Thursday, December 16, 2010

Tuck In's Final Farewell

(The following pictures are my favorite amongst the many places I ate in the last three wonderful months)

In his book “Eating For England”, Nigel Slater, English food writer and enthusiast, wrote, “The French cook with their senses, the Italians with their hearts, the Spanish with their energy, and the Germans with their appetite.  The British, bless them, cook with their wallets.”  He speaks of that British knack to waste not one bit of the food in the icebox, and to be as frugal and resourceful as possible, a quality that, as I have mentioned, came about during WWII rationing.  And although this may have some truth today, I disagree with Mr. Slater’s wording.  There has to be another way to describe the British in the kitchen without sounding so degrading.  So I took what I have learned about the British food culture (and given that I only had three months I think I’ve taken away quite a bit), thought about it, and came up with something else, still resembling Slater’s meaning, but truer to what I’ve witnessed.

The British cook with their humbleness.

And I don’t say humble in the sense that I think that people cook with poor quality ingredients or give lowly meager portions.  In fact, I use humble in the most endearing of ways.   As I’ve witnessed, the culture in London is much more reserved, in a really quite refreshing way.  People aren’t flashy and loud and overstated, and the food went along with this.  With British food, there is a mindset that it is what it is and it doesn’t need any fancy presentation or excessiveness to make it any better.  It’s about using good quality food, even if it’s sometimes disregarded food, and smartly and lovingly combining it in the simplest possible of ways.  It’s about making something that speaks so much louder than the sum of its parts.  It’s about taking bread and adding nothing but cheddar and chutney for an extraordinary sandwich.  It’s about a dollop of goat cheese and a squeeze of lemon on top of the humble roasted beet.  It’s about a bacon sandwich for heaven’s sake.  This is British food.

If the frosting on the cupcakes it a little askew, slightly wobbling to the left, this just means it has more character.  If you decide to take the bits and bobs and leftovers in the fridge, pop it into puff pastry, bake it, and end up with a delicious Cornish pasty, you’re in the British frame of mind.  And if you come home after a long day and crave nothing more that a succulent sticky beef stew with some thick brown bread to mop up the juices, you might as well just move to England.  British food is like a warm hug from your mom, a cozy and worn pair of slippers, a bubbly bath late at night.  It’s a simple pleasure, easy, and non-fussy, and most importantly it’s comforting.  It comes from the soul and that’s right where it hits you back.

I’ve had a brilliant time discovering this amazing food culture these past thirteen weeks.  I can speak for many of the people joining me on the trip that the outlook on British food before arriving wasn’t so bright, but after discovering the eats, that outlook changed significantly.  And through this independent study, I not only discovered the restaurants, the markets, the shops, and the food of this city and country, but I discovered a culture as a whole.  When I would take time on my own to seek out the food in so many different areas of London, every food adventure turned into a discovery of new people, places, customs, mannerisms, and cultural identifiers.  And, while seeing all of these things, I was also discovering more about myself.  Discovering what I love, discovering a complete fondness for the beautiful humble English people, discovering a profound relationship with the city of London, even further discovering my love for food and my desire to make that a huge part of my life. 

I never thought I could take so much out of a simple independent study, something that, in the simplest of terms, is nothing but three college credits.  But it ended up being a very noteworthy part of a life-changing journey through London and I will miss all that I have discovered, both in a food sense and a general sense, more than I could have ever imagined. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little tour of British food via my eyes, mouth, and stomach and that those who may be visiting lovely London at some point, will find some help and tips somewhere amongst my ramblings.  So to part, I encourage anyone travelling to London to not be afraid of the humbleness of the British people and food but to do some individual discovery, to eat alone in a restaurant, to try a new dish and ask lots of questions.  The things that are the most daunting, unguided, and sometimes scary have the most benefits, whether it be a life lesson or a delicious meal.


Monday, December 13, 2010

A British Christmas Table

As a student studying abroad in the Fall Semester, I had the pleasure of experiencing the start of Christmas cheer during my stay.  I absolutely loved walking down Oxford and Regent Streets to gaze upon the Christmas lights overhead, spending hours browsing the Christmas departments in Fortnum and Mason and Liberty, and meandering about the Winter Wonderland Christmas Market in Hyde Park, full of rides, ice skating, shop stalls, and food.  Through my observations, however, I realized that Christmas in London is very different from Christmas in America.  Although the lights and the festive decorations are just as outstanding and celebratory events took place almost every day, it was so much less about buying things, Santa Clause, and the gimmicky stuff.  They got back to what Christmas is all about: giving thanks, taking the time to celebrate and enjoy life, and spending time with family.  And, they seized a hold of the opportunity to make the city beautiful for two months out of the year.  And along with these interesting differences, there were also extreme variations in the Christmas food and I had the absolute pleasure in trying many of these festive treats.

But first, here is what a traditional British Christmas feast may look like:

Prawn cocktail, smoked salmon, or possibly even some roasted chestnuts

A roasted turkey or goose served with homemade cranberry relish and bread sauce
Pigs in a blanket (sausages wrapped in bacon)
Roasted carrots, potatoes, and parsnips
Brussels sprouts
Sage and onion stuffing

A glass of mulled wine with Christmas pudding or mince pies (or both)

Tea or coffee and chocolate truffles

Although I probably won’t be able to experience this feast in its entirety (unless for some reason my entire family decides to have a British Christmas this year) I did try some of the more obscure traditional foods.  Some of these are ones that many have not heard of in the states and have certainly never been on my Christmas dinner table. 

The first are chestnuts which, although mentioned in the Christmas Song as roasting over an open fire, I strangely have never tried them.  They were prevalent at every single one of the Christmas markets I attended (even one in Paris) and I finally had to give in to the wonderful, smoky aroma they created.  Uncooked chestnuts are about 2 inches in diameter, shaped like a fat teardrop, and with a smooth brown shell.  The person roasting them makes and “X” on the top of each with a knife before placing them in a huge dry roasting pan over an enormous wood burning fire.  As they heat, the chestnuts begin to pop and crack, the shells burn and turn black, and where the “X” was made, they pucker open, revealing the beautiful nut inside.  With my little parcel of nuts at hand, I had to find a place to sit to eat them.  Since they have to be peeled, they’re not the best on-the-go snack.  Each chestnut crackles as its picked up and as the shell is torn away, hot steam rises out.  Without its shell, all that left is a beautiful beige nut, about as big as a bouncy ball, warm and soft.  They are very pleasing to eat, a little bit crumbly with a slight mushiness.  The taste is similar to soy nuts, but sweeter.  Although I didn’t have any at the time, they would be wonderful dipped in some honey, making an absolutely delicious and very healthy Christmas snack.

 I had Christmas pudding at the final banquet for the study abroad program and, although very delicious, I can understand why it is a dessert eaten only once a year.  Although most people buy them from the grocery store or department store, few make them from scratch in a process that requires weeks for preparation.  It is comprised of LOTS of dried fruit (usually raisins and dried plums) that are soaked in brandy, then combined with treacle, suet, other dry ingredients, and even more brandy.  It’s cooked in a long, slow, steaming process that makes the most rich, dense and moist pudding possible.  Its served in wedges with a brandy butter or cream (just in case you didn’t already get enough brandy) and is by far the most necessary, and most filling, part of any British dinner. 

But the part of the Christmas dinner that I am most fond of are the mince pies, tiny open-faced pastry pies filled with a dried fruit mixture and baked until warm and bubbling.  Not only do I like them best because they are wonderful tasting, but I also learned how to make them.  As a part of my immense foodie experience in London, I decided to take a cooking class and, from the many delicious items of could choose from to learn to make, I picked one of the festive seasonal classics: the mince pies.

The class took place at a store in Clapham Junction called Recipease, yet another Jamie Oliver creation.  Not only do they offer two cooking clases a day there, but they sell takeaway meals (prepeared by on-site chefs every day) sandwiches, and coffee, and an array of Jamie Oliver’s own range of products from cookware, to food items, to kitchen accessories.  The cooking class took place in a big open kitchen area with 12 stations for each person in the class.  I was a little nervous going on my own, especially when I saw that the class was open for anyone in the store to watch. But, after a very warm welcome from the instructor and a steaming glass of complementary mulled wine, I began to feel much more comfortable around the eleven other ladies joining in. 

The set-up of the class was very fun too and allowed for each of us to take our time, relax, and have fun, without worrying about doing things perfectly.  The instructor would show us one part of the mince-pie-making process at a time, and between each step, we would have a go at the step at our own station.  At the end of the last step, I was left with a muffin tray (which I got to keep) of 12 uncooked little mince pies ready to take home and bake.  And the best part is, while were assembling our pies, our instructor had put her demonstration ones in the oven so that, by the time we were all finished, we each got to sample a cooked mince pie. They are the absolute epitome of comforting and the flavors combine to make something that just screams Christmas.  When warm, they are chewy, crumbly, crispy, and oozing with flavor so, I cannot resist from sharing with you the recipe I learned. 

The cooking class was a really great experience, not only because I learned a new recipe, but I also learned other great cooking and baking tips and got to have a new cultural experience in London, amongst Londoners.   I hope you will make them for your family this year, as I will be doing, to bring a little British spin to the table.  Cheers and Happy Christmas!

Mince Pies

(Sorry, but the recipe I was given uses the metric system, so making these will require a little extra conversion work but, believe me, it’s worth it.)

Sweet Shortcrust Pastry
500 g all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
100 g icing sugar, sifted
250 g ice cold butter, cut into cubes
zest of one lemon (you can substitute the zest of an orange if you’d like)
2 medium free range eggs, beaten in a bowl
a splash of milk, if needed

Sift the flour and the icing sugar in a large bowl together.  Place the cubes of butter overtop.  Using your hands, work the cubes of butter into the flour and sugar by rubbing your thumbs against your fingers until you end up with a fine crumbly mixture.  Before doing this, however, run your hands under cold water because the heat from you hands can melt the butter and you want it to stay as cold as possible.  Also, try to do this step as quickly but efficiently as possible.  After the butter is worked in, only use a knife or fork to mix the ingredients to keep them cold.  Add the zest and mix it in.  Then, add the egg a little at a time, mixing it in with the utensil, until everything comes nicely together in a ball.  Because the weather can affect how much moisture the flour needs, you may not need all of the egg or, if you use it all and the mixture is still too dry, add a little milk until the dough comes together.  Using your hands, quickly form the dough into a ball, place it on a floured surface, and pat it into a flat round.  Wrap it in clingfilm and let it rest for at least a half hour in the refrigerator.  Now, it’s time to make the mince filling

Mince Pie Filling
200 g peeled, cored cooking apples
100 g chopped unsalted butter
450 g dried mixed fruit (sultanas, currants, cranberries, candied orange peel)
50 g chopped walnuts
25 g chopped dried sour cherries
1 tsp. mixed spice (nutmeg, clove, allspice, cardamom)
1 tsp. cinnamon
4 Tbs. brandy, whisky, or rum

Place the dried fruit, walnuts, and cherries into a large saucepan.  Grate the apples overtop the fruit and add the spices and the butter.  Place the pot onto the stove on a low to medium low heat and heat the mixture for about 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the butter is melted and the fruit starts soaking in the moisture.  After the time is up, remove the pot from the stove, transfer the filling to a bowl, and allow to cool.  Once cool, stir in the alcohol of choice.  You can then place the filling in airtight jars and refrigerate for up to a week, or you can go ahead and make the mince pies.

To prepare the pies, first remove the shortcrust pastry from the refrigerator and roll it out to a 1/8-inch thickness.  It is actually easiest to place the dough between two pieces of nonstick parchment or wax paper and use the rolling pin on top of the paper so that nothing sticks to the counter and no extra flour needs to be added.  Once rolled out, use a drinking glass with rim about 1.5 to 2 times larger than the diameter of the bottom of each compartment in a muffin tin, to use as a cookie cutter and punch out circles to make the base of the pies.  Once you have the circles, place them inside the muffin tin cups, pressing them into the corners and against the edges to make sure is stays up.  Then, spoon the filling into each cup, letting it come slightly higher that the edge of the pastry.  Finally, roll out the leftover dough and, using a decorative cookie cutter, make shapes and place them over each pie.  Bake at 185 degrees Celsius for about 20-25 minutes or until the pastry is golden brown and the filling is bubbling.  Let them cool for a minute before prying them out with a fork, giving them a dusting of icing sugar, and devouring.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Meat, Bread, Wine, and Everything Fine

In the past three months, I have shown you food from such a variety of places to eat.  I have guided you through the sometimes cozy and sometime riotous pubs of London, to the slightly pretentious gastropubs that prepare art on the plate (and charge way too much for what it’s probably worth).  We’ve taken trips to the cafés with their cozy atmospheres, unique sandwiches, and always-delicious coffee, the glorious food halls of London’s department stores, the amazing markets, and the always-alluring candy shops…plus so many more.
But there is one restaurant (although it’s actually two under the same name and ownership) that are unlike any other eating establishments in London.  These are St. John Bar and Restaurant in Smithfield and St. John Bread and Wine in Spitalfields.  The two places are really famous and every single guidebook I read had at least one of them as a must-visit.  So, staying true to the food enthusiast within me, I had to see what all the fuss was about.

What makes St. John so unique is it’s extremely traditional approach to British cooking.  They call their cuisine “nose to tail” food because, as many people did back in the days when supplies were so limited and nothing was wasted, St. John offers meals from the entirety of the animal, nose to tail.  This includes any animal too, with special emphasis on wild game.  If you don’t believe me, let me just give you a small selection of today’s menu.  For a starter, you have the option of a roast bone marrow and parsley salad, mallard legs and swede, or duck liver toast.  And for you main, how about the lambs tongue, turnips, and anchovy, the chitterlings, kale, and mustard, and if you are really brave, the lovely ox heart.  Not all of the options are like this though.  They offer normal cuts of meat as well traditional English vegetable options for a side dish.  The desserts are very unique and elegant too and nothing too out of the ordinary. And though they are known for their interesting meat options, their artisan bread, handmade in the Spitalfields establishment every day, and their best quality of wines are their claim to fame too.

First I visited the Bar and Restaurant and the building itself was astounding.  It used to be a smokehouse in the 1960s but when the industry ceased, it fell into major disorder.   The abandoned building was just used by anyone to meet their needs and served as a greenhouse, Chinese beer store and place for young London hooligans to hold parties.  The upper floors were even used as the headquarters of Marxism Today.  But when the owners and chefs Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver opened the restaurant in 1994, they decided to keep with the original look. 

It felt like walking into a huge warehouse; the were walls completely bare and whitewashed, only made modern by some sleek stainless steel furnishings.  I entered in the bar area where one can get a small plate and a drink for lunch or passersby can pick up a loaf of the famous bread.  Long light fixtures hung down in an almost ominous way but the comforting, warming touches of the rustic wooden tables and bar stools somehow created a cozy feel.  There were many personal touches too, like the blackboards displaying the menu in chalk and the unique, yet striking bold black type on the white walls.  It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen but very inviting and intriguing.  The smell of fresh bread of course helped to enhance the overall atmospheric experience as well.  Off the to side was the restaurant and, although a bit fancier, still kept with the style, mixing the rusticity of wooden furniture and floors with pristine white tablecloths, dishes, and walls and sparkling silver accents.

But now lets talk about the food.  Fist off, it’s expensive…really expensive and although I wanted to try all of the unique things, I couldn’t bring myself to do so, especially since I didn’t know what half of the menu items were and if I would even enjoy it.  So I stuck with a main meal and a dessert, but even that was enough to create a fulfilling and pleasing experience. I was first given a huge slab of their delicious white sourdough, filled with big holes and with that perfect tough, chewy texture that gave my jaw a little ache by the time I finished.  It had a really nice pungent tang as well which was mellowed out by cold, creamy butter. 

For my main, I chose the braised rabbit and stewed prunes in a shallot and bacon broth.  I had never had rabbit before, perhaps because I used to have one as a pet, but I put my emotions aside and because of that, discovered something delicious.  Helped by the fact that professionals cooked it, the meat was so tender that it literally fell of the bones.  It reminded me a little of chicken dark meat but was actually much sweeter and milder while still retaining that slightly unfamiliar gamey taste.  Because of the rabbit’s sweetness and the juicy, fruity prunes, the salty broth was lovely contrast and helped to give the meat even more moisture. 

And dessert was just as amazing.  I chose the poached pear in warm red wine with homemade buttermilk ice cream and brioche bread.  Though it took a long time to prepare, it was well worth the wait.  The pear, stained deep burgundy, sat in a pool of wine and was so soft, that it only took a quick swipe of my spoon to dish up a bite.  It was a perfect balance of sweetness from the pear and bitterness from the wine and the ice cream complemented this flavor nicely too.  It was only lightly sweetened but the cold creaminess really helped to calm my taste buds after the wine’s acidity.  And the sweet, crumbly brioche served as a lovely, buttery palate cleanser as I switched between pear and ice cream.

St John Bread and Wine was a little different, but really stayed true to St John’s image.  Located just outside Spitalfields market, it caters to the groups of businessmen coming in for a delicious meal.  They offer a two-hour breakfast service, one-hour of elevenses, and finally a lunch with many options of small plates meant to be shared among groups.  They have a short supper service in the late evening too.  Up until about a week ago, this is where all the bread baking took place (they’ve just opened a new bakery), but Bread and Wine still held that really lovely yeasty bread smell and also kept with that minimalist, warehouse look combing sleek/modern with rustic.  I decided to try it out for breakfast, as I have heard many wonderful things about it, and taste their very famous bacon butty sandwich, rumored to be the absolute best in London.  And I can now confirm that rumor to be true.  Just to let you know, a bacon butty is nothing but toasted, buttered bread with bacon in the middle but St. John’s version was so much more and at the height of quality. 

 To start, the sandwich took my breath away when it arrived in front of me because of the sheer size.  It was about as long as my face and as wide as the distance between my thumb and pinky finger.  It had beautiful grill marks on the top and I got a really happy warm feeling inside as I picked it up.  I heard the crackling of the toast as my fingers pressed upon it and felt the butter escape from the pores of the bread and onto my hands.  It came with a side of homemade apple ketchup for dipping too, but the sandwich was so large that it didn’t fit into the cup and I had to apply the ketchup with a knife.  When I finally took a bite, I found myself in sheer bliss.  

The bread was by far the best I have ever tasted.   It’s really hard to explain but I just know that I will never in my life consume a piece of bread that matches this.  It was lovingly crispy from its toasting, which gave in a nice burnt flavor at times.  The crust was chewy and tough but the interior was so fluffy and spongy and soft it felt like pillows in my mouth.  Yet, it still somehow had a lot of dexterity; but I enjoyed how long it took to chew because each bit released another stream of the encased butter.  The bacon was superb as well and came from a high quality breed of old spot pigs.  It was also grilled and the burnt bits added and even deeper smoky flavor.  It was wonderfully salty but the tangy sweet ketchup balanced everything out.  Each bite was long and savored and my cup of hot tea was well appreciated to wash down this enormous beauty.  As tacky as this sounds, it really was a breakfast I will remember for the rest of my life.

I wish I had the money and the time to go to St. John even more, but sadly, all good things must end at some point.  So I have pictures and the lingering memories on my taste buds to hold onto.  So, for any visitors to London, I will by far recommend this (along with Fifteen of course) because it is so unique more traditionally British than any other restaurant in the city.  So here it is, yet another London food publication serving as an advocate for St. John. 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Succumbing to my Sweet Tooth

There’s a really good reason why this post is near the end and if you scroll down a little to see the pictures, you may begin to understand why.  I’ve already touched a little bit on the British obsession with sugar, but my few examples of candy aren’t enough to give a clue to the absolute variety of British baked goods that tempt my sweet tooth every day.  However much I love food, I REALLY love dessert and baking so when I came here I was curious to discover the English take on this craft.  What I found was a world of sweet things that I never knew existed.  But I had to take my tasting slow; one can only have so much cake, pastry crust, and cream in a single day.  But now, I finally have a valid collection (though not nearly a full set) of British baking examples that I’ve been building up over the past three months.  So grab a napkin because the descriptions and pictures to come may cause some severe drooling…trust me.


Actually dessert in general in England is called a pudding so, for instance, rather than getting a dessert menu, it’s a pudding menu.  This will include anything from cake to pastry to custard and will NEVER include that Jell-O brand, fake chocolate stuff that we call pudding in the states.  Although pudding is a broad category, there are some desserts in England specifically called puddings and are all generally all dense , steamed, boiled, or baked desserts, usually served with liquid custard sauce or ice cream.  Some examples are bread and butter pudding, jam roly poly, and spotted dick, by my favorite by far is sticky toffee pudding

This was that dessert that followed my aforementioned veggie burger and sweet potatoes fries at Mildred’s.  It came as a square of super-moist steamed cake made with lots of brown sugar, treacle, and dates, and topped with a crystallized ginger compote, a thin tuile biscuit, and deliciously buttery and sticky toffee sauce.  A lightly sweetened whipped cream came on the side and nicely cut through the heaviness of the pudding.  It was so good that I really did eat it all by myself but, let’s be honest, could you possibly leave any of this on the plate?  That’s what I thought.


I think I may have mentioned this, but the word dessert and the word pie rarely combine into the dessert that we Americans so fully embrace and enjoy.  Here, a pie is for meat and gravy and mashed potatoes.  If you want a sweet filling inside of piecrust, you ask for a tart.  But something about the tart is actually a bit more appealing.  It’s delicate and less heavy, due to its lack of upper crust, and it just feels more special to receive this dessert, cut into a pretty little triangle on a plate, rather that a gloopy pie oozing everywhere. 

Two very popular English tarts are the Bakewell tart and treacle tart.  The Bakewell tart is thought to have originated in the town of Bakewell in the Derbyshire region of the UK, but many say it was actually the Bakewell pudding (a similar but more custardy dessert) that did and the Bakewell tart is a poseur of this.  Others, however claim that the two are essentially the same thing and the different name was used to distinguish classes.  But anyway, although Bakewell pudding is eggier and more liquidy, it and the tart follow the same concept.   A Bakewell tart starts with a base of shortcrust pastry and is topped with a layer of strawberry or raspberry jam and finally with an almond flavored sponge filling called frangipane.  It’s baked until golden and soft. The fruity filling pairs nicely with the cherry-like flavors of the almond filling and, as far as cakes go, is so light and refreshing.
Treacle tart, however, is not quite as refreshing, though not any less delicious.  Although it seems like Harry Potter enjoyed this dessert at least once a week, I wouldn’t recommend a taste more than twice a year.  Essentially it’s a piecrust filled with a cooked combination of treacle (and English syrup like a combination of maple syrup and molasses), breadcrumbs, and egg.  It’s like eating straight up sticky sugar and gives you that sick sugar coma afterwards where you lay on the floor holding your stomach…but you don’t really mind the side-effects when you remember the luscious sweet taste in the mouth.

Pastry and Buns

Although the English pride themselves on their highly savory and salty breakfasts that fill you with enough protein to last until late afternoon, they do make room for the sweeter side of breakfast, still very true to the English style.  Rather than follow the French with their delicate flaky breakfast pastries like croissants, the British make their pastry filling and dense, bready and sweet.  I’ve had a try of the Eccles Cake and Chelsea Bun and have found them quite enjoyable, though a little to rich to have on a daily basis.  Eccles cakes come from the town of Eccles and are compromised of a crispy, buttery puff pastry filled with an enormous amount of sticky spiced raisins. It’s formed into a round shape, and for the finishing touches, it’s sprinkled with coarse sugar and two little vent holes are added.  It’s even referred to as squashed fly cake due to the pitch-black filling.  It’s commonly served with Lancashire cheese, don’t ask me why, but should only be consumed in small amounts…it’s truly filling. 

Chelsea buns are very similar to sticky buns in the U.S., except a little less cinnamony.   The bread is very yeasty and chewy and it’s filled with a brown sugar and butter syrup and raisins.  It’s slightly different yet just as indulgent as the American counterpart and, heated in the oven for a few minutes, becomes the perfect pairing with morning coffee or tea.  Other breakfast buns include the popular Bath buns and hot cross buns.


I have to admit that I’m a bit of a cake snob and I get really disappointed when I pay for a good-looking piece of cake only take a bite and find the driest and most flavorless of disasters in my mouth.  So my search for British cakes was made twice as difficult when I had to find not only traditional British varieties but well-made ones too. 

The most famous and iconic of all British cakes is the Victoria Sponge, most popularly served at traditional English teas and English summer picnics.  This cake is named after Queen Victoria, who simply liked cake with her tea.  It’s very similar to a vanilla sponge cake, but with a higher fat content and always contains two of the round cakes with jam and whipped cream or icing sandwiched between, hence the alternate name, the Victoria sandwich.  I got my Victoria sponge at a higher end semi-chain restaurant in London called Canteen, which specializes in British food.  I was really impressed and glad they used freshly whipped cream rather than sugary icing between the moist cakes, simply as a matter of preference. 

But I was most happy when I finally discovered the best cakes in London, at little café called Bea’s of Bloomsbury.  They specialize in fairy cakes, the English word for cupcakes, and I swear I’ve never have a moister, more flavorful cake.  The frosting was light and fluffy too, more like whipped cream rather than the cloying powdered sugar concoctions I usually find.  Although I’ve tried many of their cakes and enjoyed them all, my favorite has been another English type, Stem Ginger cake, which is actually found more commonly as a loaf cake.  It was rich and molassesy with a slight burning spiciness from the preserved ginger and the mascarpone frosting was the delicious finishing touch.

I think it’s with this post above all others that, due to the high number of examples, I can hopefully really bring across the message of just how different British food is than ours.  Though everything is largely compromised of the same ingredients that we use back home, things are combined in new ways here that are really inspiring. So, as a very avid baker, I can’t wait to take my London tasting experiences with baked desserts and give them a try when I return home so hopefully I can share this very memorable and unique part of my food journey with others and give them a taste of this wonderful culture.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Go Fish!

Sitting in my flat, the cabin fever is starting to creep up on me.  I’ve been staring at this computer screen for far too long and a dull ache is forming between my eyes.  Oh the pains of finals week.  And now, during the looming winter, the city becomes immersed in cold and darkness as early as 5:00 and during this abnormally cold week in London, I find myself clinging the radiator for dear life.  I think of the contents of my refrigerator and cringe at the thought of mere yoghurt and some wilting salad leaves for dinner.  Something’s got to be better than that, something hot, filling, and maybe a little too indulgent. Now that would be perfect...if only it could just appear in front of me.  So trying to ignore the sounds of wind shaking the windows, I tighten my scarf, button up my coat, and prepare myself for the frigid walk that, although painful, will be completely worth it in the end.

My nose catches wind of a distinct smell that even the healthiest of people can’t resist, signifying the closeness of my destination long before its visible.  What can truly be more enticing than the strangely warming scent of hot oil and fish on a bleak, gloomy night?  That’s right, I’m heading to the “chippy” for one of England’s most famous dishes, fish and chips.  As guilt inducing as the fried-fest may be, it, every once in a while is exactly what the overworked and exhausted Londoner needs.  I wait in the queue, shivering under my multiple layers, and, after ordering, happily accept the warm package in my icy hands.  Steam rises up from the beautiful golden slab of fish nestled among the chips.  They rustle slightly in crispiness as I cup the parcel. I add a generous shaking of malt vinegar, giving the steam a sharp, sinus clearing quality and I head out, no longer affected by the cold but with only the thoughts of this so simple yet pleasing meal.  Every bite is indulgent as the grease exudes from the pores of the crispy bits, coating my mouth with sinful flavor.  And, although my stomach protests, the chips somehow find their way into my mouth until all that's left is a grease sodden piece of parchment. 

My favorite local fish and chips shop

Fish and chips have actually been around London for about 150 years.  Many think that the Jewish immigrant Joseph Malin opened the first chippy in the east end around 1860.  The fare was popular among the working class because it added variety to their bland diets.  It’s a little unclear exactly how the meal’s two components of fish and chips became one, but no matter the history, there couldn’t be a better match.  But although the dynamic duo is always together, the condiments vary widely.  Some like simple salt and vinegar, others, like John Lennon, prefer ketchup, and some find solace in tartar sauce, pickled onions, gherkins, or mushy peas

The types of fish can very too.  The most popular are cod and haddock but other options include sole, skate, plaice, and rock.  Originally, they came tucked away inside a folded piece of newspaper, but due to hygienic concerns, they now come in parchment or wax paper, sometimes with a newspaper print or placed inside an outer layer of newspaper.  This fabulous fried treat my be losing some popularity due to is rather unhealthy nature but, no matter what, it will always be a staple in the British food culture.  Just, if in London, don’t do what the Californians sitting next to did one time and order fried fish but only eat the fish innards, leaving the fried batter carcass.  I mean, if your going to order fish and chips in London, the least you can do is enjoy it.

But before the delicacy of fish and chips came about, the poor people of London had to resort to other means of protein sources from the water.  And in the 1700s, this meant eels.  They were in such overabundance in the Thames that their consumption was widespread and very cheap for the working classes.  The eels were prepared in quite an interesting way, however, and took a jellied form.  Eels naturally have gelatinous meat so, when cooked in a combination of water, vinegar, and citrus, it gives off proteins.  Once cooled, the water and eel mixture turned into jelly.  It was served at street stalls, or along with pie and mash.  In fact, by the early 1900s, over one-hundred Eel Mash and Pie Houses existed in London.  Jellied eels are not anywhere near as popular as they were before, but it is still common to find eel, prepared in other ways, in many of London’s higher quality pubs and restaurants.  So how could I resist a taste of this dish?

I found them at the restaurant Wild Honey though I felt a little ridiculous ordering eel, as if the waiter could sense my uncertainly.  It was prepared as a smoked fillet, served alongside crispy pieces of chicken, roasted turnips, creamed corn, and sea purslane (a salty water plant).  The sliver of eel arrived on my plate, looking ordinary enough so, after a few deep breaths, I braved a taste and I actually quite liked it.  Because it was smoked, it had a slight bacony flavor, without masking the salty sea flavor too much.  The flavor reminded me somewhat of salmon but the texture was different.  As expected, it wasn’t quite as tender and flaky as most fish but instead had a slight tough chew, somewhere between the texture of scallops and clams. It’s hard to explain, yet still really enjoyed it.  I’m sure that prepared this way its flavor takes precedence of jellied eels by a mile but, it was still exhilarating to try this British dish, now almost delicacy, that many in America wouldn’t even consider as edible. 

Although these are only a few examples, they are not the only important fish types in England.  As England, of course, is an island, seafood is actually very prevalent in London, or at least used to be until many gained endangered status.  So now, since restaurants try to use ethically sourced seafood, it is much more expensive.  But still, some other popular dishes include Scottish oysters and scallops (pictured), smoked salmon, monkfish, dory, and many more.

If given the option between sea or mammal meat, I generally pick that from my furry friends but, experiencing the London seafood scene has been a joy.  And now, after having fish and chips from the place where it all started, I doubt if I’ll be able to have it in America again without making comparisons.  So if you ever find yourself in lovely London Town, head over to Rock and Sole Plaice for a chippy experience to remember.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Eat and Two Veg

Perhaps I could not make a more obvious statement based on this blog’s contents but, I do eat meat.  It’s a taste thing for me and I would find it really hard to look at a picture of a succulent Sunday pork roast or a juicy tender steak and not start salivating.  It’s a good thing I like meat too because the British pride themselves on their animal dishes.  That’s not to say that I am against vegetarianism and I actually really admire people who can give up some of that best flavors out there and find ways of recreating them without meat.  It’s fascinating.  But to make myself feel better, when I do eat meat, I try as hard as I can to scout out that which is free range and organic.
I know quite a handful of vegetarians back in America and a good number on this study abroad trip as well.  And from eating out with them in restaurants, I have made a really unique discovery about British food culture.  Although its history shows a meat-rich diet (remember King Henry VIII), today, in the city of London, vegetarian options are just as prevalent.  Restaurants take much effort to ensure that they include plenty of meat-free (as well as gluten-free) options that are well labeled and advertised.  There are probably many reasons why but the vast numbers of cultures residing in this one city along with the universal rise of the vegetarian lifestyle are some.  Also, to make up for the lack of the naturally occurring flavors that meat brings, chefs in London have worked hard to combine the flavors of vegetarian-friendly foods in new ways.  Although missing meat, the food presents excitement for the palette, is full of flavor and is totally satisfying.  There are three vegetarian restaurants I have found in my food travels that I definitely recommend to any meat or meat-free eaters visiting this city.

The first is this teeny tiny place around Soho, the rather hippie, bohemian, music/art  part of town, called Food for Thought.  In fact, it was the first vegetarian restaurant in all of London.  The building is in no way special and, if one didn’t have an insider’s tip on the awesomeness of the food, the place may be overlooked due to the slight grubbiness of its exterior.  It has remained in the same place since it opened in the 70s, refusing to lose its charm by moving to a bigger venue. 

The menu changes every day to offer as much variety as possible and everything is so cheap, especially the takeaway, which is a good option since there is barely room to stand in this place.  So situated inside the cramped front area, I ordered, trying to yell over the sound on the banging pots and pans coming from the open kitchen behind the counter, and finally walked away and rushed home in the rain, ready to enjoy my hot meal.  I ordered an astounding baked gnocchi dish that included gnocchi, aubergine, cauliflower, fennel, and olives in a delicious tomato sauce and coated with a thick layer of melting cheddar and mozzarella cheese.  And for fifty pence, I added a giant chunk of pumpkin sesame bread to soak up every bit of the sauce.  The food was amazing but the portion so huge that, much to my disliking, I couldn’t finish it all.

Another partially vegetarian restaurant is called Ottolenghi, a café/restaurant started by renowned chef and The Guardian vegetarian food column writer Yotam Ottolenghi.  Although his has a Mediterranean background, he learned his culinary skills in London so he has blessed this city with his foreign flavors and passion for high-quality, fresh, and healthy food.  He himself is not a vegetarian, but has a very extreme respect for that lifestyle.  He creates unique dishes that present new and exciting flavor combinations and ingredients that are so substantial and wholesome that they still somehow have the satisfying quality of meat.

His café’s (there are four) are famous for their huge counter of “salads”.  These are not ordinary lettuce salads either, but gourmet concoctions of fresh vegetable with complementing yet unique seasonings and flavors.  Ottolenghi also offers a few quality meats to place on top of the salads and a huge variety of baked goods and breads.  I chose a combination of three salads with a small piece of delicious salmon; it looked so good, I couldn’t resist.  I had a green bean and mangetout salad with oil dressing, orange zest and hazelnuts, roasted spears of sweet potatoes with a creamy dressing, chilies, and sesame seeds, and delicious roasted aubergine slices topped with a red pepper tahini sauce.  

And the salmon, sitting atop the numerous salads, was accompanied by a pineapple chili sauce.  The portions were huge, lasting through that day’s lunch and dinner, everything was so crisp and fresh, and I discovered combinations of flavors that I never even thought of before.  It was such an inspiring experience not only to see the potentiality for vegetarian dishes but also to take away tips about food pairing that I can’t wait to try out at home.

Finally, my favorite vegetarian experience was at a place called Mildred’s.  It, like Food for Thought, is another one of those really discreet restaurants tucked away on a side street in Soho. From the interior’s look alone, I wouldn’t have expected anything spectacular.  The place was small and cramped with a dozen or so mismatched tables crammed in any available space.  But despite this, I got a immediate feeling of relaxation and general good, earthy vibes.  The waiters, without doubt hippies wearing baggy jeans, white tanks tops, and hemp jewelry, greeted me very enthusiastically as they led me to my table.

I was in a very American food mood that day so I ordered their vegetarian version of the classic burger of the day and fries.  The burger, of course had no meat and that day’s version instead contained sweet corn, black olives, and herbs, probably mixed with breadcrumbs, beans, and egg to form the patty.  It was placed atop an incredibly moist wholemeal bun, and topped with rocket, tomato, and a sweet chili sauce to add an extra kick.  The great part is, I didn't even miss the meat and the texture was so tender and juicy, I almost preferred it to beef burgers.  The fries were a little more than ordinary too.  I got their special sweet potato fries that arrived in a ginormous stack, steaming hot and amazingly crispy and sweet.  They came with this incredible sour cream and basil dipping sauce and, although it was great with the fries, I couldn’t help but smearing a bit on my burger as well.  And what is a burger and fries without soda?  So instead of Coke, I ordered the “healthy” alternative called Curiosity Cola that is totally organic and made from only natural root extracts, pure cane sugar, and carbonated water.  And it was so much better than Coke with this slightly spicy flavor mellowed down vanilla.  It was an incredible meal and this alone really filled me up.  I got dessert too, which may have put me over the top, but we’ll talk about that particular part of the dish at another time.

It has been amazing to experience this unexpected part of the London food scene and the really down to earth, health conscious people associated with it who really care about their food’s taste and quality.  The absolute prevalence of the vegetarian culture in London, although not turning me away from meat entirely, has given me a new perspective on meat-free food and really inspired me to experiment with it on my own.  And most importantly, as England is a country with land well suited for almost all great fruits and vegetables, this prevalence of a vegetarian culture is a great way to celebrate the gifts that England’s land has to offer.