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. 

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