery, onion,  carrots, and garlic into chunks and place them in a roasting dish.  Toss them with some olive oil, salt and pepper, and some chopped thyme (I actually used lemon thyme for a bit of citrusy flavor).  Take your roast, and generously rub it with olive oil, salt, pepper, and chopped thyme as well.  Place the roast in the center of the dish, nestled among the veggies.  Reduce the oven temperature to 400 degrees and place the dish inside.  It will need to cook for about an hour and ten minutes.  As it cooks, periodically check on the vegetables.  Toss them around and if they start to look really dry and burnt, add a bit of water to them.

Roasted Potatoes and Carrots

6 small new potatoes
a handful of baby carrots
olive oil, salt, pepper, thyme

Immediately after placing the roast in the oven, start working on the roasted vegetables.  Scrub and peel the potatoes and halve them (actually you may want to do this beforehand to move things along faster).  Place the potato halves and the carrots in a pot of salted water and bring it to a boil.  Once boiling, continue to boil the vegetables for about 8-9 minutes and then drain them in a colander.  Remove the carrots and place them in a baking dish.  However, toss the potatoes around in the colander by shaking it a few times.  This will scruff up the edges and make for a much crispier skin.  Put the potatoes in the dish with the carrots.  Liberally coat them with olive oil and season with the salt, pepper, and thyme.  Place them in the oven along with the roast and let them cook for about 50 minutes to an hour, tossing them around every now and then.  You can even add a little bit of the fat from the roast for good flavor.  They are ready when the potatoes are really golden and crispy.

Now wait around until the roast has been in the oven for an hour and ten minutes before you remove it, but if it looks like it’s done earlier, remove it then.  Place the actual roast aside on a plate and cover it with foil to rest for about 15 minutes.  Now it’s time to make the gravy.  Although the original recipe called for flour, chicken stock, and wine, I had none of these.  But, Jamie Olive mentioned that they are not necessary.  If using good ingredients, just water will make good gravy…and it did.

Tilt the dish with the vegetables so that the juices and fat run to one corner.  Using a spoon, carefully skim off 90% of the fat.  Then place the dish on the stove and turn it to a high heat.  Add a half-cup of water to the pan and start by scraping at the bits stuck to the bottom.  Once the liquid starts to bubble, use a potato masher to crush all the vegetables, releasing their flavorful juices.  As the liquid evaporates and reduces, continue to add another half cup of water two or three more time all the while mashing up the vegetables.  It this point, the aroma coming from the bubbling gravy should cause severe salivation.  After 10 minutes or so of this process, place a colander over a saucepan and pour all of the contents of the roasting pan into the colander.  Use a spoon to squeeze out every drop of moisture from the vegetables into the gravy in the pot below.  Afterwards, put the saucepan with the gravy onto a low heat to keep it warm until everything else ready.  Give it a little taste too, adding any salt or pepper if it needs it. 

Finally you can prepare you plate.  Remove the carrots and potatoes from the oven after the time is up and set them aside to cool for a minute.  Meanwhile get out a cutting board and carving knife to cut your roast.  Remove the upper fat cap, which has now turned to crackling and is naughtily edible too.  You should be able to do this quite easily and will be left with a beautiful little roast that you can carve into as many slices as you desire.  It will be so moist that the knife goes through like butter.  Place the slices on the plate along with your heaping pile of potatoes and carrots and spoon over a generous measure of the gravy.  This dish will leave you so full and happy.  So, if you are feeling up to the challenge and the mass of dishes to clean afterwards, you will impress anyone you cook this meal for.  I thought the roasted beef from the pub was good, but this dish blew it out of the way.

Oh, and one more thing.  Nothing is better that cold leftover roast meat on a sandwich the next day, right?  So that is exactly what I did with my leftover pork.  With a little help from my local cheese supplier for some flavor combination advice, I constructed a wonderful yet simple sandwich.  I cut two slices of a nice brown bread loaf I had and buttered one side of each.  Then on one piece, I spread around some spiced plum chutney.  I topped that with slivers of fresh and creamy Stilton bleu cheese and the cold pork.  I heated up the leftover gravy slightly and poured that over for a bit of moistness, and then added a few lettuce leaves before placing on the other slice of bread.  Absolutely delicious!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Bye Bye American Pie

Every single time I pass by a restaurant’s sign on the street that advertises their fresh homemade pies, a little song always happens to creep into my head.  And before I know it, for the fifth time that day I’m humming the tune of Sweeney Todd’s “There, you'll sample Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies, savory and sweet pies!….” Shall I go on?  No, I didn’t think so.  So you can only imagine the number of times I see Johnny Depp’s image in my head, not that I’m complaining or anything. 

Pies really are a staple of the English diet, but if you have images of goopy cherries in sugary crust in your head, then erase them immediately.  If you want a pie in England, you are going to get a meat pie, a lovely little portable cylinder of savory pastry, stuffed with any sort of meat and sometimes vegetables, cheese, gravy and other delicious things.  And the varieties are nearly endless. Some of the most popular choices are steak and kidney pie (and yes this really refers to actual kidneys), steak and ale, pork pie, chicken or lamb pies, and vegetarian pies usually filled with a sweet potato puree or something similar.  Generally they are eaten with a nice dollop of mashed potatoes, mushy peas, and a ladleful of hot gravy but they are fine on their own too, eaten cold or warmed in the oven to make the pastry extra flaky. 

And if you perhaps want a slightly lighter option, there is shepherd's pie which skips the pastry altogether and instead, ground beef and vegetables are topped with mashed potatoes and baked until hot.  And to put everyone at ease, I have yet to find any pies similar to those in a Sweeney Todd production, so you’ll be pleased to know that I haven’t pulled any fingers or toes from my pies.  And sweet pies do exist here but are not nearly as popular as they are in the states.  You’ll see apple pie (actually and English invention) but most pastry desserts are more in the form of tarts, not pies. 

So in my pie experiences thus far, there are two really worth mentioning, both of which I purchased from Borough Market.  The first was admittedly a bit of risk, not only for my taste buds but for my teeth as well.  I purchased a Mrs. King's game pie, stuffed with an interesting combination of pigeon, venison, rabbit and pheasant, and it came equipped with a warning that the pie may contain fragments of lead shot…great.  And when it comes to pies, Mrs. King’s does it the right way.  The crust is made from pure lard and flour and the meat filling is topped with a traditional jelly made from boiling pigs trotters.  So one evening, when I had nothing else in the house, I heated up the game pie.  The first bite was done quite tentatively, but after a few nibbles, I must admit it wasn’t to bad.  The crust was amazingly flaky, I guess from the lard, and the inside had a good flavor, although slightly dry and gristley.  I did eat most of it, but I do remember standing in my kitchen a few hours later saying, “I feel a little sick, although that could be because I just ate pigeon…” which sent my flatmates into fits of laughter and responding with “I believe that's the only time I’ll ever hear someone say that  in my life.”

The second notable pie was a bit more modern though and generally people friendly.  The brand was Pieminister, a company that constructs the pies in Bristol from all-natural ingredients.  There are about twenty types, all with cutesy names and good flavor combinations that opt for butter crusts and gravy rather then the slightly terrifying lard and jelly.  I went for the Mr. Porky Pie, filled with pork, bacon, apples, leeks, sage, and gravy.  When I heated it in the oven, it turned a nice golden color and let off a lovely buttery aroma.  The crust was also really crispy and flaky, although a bit lighter than the other pie, and the filling was so flavorful and moist.  Paired with a nice side salad, it was a perfect English dinner.

And a little side note of pie history.  They’ve actually been around for quite a while, like medieval times, but the concept was a bit different.  Instead, The crust was not actually intended to be eaten but just used as a cooking vessel.  Since ceramic cookware was costly and in limitation and some cookware could emit toxins when heated, this was the safest way of cooking.   This also accounts for the little pot-like shape of pies.  So the people made the bottom bowl part of the pie from the crust dough, filled it with the meat or meat stew that had been prepared separately, topped it with the crust lid, and baked the pie.  When done, the people simply popped off the top, ate out the inside, and threw away the entire pastry part.  And though you may be thinking that this is a huge waste, when you consider all the plastic products used in our microwavable meals we eat every day, that then end up in a landfill, the all natural cooking vessel was actually quite eco friendly.  But I am glad to say that we now have the sense to make the crust a tasty part of the meal as well.  

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Most Memorable of Meals

I you were to walk up to any Londoner or maybe even Englander and say the two words “British” and “chef”, 9 times out of 10 the first thing that would come to their minds is Jamie Oliver.  Although now gaining popularity in the states, he has been a huge deal here for quite a while and I see his face plastered on posters in every tube station.   But, having already been obsessed with him before this trip, I am even more so now.
Starting his cooking career since teenage years, Jamie’s outgoing nature and lovable personality quickly made him a celebrity and landed him TV spots on cooking programs.  Now, along with raising four children, he has published a multitude of cookbooks, hosted several shows, opened many restaurants, and, as you may have seen, was involved in working to change Britain and America’s school food system, as presented in his shows Jamie's School Dinners and Emmy Award winning Jamie’s Food Revolution.  He is not only an amazing and extremely innovative chef specializing in classic British and Italian cuisine, but a really good-hearted and caring guy who does a lot to help people too.

So after 4 failed attempts to see him around Borough Market, I finally had to fulfill my Jamie Oliver fix because apparently my purchasing of yet another one of his cookbooks wasn’t enough.  So to do this I went to his restaurant Fifteen in London, which is no ordinary restaurant.  It and its three sister restaurants in Cornwall, Amsterdam, and Melbourne were started under the Jamie Oliver Foundation to serve two purposes.  The most important was to help disadvantaged youths dealing with drug or alcohol problems, homelessness, etc. to find and outlet in cooking.  Jamie uses the restaurants as an apprenticeship program for these people where they become the chefs to learn the skills of cooking, gain confidence, and have a second chance to hopefully land them careers in the restaurant business.  The program also raises awareness about eating good quality, local, and organic food and inspires all people to develop a relationship with cooking and good ingredients.  So, going to this restaurant really meant a lot not only because it is the restaurant of one of my idols but also because I knew that the chefs cooking my meal would be the very people whom Jamie has helped and introduced to the wonderful world of cooking.

So although the restaurant serves Italian food, I really felt that I could not fully experience London food culture without a visit to the restaurant of one of London’s most celebrated and popular chefs.  So off I went with my mom, mere hours after her plane landed, for a chance to relax and fill our stomachs.  I half expected it to be touristy and overrun with people but was pleasantly surprised to find it was quite the opposite.  Tucked down a slightly ominous side street and next to a decrepit fireplace shop, the building was discreet with only the hot pink Fifteen logo on the awning giving away the restaurant’s name.

A hurried glance at the menu out front made me ever more excited for the meal.  And from the first step inside, I got a sense of the highly unique interior.  It was made to look very urban and hip, with lots of metal furnishings, blue and purple lighting, and brick walls.  Many of the sitting areas in the dining room downstairs were tucked into little alcoves in the walls had slight views of the streets from windows high above.  But at the same time, it was quite cozy.  The low lighting was soothing and the air was warm and welcoming after walking in the drizzle outside.  I could feel the heat coming from the open kitchen and was wonderfully pampered by the attentive and friendly staff.  I was feeling very in the moment and in an awesome mood…and I hadn’t even gotten to the food yet.

We started with amazingly moist rosemary focaccia and olive oil to munch on as we painstakingly pored over the choices on the menu.  It changes every day for seasonality and in the end, we both decided on the comfort food route with quintessential fall dishes, Italian style.  For starters, my mom chose a cannellini bean soup, topped with a strip to toast, Parmesan, and a drizzle of olive oil.  I chose their “lightest potato gnocchi” with pears, scamorza cheese, and radicchio.  And the gnocchi really held true to its name.  As my fork cut in, the gnocchi pulled apart in gooey strands and literally melted in my mouth.  It was so creamy and paired with the melty, salty cheese, slightly crunchy and sweet pears, and bitter greens, it was a perfect combination of flavors.  And although light and small portioned, the starter really emanated comfort and was a warm, “stick to your ribs” kind of dish.

But we still had plenty of room for the main.  My mom chose a roast pork loin chop with braised celeriac and apples and swiss chard.  I however, went for a more Christmas-style dish and chose the roasted leg of duck with creamy polenta, purple sprouting broccoli and orange marmalade.  It was so unbelievable that it is almost indescribable.  The duck was cooked to perfection and fell right off the bones.  It was moist and tender and with a delicate gamey flavor that signified the freshness and high quality of the meat.  The little bit of skin on top was so crispy and added that slightly sinful touch of melting fattiness.  The duck was sweet from its slow long roasting so it paired really nicely with the bitter marmalade.  And the intensity of the meat’s succulent flavor was balanced with the mild polenta, just barely spiced with red chiles .  The sommelier recommended a 2005 Framingham Classing Riesling from New Zealand to go with the dish and I was very pleased with this pairing of sweet, citrusy wine to cut though the richness of the duck meat.

And don’t forget about dessert.  My mom ordered the classic chocolate tart with vanilla ice cream and I picked the roasted fig and almond frangipane tart with amaretto ice cream and butterscotch sauce.  Both were actually quite small, which we enjoyed because it was just the right amount of sweet after such a filling, savory meal.  Their vibrant flavors were amazing as well, of course, and we shared them so we could each have a bit of a chocolaty, fruity, and nutty ending to such an amazing meal.

I had literally been planning on a trip to Fifteen since last November when I was accepted into this study abroad program and was not disappointed in the slighted bit.  In fact it exceeded the absolute highest expectation I already had.  My visit to this unique restaurant proved that anyone can make delicious food and that anyone can change their lives by discovering this beautiful art form of cooking and feel enlightened by sharing that product with grateful others.  I am proud to have eaten at the restaurant because my visit supported the Fifteen Foundation and its mission to get people into the kitchen instead of out on the streets and to care more about the quality of food they eat.  And again, as I have observed in my time here, this focus on good food and home cooking really seems to be such an important part of the food culture in London.  The visit created a restaurant memory to last a lifetime and hopefully the menu and the experience will influence my own endeavors in the kitchen.  So thank you Jamie Oliver for this contribution to the great city of London.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Greatest Thing Since...

Since I’ve started doing food research for this study, it is amazing how many “typically English” foods I’ve discovered that I would never would have labeled as such beforehand.  And one of those is bread, one of the oldest and most important foods in the world’s history.  I usually just figured bread was bread and you could get all kinds, anywhere.  Although this may be true now, that used to not be the case in ancient times; the medieval serfs were not chowing down on ciabatta or naan.  In fact, bread typical to a certain country or region is highly based on the land and the way people lived during that time.  And to be honest, the history behind English bread is actually quite interesting and, as I have discovered, the sort of bread that people ate during the beginning of England’s history is still quite prevalent in England’s culture today.

Bread in England dates all the way back to around 400 AD when the Germanic Anglo Saxons invaded England.  At the earliest times, people ate bland, unleavened bread but it wasn’t long before leavened bread was consumed.  This leavening process was either done by using the yeasty foam from the ales produced (beer barm), or by making ”levain bread”.  This was made with a pre-ferment sourdough starter of water and flour that was naturally risen from the yeast in the air.  The starter was then, after a long period of time, added to the rest of the bread ingredients as the means of leavening, and baked. Aaaand that’s enough of my nerdy fascination with baking science.

But the types of bread produced were also based on the crops the land could sustain.  Unlike Italy, with its lush fields of wheat, Britain could not sustain bountiful wheat harvests.  Because of this, bread had to be made with other grains like barley, peas, beans, rye, and corn.  The result of this mixture was what they called “black bread”, and was consumed by the lower class.  The rich however could afford the all-wheat sourdough.  And this system of class defined by bread eaten remained throughout the medieval ages; wheat wasn’t a bountiful crop in England until the 1900s, at which point all people could afford the top quality bread.  But regardless of class, bread was equally important to all because it was such a filling and, for the lesser quality varieties, cheaply produced source of food, eaten with every meal.

So, as a Londoner for the past 6 weeks, I have noticed that bread is still a great mainstay in the British diet, and I have taken great advantage of this.  No longer are the days of a loaf of Wonder.  Now I seek out the greatest of London’s bakeries for fresh artisanal loaves.  I happily carry the carefully wrapped loaves home and gently place them in the kitchen cupboard.  Every morning, I find great joy in slicing my lovely loaf for the toaster and smelling the yeasty air that emanates as the bread heats.  Then I give it a nice smear of jam and savor every chewy and moist, yet crunchy-edged bite.  In fact, British food writer Nigel Slater claims that nobody can make toast like the Brits and that “Toast is our offering to the world gastronomy.”

And furthermore, I have noticed that the bread options very much stick with the British medieval types and in many of the bakeries I’ve visited, I actually see very few foreign bread options (Italian, French, etc.) There is always regular sourdough or country white, but the array of brown breads, multiseeded breads, levain, rye, malt, and alternative-to-wheat grain breads are really quite high. And I’ve enjoyed trying all of these.  In my time here, I’ve indulged in sourdough, wheat-germ levain, sunflower/pumpkin/spelt, and classic brown bread, all of which are seen in the pictures.  I usually polish them off before they can go stale but if I ever do leave a loaf sitting out too long, I’ll be sure to try out this beautiful English invention that makes use of stale bread.  Bread and butter pudding: indulgent and rich, yet so simple and economical…you can’t get more British than that.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Keeping the Doctor Away

I was honestly hesitant about studying abroad in the Fall for one rather silly reason: I didn’t want to miss the Fall season in Virginia.  Perhaps nothing makes me happier than signs on the road for pumpkin patches and corn mazes and that smell of crisp, clean air mixed with slightly moulding leaves.  Pure bliss comes from merely gazing at the vast mountains of golden yellow, burnt orange and burgundy.  But the one thing I can’t get enough of are apples, my favorite food of all, and the pies, butters, tarts, and so much more that come along with them.

But what I came to realize is that the people of England may just be more enthusiastic about apples that Americans.  I came here with this misconception that since I was in a city, there was no way I could get just-picked apples, but boy was I wrong.  Our study abroad group’s most recent trip through the countryside of England proved this to me.  Just outside the city, the land changes and my eyes were presented with nothing but fields upon fields of  rolling hills, with the brightest green grasses offset by cornflower blue skies.  And on a beautiful, cool day that felt so quintessentially Fall-like, I realized just how absolutely well equipped England is for the apple industry.

The varieties of UK apples, from cooking apples to the ones eaten raw and ripe from the tree, are countless.   That’s not to say that grocery stores don’t have their fair share of foreign kinds like granny smith and pink lady, but they also pride themselves in supplying those from the motherland.  But, to really get the best apples, I make the trek to Borough Market's Chegworth Valley Stall, an apple supplier whose orchards are located in the beautiful countryside of the Kent region.  The humble little stall is packed with crates of their fruits so imperfectly perfect in their rough-skinned, misshaped, bumpy, lumpy apple way.   When it comes to these fruits the ugly ducklings hold the swans inside and I can tell that they are not mass-produced, are organic, and actually grew wild on trees…imagine that!  The apples beg to be picked up and I can never help from running my fingers over their textured skins and holding them to my nose for an euphoric whiff of sweetness. And one bite of Chegworth’s gorgeous, plump, and firm Cox apples was enough to turn me into one of their loyal customers.

They also sell, freshly made apple juices, all pressed and packed at their orchard and I could help but pick up a few bottles.  The apple-elderflower juice was so full of flavor and I was not at all bothered by the little pieces of floating sediment, the proof of its freshness and unprocessed nature.  I could tell it was nothing but straight up apple and I could feel the energy being pumped into my body from this vitamin-rich drink.  And a bottle of their spiced apple cider sits in my fridge, waiting for a cold day so I can heat it on the hob and indulge in the feeling of Fall it brings.

But besides eating them raw, I’ve been taking advantage of the short but beautiful apples season with some awesome dishes.  For lunch, I simply cut them into a salad with a sprinkling of cranberries and walnuts and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.  Or I go for the sweet and savory combination by grabbing some simple oatcakes and topping them with English Gammon ham, thinly sliced apples, and some good English cheddar cheese: light yet filling.  For dinner, of course, I made that unreal pork chop, topped with saut√©ed Chegworth Valley Cox apples.  And since my supply of cooking utensils here is severely limited, I tried out a really simple English Apple tarte tatin.  I used this recipe and just replaced the bananas with apples.  It turned out so tasty (although my caramel seized up a bit since I don’t have measuring spoons and got my proportions off) and definitely satiated my craving to bake, and desire for an apple dessert. 

And for any Londoners reading my blog who love a good English apple, make sure you stop by Borough Market this Sunday, the 24th, for Apple Day, a celebration of this amazing fruit.  There will be tones of apple suppliers, apple events and games, and artisans featuring their apple creations like preserves and, of course, apple pies, a dessert that, despite its American associations, actually originated in England. 

I was fascinated to learn that my favorite food has such a strong and popular role in English food culture and I must say, next year I’ll most likely be sad that I’m missing out of England’s Fall instead.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Food Hall, Glorious Food Hall

I’m am about to attempt to describe to you a couple of the various and amazing food halls London has to offer.  It’s hard to do though.  I really have nothing to compare them to.  The best assimilation is an amped-up Super Target or something, except that’s quite possibly the biggest insult I could make to the food halls.  Maybe it’s because I’m from a small country town that I have yet to see things like this in the U.S., but regardless, even if they do exist at home, the food halls here are very much part of the glitzy London food culture.

Essentially they are grocery stores inside of high-end and, in some cases, one-of-a-kind department stores.  But you can’t label them as grocery stores either.  Walking into a food hall, after browsing couture dresses and designer handbags on the floor above, is an experience that immediately causes you to stop and lazily meander around with eyes wide open and your tongue lolling out of your mouth in a very Homer Simpson-esque way.  They are, in short, absolute spectacles that could take hours upon hours to explore.  Encompassing vast amounts of space and themed rooms, they glorify food of all types as well as the whole restaurant and food service experience.  I will say, however that they are highly overpriced and I could probably find just as good of quality products at the local grocery store.  But to be fair, they definitely have unique items, and even though I didn’t buy much during my visits, the walkthrough was still absolutely gratifying.

Sadly, however, my pictures are limited.  A few of the places actually prohibit photography and also, I would feel like such a silly tourist snapping away.  Plus, no photo could possibly capture the feelings I experienced in these places.  They would lack the glitter of the lights and the reflections coming from thousands of shining food wrappers and tins.  They would not encompass the vastness of the rooms or bring about any sense of the smells or the feel of the packages in my hands.  Feel free to Google image, but first just try to let my words suffice.

So without further ado, I present, the food halls of Harrods, and, Fortnum & Mason, two of London’s most prestigious stores.  They are many others i.e. Selfridge’s, Marks & Spencer, and Harvey Nichols, but the forthcoming two are simply the best.

Harrods is one and only and the most famous of shops in all of London.  In terms of iconic, it’s up there with Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Harrods has a very valued reputation and their food halls reflect this.  This is where I walked in, and felt as if the room had suddenly turned into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.  This is the place where people huddle in little groups, excitedly squealing in delight and pointing at the beauteous objects to behold.  The ceilings are vast and the room’s decorations are whimsical yet old-fashioned with ornate, descending pillars, carved, wooden ceilings, and golden accents.  My favorite area was the patisserie, which further pulled me into my constant daydream where I become a famous pastry chef.  Perched in the display case were the most amazing works of edible art: √©clairs with stripes of neon yellow and purple frosting, tiramisus constructed inside delicate chocolate bowls, slabs of crumbly fudge as big as my hands, and cupcakes with pristine, voluminous swirls.  I couldn’t resist from snatching a massive apple and cinnamon whoopee pie either, and I proudly carried it around with me for the rest of the day.  But this was just the start, and from this room, stemmed so many more.  Cheese rooms, meat rooms, international cuisine rooms with a mile-long displays of pre-prepared delicacies, and rooms with more teas and coffees than I could comprehend.  The bakery was also extraordinary.  All items were house made and the rows of breads, Chelsea buns, almond croissants, and danishes sent a heavenly buttery scent into the air, stimulating a steady flow of drool from my mouth. I left Harrods in a daze, disliking it only for its rather touristy nature and horrendous prices, but knowing that it was an experience I couldn’t miss.

And then, Fortnum and Mason.  This place is the most regal and admittedly pretentious of the food halls.  I felt underdressed and underage.  All around me were proper ladies and gentleman, speaking fancy words about fine tea and chocolates.  And all I wanted to do was run around and pick up all the elegant packages, much to the disliking of the salespeople.  Yet, I still really liked the place.  It’s decorated in a very majestic fashion with dark wooden furnishings, crystal chandeliers, and massive white and silver spiral staircases in the middle of the room.  The food halls have looming shelves of quality jams and honeys, a rainbow of sparkling biscuit tins, and golden vaults filled with coffee beans.  I ogled over endless arrays of tea sets and envied those sitting in the posh tearoom, the 50’s style ice-ream parlour, or the restaurant, where I heard a beautiful sound of violin music mingling with the clicking of china and silver. I walked out with an overly priced box of mocha biscuits (which are wonderful, by the way) but not feeling too guilty.  Like Harrods, there is only one Fortnum and Mason and their foods are specially made in England, only for them. 

The food halls are so spectacular because they take you back to childhood.  The towers of goods on shelves three times human height, the rooms filled with jars of retro sweets, the endless varieties of products that keep your eyes in constant swiveling stimulation, and, at this time of year, the loads of Christmas foods and decorations are just some of the factors that do this.  But regardless of the factors, I’m so happy these places are here for my viewing pleasure and I will miss them sorely.  In a way, they play the same role for me as Tiffany’s does for Holly Golightly.  And as amazing as I think it would be to be one of those people who actually do their grocery shopping there, I am perfectly put at ease by walking and staring in the magical food halls of London.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Banging on about English Food

Although I’m writing about this pretty late in the game, I was really quick to discover what I feel safe in saying IS England’s national dish: the sausage.  Just take a quick meander in any grocery store to see an array of sausages so vast, it’s quite overwhelming and they are made with any kind of meat, although pork mixed with spices and breadcrumbs is most traditional.  And the sausage is so distinct in the English culture, that many regions are known for certain varieties or flavorings.  In the way that only true parmesan comes from Parma, Italy, or authentic Dijon mustard from Dijon, France, England has is Cumberland Sausages, usually in the shape of a large coil, and the Lincolnshire Sausage, whose recipe is only known to the region’s residents.

And if the variety of just plain sausages isn’t enough, there are endless ways in which the English prepare them, making for even more national dishes.  You’ve got sausage rolls, where the meat is baked in a pastry and sold as a belly busting breakfast indulgence.  They are also plopped inside a vat of Yorkshire pudding batter and baked till they are encased in the fluffy bread to create toad-in-the-hole.  They are a must as an accompaniment to morning eggs, and, cooked up inside a wrapping of bacon, serve as great party food. 

But among all sausage delights, perhaps the most iconic, the one found on literally EVERY English pub, is “bangers and mash”.  Although it’s really nothing more than hot sausages, sitting on a mound of mashed potatoes, and covered in onion gravy, it’s this lack of frills and fluff, and the dish’s completely humble nature that makes it so good. Granted, I’m sure that some are definitely better than others and, if using lacking ingredients, it could really be a failure, but just the concept itself is so perfect.  Really, can you imagine anything more comforting than sausage and potatoes?  And you have to love the name, which came about during WWII since the sausages were filled with so much water, they popped and banged when cooked.

My first bangers and mash experience, though, was actually more than a food experience but a look into one of London’s most famous and oldest pubs, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, dating back to the 17th century.  But despite it’s history, I was glad that it was not a tourist attraction.  Tucked away in an alley off Fleet Street, this pub was a pure atmospheric adventure.  It literally felt like I was walking back in time and the place held this slightly magical feeling not unlike Harry Potter’s Leaky Cauldron.  The bar and seating was hidden in the basement and accessed by a staircase that must have been made for people under 5 feet tall.  And bending low to avoid concussion, I crept into this English haven.  

The brick walls were white washed and the floor made of grimy stone.  The lights were the original gaslamps, although fitted with modern electricity, and, in one of the various eating rooms, I chose a rickety wooden table tucked into an arched alcove in the wall.  The bar area housed wooden benches and a few old men enjoying a comforting lunch, and was warm and cozy despite the cavernous aspects.  It was just so strangely medieval, sitting in this stone room, and the steaming plate of sausage and potatoes placed before me was the finishing touch to the old English experience.  The sausages were sweet yet salty, giving way to a perfect pop with each bite into the casing, and the potatoes, still flecked with some skins, were chunky and filling.  And soaked in gravy, it slid easily into my grateful stomach.  

But my most unique sausage experience just took place during my most recent visit to Borough market where again, having a go at street food, I queued up at the food stall with longest line.  They were serving simple grilled sausage sandwiches, with greens and onions but one variety caught my eye: the ostrich sausage…how could I resist.  So after the cashier’s reassurance that ostrich is a delicious yet very healthy red meat with a good gamey flavor, I was sold and happily continued my market stroll with sandwich at hand and sausage juices dripping down my chin.  A pretty sight to see I’m sure.

Now the big question…will I try blood sausage?  I’m scared to death but we shall see…just maybe give me another month to prepare myself.