Sunday, November 28, 2010

What's Not to Love About Stinky Cheese?

When I came to the U.K., I was really looking forward to trying the cheese here, and I think I know why.  It all stems from the English animation Wallace and Gromit because in any of these videos, the indulgent Wallace sneaks into the refrigerator for a nice slab of cheese.  He takes a trek to the moon too to find out if it’s really made of cheese and invents an alarm clock made for him that, rather than equipped with an annoying ring, uses a robotic arm to place a plate of cheese in front of his nose, waking him with the lovely aroma.  And try as he may, poor Gromit never really seems to be able to cure Wallace of his unhealthy obsession with Cheddar, no matter how many carrots he bribes him with.  So if Wallace finds English cheese so enticing, then I of course had to try it.

So although these may be silly examples, they really do show the importance of cheese in the English diet and the pride they take in their variety of cheeses.  Almost every region in England has its special kind and they all come together in the cheese shops of London, available for my tasting pleasure.  As I walked into Neal’s Yard Dairy, a very renowned traditional British cheese shop and also the first cheese shop I’ve ever visited, the first sense that I couldn’t help but pay attention to was my nose.  I could actually detect hints of the shop’s presence way before it came into my line of sight but once inside, my nostrils were filled to the brim with an aroma that was both very pleasing yet revolting.  Despite its slightly moldy notes, due to the briny rinds that encased most of the cheese, there were hints of nuttiness and a sort of earthy mushroom scent.

It actually grew on me very fast so that before long, my nose was no longer begging for my attention and my other senses could participate again. The shop was very chilly and dry and for understandable reasons because what I saw was quite a unique sight.  There was literally nothing but a long counter stacked up high with enormous rounds of cheese, all sitting out in the open with no refrigeration and each accompanied by a hand written labels.  And on top of each stack sat a large wedge of the same variety from which the cheesemongers could cut off slices for the consumer.  The workers in the shop were very friendly too, most obligingly letting me involve my tasting senses and sample any of the beautiful cheese before me.  So, although I have only bought a handful of their varieties, I have tried many more and will now give you a very brief guide to the varieties of English cheese.

Maybe the most renowned of all English cheeses is cheddar.  Although America has many of its own varieties, cheddar originated in the U.K., more specifically in Somerset.  The cool climate there was good for the maturing process, which was done in the caves in the town of Cheddar.  The cheese has been made in Somerset since the late 1100s  and was the top choice among royals for their banquets.   It has varying maturing times too.  Those that age for a short time are mild and creamy and if matured longer, develop much sharper, stronger, and nuttier flavors.  Aged cheddar takes on a harder and crumblier texture with slightly crystallized bits that crunch as its chewed too.  Since I’ve been shopping at Neal’s Yard, I’ve had their Keen’s cheddar, a raw cow’s milk and very aged cheese from Somerset.  It is possibly the most traditional of the cheddars made today and has a strong, tangy flavors with a rich and crumbly mouth feel.  It’s the perfect cheese to use for a Ploughman’s Lunch, a traditional British pub lunch that includes a hunk of bread, a slab of cheddar, apple slices, pickled onions, Branston pickle, and sometimes a hardboiled egg, all one a plate together.  It makes for a filling, sweet and salty lunch that really benefits from the strong punch of the cheese.

England of course is also known for its bleu cheese and although France may have it Roquefort, Britain has Stilton, a delicacy and an absolute pleasure to eat.  It is even called the “King of English cheeses”. It’s believed that Stilton originated in the early 1700s in the village of Stilton and was originally made by letting blocks of cream cheese age for a very long time.  Today Stilton has certification trademark and Designation of Origin status so it can only be produced Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, and Leicestershire. 

Neal’s Yard sells Colston Bassett Stilton from Nottinghamshire.  Neal’s Yard also produces its own bleu cheese called Stichelton that is rapidly becoming a recognized and well-liked British bleu.  Bleu cheese, of course, is the most easily recognizable with its cream colored interior flecked with dark bluish-green veins.  And although its appearance may scare some, it is an absolutely delicious cheese, actually quite mild yet still fruity and tangy.  The texture, especially of the Stilton, is literally as creamy as butter and crumbles into millions of pieces as it’s cut. Bleu, because of its sweet notes, is often served as a dessert with red wine or paired with red fruit flavors like plum.

There are many other popular British cheeses as well with varying colors, tastes, strengths of flavors, and textures.  Cheshire cheese (the one pictured), which I bought due to the mere fact that I had been to the pub taking this name, is another hard and strong cheese, very crumbly in texture, slightly metallic in flavor, and dyed with annatto, giving it an orange color.  Lancashire cheese has a very buttery taste with acidity like yogurt.   It is smooth and creamy yet crumbly in the mouth.  And, Red Leicester, also easily recognizable due to its bright orange and red hue, has been around since the 17th century.  The color comes from the annatto dye but also takes on the orange because the milk from which Red Leicester is made comes from cows with a diet high in beta carotene.  This cheese is rich, sweet and much more chewy than crumbly.

Finally, a very interesting a somewhat gimmicky cheese is a little thing called Stinking Bishop.  The rind itself really does stink …bad…and has to be well wrapped in the refrigerator to prevent it from becoming a toxic zone.  But, the inside is really goopy and creamy, like brie.  It is speckled with these little holes, has this slightly sticky and gelatinous texture, and the taste is absolutely mild like cream or butter.  Funnily enough, in Wallace and Gromit, Curse of the Were Rabbit, its smell was used to revive Wallace from the dead.

I have really enjoyed my cheese tasting since I’ve been here and always look forward to picking up something new every time I return to Neal’s Yard.  To end this post on a fun note, I will share a particularly tasty cheese experience at Borough Market.  One of the food stalls is Kappacasein and they sell this very interesting Swiss dish called Raclette, but turned English with a Ogleshield Cheese from Somerset.  Essentially, they take half a round of the cheese, place it under a blue flame until the cheese is slightly burnt and bubbling.  Then, they pick it up and use a knife to scrape the melted top layer over a plate of boiled potatoes, pickled onions, and gherkins.  It’s absolutely sinful to eat but it is very disappointing to look down mere minutes later and find it gone.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Hurry! I Want Curry!

Remember when I told you that the national dish or food of England was most likely sausages.  Well, that’s only part of the truth.  Most people consider one other dish to share this title with the sausages and that would have to be “curry” or more specifically, chicken tikka masala.  If you are finding this a little hard to believe, all you have to do is simply walk down one street in London to let the plethora of “Indian” restaurants prove it right.  But although these restaurants may advertise themselves as serving authentic Indian food, their fare, the “meat in a spiced sauce over rice” that people generally imagine when they think Indian, is an English invention.  In fact, it does not resemble any traditional food one may find in India at all.

So how did England happen to take on this international style dish as their own?  Well the origins go back to the 1200s.  At this point in time, India was in control of the spice trading and for Europeans to obtain these valued items, they had to pay enormous sums of money.  So, the Europeans decided to take matters into their own hands and traveled to India to take control of the spice trade.  Portugal was the first to do this, but, in the 1600s, the English stole this control.  Because of this, many businesspeople in England found themselves traveling to India and developing much fondness for the flavors of the food there.  They tried to replicate it as soon as they returned home but without full knowledge of the Indian food culture, all they came up with was gravy made from lots of spices that they poured over all their food.  But they really liked it so this spice mixture became highly commercialized and widely sold in little packages labeled “curry powder.”  And although people in India really do flavor their food with mixtures of spices (called a masala) they use fresh spices and grind up the powders themselves.

In England, the most widely recognized mixture of spices is called “garam masala” and makes up the base of virtually all of the curries available in London.  It is used to flavor both the meat (served in bite sized pieces or bits called tikka) and the sauce in which it's served, whether that be tikka masala, korma, jalfrezi, rogan josh, vindaloo, or one of the many others. 

Chicken tikka masala has become the most widely recognized curry in all of England and can be found anywhere from the grocery store frozen food section to the best of restaurants and it's even used as a sandwich topping at Subway or flavoring for crisps.  Yet, it’s always somewhat different depending on where it’s from.  But essentially, the chicken is marinated in a combination of garam masala and yogurt and cooked on skewers inside a tandoor oven.  Then, it’s combined with a tikka masala sauce made from garam masala, onions, tomatoes, and cream. 

 Although I’ve tried a number of varieties of the dish, the absolute best I’ve had so far came from Brick Lane.  Brick Lane is in a very famous stretch of road in the east end of London, situated right in the middle of the Bangladeshi community.  And believe me when I say that there are literally hundreds of restaurants on this road, all in the “Asian food” category meaning Indian, Bangladeshi, Malaysian, Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Korean, and every other possibility.  It is an overwhelming sight and almost every place bears a sign that reads “voted best curry on Brick Lane”.  Only with the help of a suggestion from a tour guide could I pick one of the restaurants so I found myself a Sheraz with high expectations that were fulfilled.  

Again, I ordered the chicken tikka masala along with naan peshwari (Indian flatbread stuffed with coconut and mushrooms and cooked in the tandoor) to tear off in pieces and mop up the remaining sauce on the plate.  It really was the best tikka masala I’ve tried.  I generally think that the cheaper versions have this awful lingering onion and garlic taste, but this one was quite creamy, mild, and sweet with still a good punch if spice flavor.  Therefore, the sweet naan was a nice pairing.  I definitely got the sense that Sheraz used very fresh ingredients, and prepared the food in the most authentic of ways, so I was glad for the suggestion to lead me in the right direction.

But tikka masala is by no means the only option for a curry.  I’ve also sampled a very tasty lamb tikka at a restaurant in Bath and served in fancy style.  The waiter came to the table with a hot miniature pan where he mixed together the tandoor cooked lamb with caramelized onions so that it was hot and sizzling as he placed it onto my plate.  This kind had no sauce but served with basmati rice, it was still delicious.

Even vegetarians have a lot of options with the many chickpea and lentil dishes, and because a vegetarian dish is the cheapest to make, I had a go a making my own curry at home.  I prepared a vegetable jalfrezi (jalfrezi is a garam masala sauce with tomatoes and red peppers) made with cauliflower, butternut squash, courgettes, onion, ginger, tomatoes, and chickpeas.  I used this Jamie Oliver recipe, although cut in half and with few ingredient changes, for a filling and tasty dish that lasted me four days.  It was a lot of prep work, slicing, and dicing, but in the end, was worth the hard work.

Indian food and curries has become a staple in the diet of many in our London study abroad group because it’s cheap, widely available for takeaway, and always very flavorful and filling.  And just like Chinese food in America, the dirt cheap stuff from the corner place is usually just as satisfying as what come from a quality restaurant .  It is also very blatant representation of the many outside influences in English food.  Also, as London is a diverse city with many Asian communities, I can’t see the high prevalence and popularity of the Indian cuisine fading away anytime soon.  So, with only a few weeks left, it’s high time to fill up on this amazing food as much as I can before it’s no longer available.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Baguette, S'il Vous Plait

Sorry to keep you waiting for a little longer than normal, but hopefully this post will serve as some redemption for my recent lacking.  But, to explain, this past weekend was our much-anticipated trip to Paris, so to slow things down and enjoy life as the Parisians do, I left the computer behind, saving the humungous amounts of work for later.  So now as I sit here at 11:00 PM, finally returning to the real world, I am very pleased to change things up slightly and present to you my 3-day account with French food.  And what a food experience it was. 

Although Paris in general turned out to be something slightly different than I expected in the sense that it was by no means all fashion and glamour, the food did hold true to its reputation.  Before departure, many told me that it didn’t really matter where I ate because the French take pride in their cuisine and want to make sure that visitors get the best possible fare anywhere.  For the most part the food really was amazing, even at the simple corner restaurant/cafés, with just few minor flaws and some very important lessons learned in the aspect of Paris dining.  So although it is very hard to cover the entirety of French food with one blog post, I did taste enough to give you idea to the cuisine.


Literally any street that I walked down in Paris was equipped with a creperie or ten.  Crepes, originally from Brittany, are now so are so prevalent, that many consider it to be France’s national dish, and range from sweet to savory and minimalist to exquisite.  It was quite a sight to watch someone make the crepes as they ladled out the thin batter onto a flat circular hot plate over a foot in diameter.  Then taking a wooden rod, they skillfully spread the batter to the edges.  Crepes are so thin that by the time the batter was completely spread on the pan, the crepe was ready for a brief flip to the other side.  

When almost done, they added the toppings.  I was very shocked by the EXTREME popularity of Nutella in Paris, which is by far the most popular crepe filling.  Other toppings included lemon juice and sugar, chestnut cream, and jams, but nothing beat the Nutella and thinly sliced banana combo.  It was served in a paper cone, and, on the cold weekend we visited, the hot steam pouring from the inside was by far enough to warm me up.  The first few bites were the crispy crepe edges, but as I reached further down, the crepes became a little more soggy and spongy, but in a good way, and every bite was filled with hot chocolaty goodness.  I didn’t visit anywhere fancy enough to have the opportunity to try Crepes Suzette, but to be honest, plain Nutella did just the trick.

The Boulangerie

A Boulangerie, which can also be found anywhere,  is a really amazing combination of bread, pastry, and sandwich shop, and no matter which one I went to, the food was always fresh and of the absolute best quality.  Because they offer such a range of baked wonders, they really are perfect for anytime of the day.  I stopped in one for a quick breakfast and was overwhelmed with the choices of croissants (butter, chocolate, raisin, or almond), chouquettes, brioche bread, and of course more crepes.  I succumbed to a beautiful classic buttery croissant and was astounded by the flavor, the perfect crispy and flaky exterior, and the chewy, multi-layered moistness inside.  

One particularly good boulengerie also provided me with the best French baguette I’ve ever had in my life.  Perhaps it was because I was in the Paris state of mind, but when they placed that warm parcel of bread into my hand, I just got a wonderful warm feeling inside.  I paired by bread with a huge slab of creamy Brie cheese and a bottle of red wine and ate it right next to the Eiffel tower on a bright sunny day, resulting in the best moment of the entire Paris trip.  

And finally, the boulangerie was a great source for dessert.  Although the éclairs, miniature fruit tarts, and cream-filled profiteroles were enticing, I succumbed to the display of huge, colorful macarons, available in almost every flavor.  I chose the hazelnut praline, and was in bliss during every nibble of that crunchy yet moist and sticky dessert.  

 Steak Frittes

And as much as I would have liked to, I didn’t eat only carbs all weekend.  One evening, I did indulge in a typical French yet simple dinner of steak frittes at the nearest café with an English menu.  And although I’ve had better fries, the steak was really excellent for the fairly reasonable price.  It was a tournedos cut of beef, so basically in American terms, I got the cream of the crop, the filet minion. It was cooked perfectly medium too, still slightly red in the center, and so juicy and flavorful.  It was served with a selection of three delicious sauces (pepper, tartare, and béarnaise) a side salad, and a rich and fluffy chocolate mousse, packed with true dark chocolate flavor.

So although I sampled some amazing classic French food, the experience with Paris dining wasn’t always the best.  Obviously the language barrier, which, although unavoidable, was troublesome and made ordering somewhat difficult.  I found myself eating many sandwiches without any clue as to what was inside.  Food was also VERY expensive for unexpected items. The bread and pastries, which were the best I’ve ever had, were dirt cheap, while the cafes and restaurants made me fork over and arm and a leg for a bowl of soup or a nothing-special salad.  Finally, the biggest problem was the Parisians take on water.  I’m pretty sure they must just learn to live in extreme states of dehydration because that’s what I had to resort to.  Unless I wanted to pay ridiculous amounts for bottles or risk some sort of disease from my hotel’s bathroom sink water, I just had to be thirsty.  I even had a stressful situation with a cranky waiter who, taking advantage of the American tourists, gave us mineral water when we asked for tap water and charged 14 euro for it.  And when asking if he made a sort of mistake, he replied, in slightly different terms but meaning the same thing, that because we didn’t ask for tap water in proper French, he took advantage of our naïveté to take our money.  Here are some tips to Paris dining that I wish I had had in hindsight.

Yet as I flip through the pictures I took of all that I ate, I forget the bad experiences and my heart yearns for just another taste that wonderful food.  It was amazing and nothing will ever top my bread and cheese Eiffel tower experience, but by the end, I craved my London food.  I missed its comforting aspects, the familiar chain restaurants, the labels written in English, etc.  But mostly I missed the English mindset on food.  Because the British are not known for their cuisine, it lacks a pretentious quality that I found tiresome in Paris.  I also missed the friendly customer service, the takeaway options, and the large lattes (I just can’t deal with strong tiny espresso the French like).  So this morning, although slightly missing the crepes, I happily tucked into some fresh fruit and porridge and a nice cup of coffee, happily reflecting on the new experiences and enjoying the old comforts.

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Brief Guide to Eating in England

I sure wish I had one of these when I came here.  I remember the very first night, in my state of extreme jet lag, opening the menu at a Japanese restaurant and not understanding half of it.  I thought that perhaps it was filled with some odd Japanese ingredients, but it turned out, they were really just ordinary everyday foods.  But, in the next weeks I learned that in the UK, there are many foods that simply go by different names as a result of the different history, location, and background of this country.  Also, as I found out, there are different rules for restaurant and eating etiquette in the UK.  So if you ever take a journey to this country, this brief guide will be a major help in assimilating you to the English food culture and potentially avoiding some embarrassing situations.

Food Word Differences (first in the English version, and then translated to the American version)

Aubergine- eggplants
Courgette- Zucchini. The “g” is not harsh as in the word “target” but is said with a French sounding flair
Bangers- Sausages
Double Cream – heavy cream.  There is also single cream, which is more like half-and-half
Sultanas – raisins
Coriander – cilantro, although you’ll never see it mentioned in any blog of mine…blegh!
Prawns – shrimp
Icing sugar – powdered sugar
Caster sugar – superfine white sugar
Demerara sugar – coarse brown sugar
Mangetout – snow peas
Bap – a soft white roll eaten with usually just bacon or sausage
Butty – another word for sandwich.  Probably the most unhealthy English dish is the chip butty (french fries on buttered bread)

Crisps – potato chips.  They have really strange flavors here too like roast beef and cocktail prawn.
Biscuit – Biscuits can be sweet or savory so it can be used to describe either a cookie or a cracker.
Candyfloss – cotton candy
Fairy Cake – cupcake
Cuppa – A cup of tea
Chips – French fries
Gherkin – a pickle or a very unique building in the East End
Pickle – the easiest association would be relish and the classic Enlish brand is Branston Pickle
Granary – malted, whole grain, brown bread
Jacket – a baked potato.  The name comes from the idea that the potato still has it’s
skin on, like a jacket

Treacle – a sticky syrup used in desserts.  Kind of of like a mix between maple syrup and molasses
Joint – a piece of meat for Sunday roast
Lemonade – a fizzy citrus drink like Sprite
"Tuck In" - The British was of saying "Eat Up"
Mincemeat – a filling used for sweet pastries made of dried fruit and suet, dried beef fat
Mince or minced meat
– ground beef
Nosh – food
Porridge – basically oatmeal but maybe a bit more runny and milky
Rasher – a slice of bacon
Chutney – a sweet and fruity yet savory and oniony preserve that is delicious with cheese and crackers.
Scone – as I’ve said, more like an American biscuit, usually unsweetened and served with jam and clotted cream
Jelly – Jell-o
Jam or Preserves – Jelly
Pudding - dessert, although some savory things are also called pudding, like black pudding
Soldier – strips of buttered toast made for dipping in the center of a soft-boiled egg

So that covers the basics for different UK words for certain foods.  Also note that the metric system is used here so everything will be in liters or grams.  It takes a while to get used to but after a while, you will, like me, be confidently ordering you 250 grams of ground coffee and 150 grams of cheese and reading food labels with ease.  

Also, there are some other things you should know before any dining experience in England and London.

-  If you don’t want to eat in the restaurant or café, ask if you can get the food for takeaway.  It’s not carryout and it’s not to go.  It’s takeaway.  Also, if the place has a takeaway menu, the food is about 20% to 40% cheaper, so it’s a great cheaper option if you're close to home or a nice park to eat in.

- When at a nicer restaurant, the napkin, like in America, goes on the lap, and if you have a lot of silverware in front of you, just start with the outer ones and work you way inwards with each course.  And, when eating, the English usually hold the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right and hold the fork downward, using the knife to push the food onto the back of the fork before placing it upside-down in the mouth.

- If you would like water in a restaurant, you have three options and need to be specific.  If you don’t want to pay, ask for a carafe of tap water.  It will be served warm, but it’s free.  If you want chilled bottled water that you pay for, you must choose if you want it still or sparkling. 

- Tipping is bit confusing at first.  Wait staff get much better wages in the U.K. so a tip is not nearly as large. The general rule to tipping is 12.5%, although 10% is acceptable.  In many restaurants, however, the tip of 12.5% will actually already be included in the bill, so there is no need to add any more, which eliminates the tricky math or breaking out the loose change.  It’s actually quite convenient.  But, because the waiters automatically get this included tip, they will not be quite as attentive and cheery as American waiters.  And, in a pub, you will not be waited on.  Instead, order at the bar and they will bring you your food.  Tipping is not necessary in pubs either.

- Finally, instead of saying thank you to anyone who helps you at a food service place, try giving then a friendly ”cheers!” instead.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Candyman Can

Remember that scene from the original Willy Wonka movie where poor Charlie Bucket jealously stares into the candy shop window as the shopkeeper gives the other greedy children free treats?  The walls are lined with antique wooden shelves packed with enormous glass jars of sweets.  The children stand at the candy counter, complete with old-fashioned soda machine, while the man, dressed in pink pinstripes and a bowtie bursts into happy song.  Well I always thought this was a really glamorized image and that shops like that only existed as novelties at the beach.  But that’s not the case. This candy shop setting is quite realistic and I have seen my fair share of them all over London and England.  It is quite safe to say that the English REALLY like their sweets.

I literally revert back into my childhood when I walk into these shops and, when I’m with other people, we burst into squeals of delight.  We dash for the candy bags and start filling them up as fast as our hands can move, plunging the plastic shovels into the candy jars. I suppose some of the fun comes from the sheer variety that exist and the fact that they are all things that I have NEVER seen in America.  These hundreds of sweets are pretty much true to England only.  The brands have really long histories too, as proved by a visit to the Museum of Brands where I could see the evolution of the packaging for some of these British sweets since the 1910s.   Even then, sweets were largely popular and therefore sorely missed when they were rationed during WWII.  But once the rationing ended, the sweets came back with fervor resulting in extreme prevalence of candy in London today.  They are available in places from the nostalgic old-fashioned candy stores to the booths packed with chocolate and candy bars in the tube station and street corners.  And with a sweet tooth like mine, I can hardly complain about this.

So although the variety of candy in London in numerous and quite honestly overwhelming (one can only handle so much candy) I have tasted and nibbled the selections and have found a handful of favorites.

Probably the most prevalent sweets at the confectionary are boiled sweets,  the same thing as hard candies.  These are the one’s generally making up the rainbow of colors in the glass jars.  Although the aniseed balls, peppermint humbugs, and rhubarb & custards are popular, my personal favorites are the pear drops and the sherbet lemons.  The pear drops are a little strange at first because, as described by food writer Nigel Slater, they have this sort of nail polish remover taste to them.  But once you get past the powder coating, the taste becomes better, with a delicate, realistic pear flavor.  They are just a little awkward in the mouth with their giant teardrop shape but if you bite off the long tapered end from the start, they're a lot easier to eat.  And sherbet lemons, also strange and absurdly huge in the mouth, are instantly really delicious and just sour enough to overstimulate the salivary glands and give that pinching feeling in the jaw.  And, if that’s not good enough, once it’s about halfway gone, the hidden lemon fizzy powder in the middle starts to leak out, creating a bubbly citrus party in the mouth.

Gummies are really popular here too like the wine gums, midget gems, and these really strange ones shaped like fried eggs.  I have always been a really big fan of Sour Patch Kids, so in the hopes of finding something similar, I picked up these things called Jelly Babies. They look like Sour patch kids but about four times as large and covered with confectioner’s sugar but the bite into them reveals a completely different experience.  For starters, they’re not sour but very sweet and in flavors like orange, raspberry, and lime.  They are also much less chewy and instead, although sticky, are really soft inside with a slightly crispy exterior.  Again, a little hard to get used to but after a while I kept finding my hand absentmindedly returning to the candy bag.

My final favorite is honeycomb, also called cinder toffee, and is especially good when covered with chocolate.  And no, its not real wax honeycomb.  It’s a strange concoction made by boiling caramel and adding baking soda to the hot sweet goodness, causing it to bubble up like crazy.  Once it sets and hardens, it is broken into bite size chunks each with hundreds of little holes in it, resembling honeycomb.  When covered in chocolate, it reminds me a lot of butterfingers but way better. That’s because, unlike butterfingers, they don’t break into torturous shards that stab the roof of the mouth and stick in the teeth for the next week no matter how well one brushes.  They are much crunchier too yet, once hitting the heat of the mouth, melt into creamy butteriness.  Hands down the winning confection that I will miss very much.

Of course, these few favorites of mine don’t even begin to touch the variety of English candies that exist in England.  I haven’t even mentioned toffees, fudge, Turkish delight, fruit bonbons, chocolate bars, and so many more.  So though I’ve tried many and found some that I like, I am by no means an expert on the candies that probably every English child grew up.  And although I’d like to be that knowledgeable I do have most times have to take the stance of Charlie Bucket as I pass these candy shops, only gazing into the shop windows, to avoid a potentially dangerous sugar rush.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

High Time for Tea

I’ve always had this strange obsession with tea parties.  I collected tea sets from ones with cups the size of thimbles to this baby pink plastic monstrosity sturdy enough to survive a child’s less than dainty touch.  And I drank my tea from either sized cup (and by tea I mean sugar with a touch of weak tea added) nearly every day with my stuffed animals as my honorable guests.  And on a rare occasion, my cousins and I held some very interesting tea parties where the fare was a far cry from edible and included mud and pine needle cakes to accompany the mashed grape infused water and a salad of dead leaves.  Yum. 

I really don’t know where the fascination came from, but because of it, the minute I was accepted into the London program, I began my search to find an amazing place to have quintessentially English high tea.  I know I would regret it if I didn’t take part in this experience, one that could not be replicated back at home.  My mind ran wild with images as diverse as Alice and the Mad Hatter at their whimsically chaotic tea party to fine bone china and delicate finger sandwiches existing in London’s fanciest hotels.  But in the end, my mom and I enjoyed high tea at the St. James’s Restaurant in Fortnum and Mason Department Store, and were treated to the most elaborate and lavish of afternoons.

But first, as always, a few background notes. Afternoon tea was not originally invented to be a special event but came about more so out of sheer practicality.  It began in the mid 19thcentury when it was common for people to eat only two meals a day, one in the morning and one in the very late evening, around 8:00.  So when Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford complained about having “a sinking feeling” in the middle of the day, due to lack of food, she started the custom of taking a pot of tea and a little snack in her bedroom every afternoon.  That was all; it was nothing fancier.  However, the duchess soon invited friends to her tea break and this idea of tea parties began to catch on.  From there it escalated to an enormous affair, signifying an upper class life with fine food, treats, and drink.  Today, many have this image that people in England indulge in afternoon tea everyday.  And although most, like the Duchess, do have a cuppa and a snack daily, the elaborate hotel afternoon tea experience is an event only to be rarely enjoyed yet savored.  And this is probably good thing as it is a feast of sweets and savories enough to fill a grown man five times over and put a serious dent on his wallet while he’s at it. 

So anyway, as I walked into the restaurant at Fortnum and Mason, I became filled with elation from the glamorous aura of the setting.  In the large room were squishy couches and soft pillows placed around low tables to create several intimate areas for every group of tea goers.  It was just so comfortable and welcoming after a long day of walking and the pianist in the corner playing airy and uplifting tunes just added to the experience.  We were treated with utmost attention by the wait staff as they patiently waited for us to pore over the menu.  In the end, we both chose high tea, rather than afternoon tea, which opted for a cooked savory dish before the cakes instead of finger sandwiches.

And soon the food started arriving.  The first was the tea (we chose Fortnum and Mason’s special Afternoon Tea Blend) and small canapés to wet our appetites.  Our selection included a slice of a sausage roll, a sort of crab pate on toast, and a mini goat cheese tart, all dainty and delicious.  Next were the savory dishes.  My mom chose the Welsh Rarebit, a dish that, although its origin in Wales is not terribly clear, is still a very English staple for pub grub and high tea alike.  And this marvelous creation of toast topped with fried, melty cheese and a concoction of ale, mustard and Worcestershire sauce was very unique and an extreme upgrade from any American cheesy bread.  For my dish, I had a goat cheese soufflé, a tangy yet extraordinary light an creamy dish that, paired with a red onion marmalade, was a definite treat.

Fully satisfied with our salty yet delicious start to the experience, we were finally ready for the sweet latter half.  Out came the waiter with our three-tiered tray of delights and I couldn’t take my eyes off the tantalizing variety cakes sitting there like little jewels. The varieties were (starting from the front center of the picture and going clockwise) raspberry jam biscuits, ginger parkin cake slices, double chocolate layer cake, raspberry financier, mandarin financier, and passionfruit and vanilla sponge layer cake.  All were so different and very fresh and moist and we immediately split them up for devouring.  The crispy edges of the cookies signified their fresh-baked quality, the ginger cake contained a very strong yet realistic and pleasing spicy ginger flavor, and the passionfruit cake, my favorite, was a very unique and tropical twist to the fall-themed plate.

The tray, of course, also included scones (a plain and raisin one for each of us) with strawberry or raspberry jam and clotted cream.  Now just to be clear, English scones are NOTHING like the overly sweet and stale American varieties sold in the likes of Starbucks.  An English scone is rather like an American biscuit, unsweetened, round in shape, and with a golden crunchy exterior encasing the most fluffy, tender, and moist interior.  And topped with a heaping spoonful of jam and cold, rich clotted cream, these scones were the best I’ve ever had. 

Where I live in America, something like this is so completely nonexistent so upon polishing off our final crumbs of scones and washing it down with the last few sips of tea, we realized just how special it was to have this quintessential tea experience. Although it slightly caters toward tourists, it exceeded my expectations, far surpassing any tea party I’ve every hosted, and it was just so nice to be pampered, even if only for a few hours.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Full Monty

Saturdays and Sundays at home are always the best, not only for the sleeping in and watching cartoons aspect, but mostly for the breakfast.  I really love a good American breakfast with the plate of pancakes, stacked ten high and drowning it in butter and syrup.  And, on the special morning when my dad takes over the meal, I get spoiled with the best ever sausage and gravy biscuits, sometimes with the wee bit of fried scrapple on the side.  But for some odd reason, since I’ve lived in London, I haven’t made myself a big weekend breakfast and always settle for simple porridge or jammy toast.  So, a few days ago, I got one of those little thoughts in my head, the kind that never really want to leave you alone and like to pick and pull at your brain until you listen.  And this thought was breakfast.  So finally submitting, I treated myself to one of the best things England has to offer, their version of the morning meal.

The English breakfast is a sight to behold, a monstrosity of about 10 varieties of food all gathered together on one plate.  It’s basically a protein feast with some added carbs for good measure and it is by no means suitable for vegetarians.  I’ve actually even seen signs in front of restaurants, advertising their vegetarian English breakfast and I just laugh because it’s just not the same without the meat. It’s a no frills and no fluff sort of breakfast that shies away from the sweet, delicate pastry stuff that the French prefer.  But the purpose behind the English breakfast is actually really practical.  Essentially, it was made for the men who worked all day, generally out in the fields and farms.  They needed to start their day with as much energy creating food as possible since they wouldn’t eat again until dinner.  And the English breakfast is most definitely the one for the job.  So, here it is.

Many varieties exist and no two English breakfasts are exactly the same but in my trip to The Botanist restaurant for this feast, I received the basic components.  It had two pieces of toast, two fried eggs, one large Cumberland sausage, two strips of streaky back bacon, a pot of baked beans, two grilled mushroom caps, two roasted tomato halves, two fried potato fritters, and two little slivers of blood pudding.  Add in my glass of refreshing pineapple, orange, and ginger juice, and you can call this a meal.  Not to mention it was really delicious. 

The eggs were cooked perfectly and tasted so fresh.  That is actually one major difference I have noticed about food in London.  The eggs taste so much better.  The shells are really thick and crack cleanly in two, the yolks are bright orange, and the whites stay in a tight circle while cooking, all signs of a well-fed and cared for chicken.  All the eggs in the grocery stores and restaurants are also local, free-range, organic, and so fresh.  The bacon and sausage were also delicious even though the English versions are different than the American.  The sausage was milder and lacked the fennel/anise flavour I’m used to and the bacon, although fully cooked and very flavorful, was a little less crispy and more ham-like.  But, the little hash browns provided the nice bit of crunch I was looking for.

And now we get to the more odd aspects of the English breakfasts.  I find the inclusion of baked beans a little off-putting, but understand their importance to the English breakfast as a great source of protein.  But, I just can’t help myself from associating them with fried chicken and cornbread rather than breakfast food.  They’re probably the only English breakfast item I’m not terrible fond of though.  But the tomatoes, warm and juicy, and the tender mushrooms were a nice addition to the savoriness.  And then the blood pudding.  I knew I had to try it at some point so I finally just put aside my expectations and did it.  I took a bite of the little black disks on my plate and was actually very pleased.  The texture, unlike traditional sausages, was much softer and creamier due to the inclusion of oats and reminded me a lot of the haggis, only milder.  And, just to let you know, it doesn’t taste like blood or anything, just lovely pork with a nutty twist. 

I was so pleased with my breakfast as I sat my chair afterwards, stuffed to absolute oblivion and sipping on my smoothie to counterbalance the salty breakfast.  Sadly, it’s not so much of a prevalent feature in London’s everyday diet anymore.  With health consciousness taking over, people opt for the more, fiber-rich, calcium, and whole grain options rather than the fatty and meaty.  I can also imagine the mess that preparing such a dish would create in the kitchen.  So it was nice to enjoy this traditional meal in a restaurant and experience it in its totality, without the labor something like this would require.  So it’s back to porridge and toast, but as I eat it, I now have the fond memories, rather that nagging imaginings, of the great British Breakfast I finally experienced.

Finally, as a side note, this is not the only way that the British breakfast differs from the American.  There are actually loads more English morning specialties all just as unique.  One common Monday morning breakfast is bubble and squeak, a shallow fried conglomeration of the Sunday roast’s vegetable leftovers, cabbage, and potatoes too use up a bit of the old stuff in the fridge.  The English also love to include fish in Breakfast.  Some examples include smoked salmon with cream cheese and capers on English muffins, or kippers (smoked then fried herrings) on toast.  Finally, inspired by Indian cuisine, one other breakfast specialty is kedgeree, a savory rice dish with fish (usually cod or salmon), spices, herbs, and boiled eggs.  This website is great for a bit more about the English Breakfast, and if you're ever in wonderful London, take a look at The London Review of Breakfasts which, as it’s name implies, is a blog about the best places for the meal.