Saturday, September 21, 2013

Britain from A to Z: F


Now I come to my favorite topic in this series: FOOD. While in Britain, we ran into some interesting food traditions that were common to the entire area and some that were unique to certain areas.

Our tour price included a breakfast every morning at each hotel we stayed at. Most mornings we had a buffet. Many of the items on the buffet were similar to what we have here in the United States. Scrambled eggs, potatoes, cooked mushrooms, toast, coffee, tea, etc. However, there were some interesting differences. For instance, what they call bacon would be called ham here. I only remember one hotel that had our version of bacon (thin sliced and cooked until crisp) and it was called fatback bacon. Another interesting difference was that essentially every breakfast buffet included baked beans and cooked tomatoes. We would call the former pork and beans; they weren’t baked with brown sugar until the sauce was thick. The cooked tomatoes were always medium-sized, cut in half, seasoned, and then cooked until soft, but not stewed. One last thing concerning breakfast is egg preparation. In the US, it is fairly common for breakfast buffets to include an omelette station. We saw none of these in Britain. Rather, they had poached egg stations. However, most of the time poached eggs were simply served on the bar without the need of a separate station.

Another common dish found throughout Britain is fish and chips. I have always considered this to be an England thing, but I learned quickly that it is prevalent throughout Scotland, England, and Wales. In fact, the best fish and chips we had on the tour was at Greyfriars Bobby Bar in Edinburgh, Scotland. The fish was always a white fish, usually cod or haddock. And, as most of you probably know, chips are really fries. Warning: I seriously doubt that the Brits would want to hear you call them French fries. (By the way, potato chips are called crisps in Britain.) What amazed me about the fish was the size. Every time we bought fish and chips, the fish was a HUGE fillet, taking up nearly the whole plate. The only place I recall seeing fillets this big in the US was up in Massachusetts many years ago. One thing I didn’t like as much was the malt vinegar for putting on the fish. It didn’t have nearly as much vinegar twang as what I’m used to in the US. So, I mostly used tartar sauce.

Whenever I think about fish and chips and England, I’m reminded of the story my uncle told me when I was a kid. He said that when he was in England during WW2, he used to eat fish and chips out of a rolled up newspaper. That’s how it was served in those days. Later, an Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips came to my home town. That was my first taste of British-style fish and chips, and I loved it. It was interesting that the paper they were served on looked like newsprint.

I can’t forget to mention the mushy peas. This was something that essentially every restaurant served with their fish and chips, although you could get them with other dishes as well. They are essentially an embellishment of what we call green peas or English peas. They’re not totally mushy as there are still solid pieces of peas in the mush. Kathy and I are not big fans of green peas, so were hesitant to try them. But lo and behold, they were great. Try ya some sometime. Unmushed peas were also generally available.

Speaking of mushy, I must tell you about the soups of Britain. We tried a number of different soups, but not one had any chucks of anything in it. In the US, I am used to getting broccoli and cheese soup with chunks of broccoli in it, vegetable soup with chunks of vegetables in it, and so forth. Well, every soup we had in Britain was chunk-less. Apparently if it’s called soup, they blend it up. In other words, if there is anything that has to be chewed in it, it’s NOT soup in Britain.

Just like in the US, bread is a staple food in Britain. One difference here is that across the pond they seem to only like bread as an appetizer or for making sandwiches. Yes, restaurants here in the US usually serve bread before the rest of the meal. But they also leave it for eating with your main course. Over yonder they like to take up any remaining bread before the main course arrives. Of course, all we had to do was ask that they leave it, and they would.

Salads were everywhere in Britain. They seemed to pop up on any sandwich plate and were available for every meal. Yet, there seemed to be a severe lack of dressings to put on them. I discovered this was generally true throughout Britain when, after many times asking “What salad dressings do you have?", I got sort of a blank stare from the server. Typically, the only thing available was something like Miracle Whip or little packets of salad cream. Fortunately, the salad cream was really good. Otherwise, I’d have been eating a lot of dry salads.

As far as specialty dishes in the different countries, the first we encountered was haggis and black pudding in Scotland. These were actually on the breakfast bar our first morning in Glasgow, Scotland. Haggis is made from sheep guts and ... ‘nuff said. Sheep guts are enough to turn me off regardless of what else is in it. That being said, I tasted it and it wasn’t too bad. Yet, it wasn’t good enough to get me over the sheep guts hurdle. Our son, Andrew, loved it. He ate it just about any time he had the opportunity. But, that’s Andrew. He’s not only weird, but he loves weird foods and drinks.

If you didn’t know better, you’d think that black pudding would be good. I mean who doesn’t like dark chocolate in a pudding. Well, you’d be wrong. Another name for black pudding is blood pudding. And, yes, it is actually made from real blood. I don’t mind a bit of blood coming out of my medium steak, but for a dish to have blood as its main ingredient grosses me out. That being said, I tasted it and it was essentially tasteless. That was definitely not enough to get me over the animal blood hurdle. Yet, our weird son loved it. He even got it on his pizza in Edinburgh. Sometimes I think he needs to host that Travel Channel show “Bizarre Foods America”. Hey, come to think of it, isn’t the current host named Andrew? Maybe our son could start a new series called “Bizarre Foods Britain”.

Two unique dishes we tried related to Wales were leek and potato soup and Welsh rarebit, although the latter we actually had in York, England. We had the soup at a Welsh banquet at Cardiff Castle in Cardiff, Wales. As mentioned earlier, it was chunk-less, having been blended to a thick liquid. Yet, it was so good we have since made it here at home.

When I hear the words “Welsh rarebit”, I always think of the episode of “Gomer Pyle” where Gomer starts sleepwalking after consuming large amounts of Welsh rarebit. The name belies its simplicity. It’s actually a form of cheese toast. In fact, the actual Welsh term for it is caws pobi, meaning baked cheese.

I don’t know how common this is in England, but in Oxford I purchased a roast beef sandwich at a large indoor market. It consisted of a huge thick roll with lots of lettuce, tomato, and other salad-like compounds. Buried under all of this was one lousy thin slice of beef. I couldn’t really even taste it. After returning to the states, I was watching Jay Leno on The Tonight Show. He was talking about England with one of his guests. He told a story about getting a ham sandwich in England and it only having one lousy thin slice of ham on it. I guessed from this that one slice meat sandwiches are prevalent in England, if not all of Britain.

It pains me to think that I will never be able to sample all the different cheeses that exist in the world. There seems to be as many cheeses as there are people in the world. Needless to say, I’m a big fan of cheese. Oh, there are some that I don’t like, but there are a lot that I do. It seems that just about every place in the world has its own custom cheeses. Britain is no different. At one point on the tour, one fellow on the bus from New York bought some Wensleydale cheese with ginger embedded in it and shared it with anyone wanting a piece. This was good stuff. Later in the tour I decided to do the same thing and bought some Snowdonia white cheddar cheese with cranberries and shared it. Interestingly, while shopping at our local Publix tonight, I discovered they had some of the Wensleydale cheeses. I bought the one with cranberries. Yum!

There were more specialty foods in Britain than we either cared to try or had an opportunity to buy. You’ll hear of things like Toad-in-the-Hole, Pasties, Ploughman’s Lunch, Shepherds’ Pie, Neeps and tatties, Cullen skink, Stovies, Cockles, Cawl, Lobscows, Kendal Mint Cake, and more. So, you’ll find there is no lack of new things for you to try should you visit.

Well, this post has already grown too long and I’ve not even gotten to drinks. I’ll cover those in another post.

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