Remember when you were a kid and everything you put in your mouth was a new experience? It’s not too late to relive it.
Britain has a reputation for terrible food, and I’m not sure where that comes from. What I will say, though, is that British foods don’t tend to travel the same distances that American foods do, and I suspect this reduces the amount of additives and preservatives injected for shelf life. In the States, you can hardly find a salad dressing or tomato sauce without sugar added, and salt intake is on the high end even if you don’t own a shaker. British foods, on the other hand, are pretty much “season to taste,” which requires a trifling amount of effort but actually works out rather well if, like me, you’re also starting to realize how shamefully inept you are at the most basic fundamentals of feeding yourself. I’m actually more than a little proud that I’m learning to strike that precarious balance between seethingly bland and plate-of-pure-salt.
The trade-off in Britain is that while perishables perish, they also tend to be RIDICULOUSLY fresh when you buy them. Like, right off the farmer’s wheelbarrow and into your kitchen. I’m starting to suspect that the myth of terrible British food is contrived to keep secret the mouthwatering deliciousness of things. I do suspect that because foods tend to be fresher and less pre-saturated with flavourings, the British may have a slightly subtler palate. American brands compete for customers with increasingly outrageous combinations (chocolate-chip sausage, anyone?) which I suspect has conditioned our tastebuds to have a very high tolerance and a very low comprehension for more nuanced tastes. The Brits, on the flip side, are unaccustomed to such explosions of flavor and can appreciate a milder experience. (Then again, I notice that they do have a thing for chili spice, which I guess is how they get their kicks.)
I can also say that Britain isn’t likely the easiest place to be vegan or vegetarian. I have observed vegetarian and gluten-free options on products and menus, but on the whole the cornerstone of the British diet is heavily geared to dairy, grains, and meat. By far the most oft-found foods are some form of meat or dairy food in a pastry. There are meat pies, pasties, sausage rolls, Scottish eggs, macaroni pies… more combinations than I can wrap my head around, and all of them infuriatingly delicious. It’s set my efforts to reduce my grain intake back decades. Regrets? Undetermined.
One of the things that I missed the most when I arrived here was Hickory Farm’s summer sausage, but a favorite British dish of mine is “Bangers & Mash”: three hefty sausages crowning a simple plate of mashed potatoes and gravy. I finally took it upon myself to ask the server what kind of sausages they served, which turned out to be Cumberland, and was thus elated to discover these at the market. Cumberland sausages are pre-seasoned with a distinctive combination of herbs and spices, and these have become my staple summer-sausage-substitute. I would happily stock each, but I fear I may have a harder time reverting than converting.
Back in the States, I also liked to keep a block of cheddar in the fridge to slice up for an easy afternoon snack. When I made my first grocery run in the UK, I looked at the cheddar askance. There were no brands I was familiar with, and the blocks were labeled, “Mild” or “Mature” – not “Medium” and “Sharp” as I was used to. Were these equivalent? Would “Mature” have a weird flavor? I chanced it and bit into my first slice with trepidation, fearing a waste of a good fiver. As the taste hit my tongue, my face reflexively grimaced; it was immediately clear that this was not the cheddar of my experience.
And then the second wave of flavor hit my tongue… little neurons of new information exploding ecstatically into my brain. My eyes widened. I paused mid-bite, savoring the developing taste sensation. It reminisced of something I’d once sampled from a fancy platter of delicatessen cheeses I could never afford. But this was just a common-variety block of cheddar purchased for a few pounds from the bottom shelf of the local grocer. I quickly ensconced another chunk between the roof of my mouth and tongue, lingering on my newfound luxury as the voice of British claymation star Wallace, of Wallace and Gromit fame, burst into my memory espousing the virtues of cheese. Suddenly it stopped being silly.
A similar thing happened with the butter. “It’s just butter,” you’d think. But let me tell you: in Britain, the butter is so delectable you add the bread to it. Butter in the States is erroneously called “Sweet Cream,” but never have I confused it with anything I would consider sweet until it had been compensated by much sweeter ingredients. Your run-of-the-mill square of Scottish butter is another story. Add a pat of it to the plainest bread slice and poof! Instant decadence. I’d been prattling fanatically about the cheese and butter to my family over the phone when my mum stumbled across a relevant passage in a book she was reading called “The Cafe by the Sea” by Scottish author Jenny Colgan:
Colton’s face was comical to watch. If Flora, as a massive cheese fanatic, had adored Fintan’s creation, it was nothing to how a man raised on American cheese and finally tasting something so full and bursting with flavor and richness and full-bodied depth and nuttiness was going to react. “Good God in heaven,” he said eventually… Colton cut himself a thick wedge, then another… For a time there was no sound except for some slightly orgasmic noises. “My God,” said Colton eventually. “I mean, my God. I mean.”
“Taste the butter,” said Flora evilly.
The motto of the American market seems to be “fast and cheap;” perhaps an unfortunate artifact of the magnitude of our population and economy. But the Scots do things a little differently. A bit of googly sleuthing turned up this article on thekitchn.com which says that European butter is cultured, churned, and allowed to ferment longer, resulting in the festival of complexity on your tongue. I’d imagine the cheese-making process is similar. Dairy products, in general, seem to be something you can depend on for happiness. You might have heard that if you haven’t had proper European chocolate then you simply haven’t had chocolate. Sorry to break it to you, but it’s true. I thought I was above that crutch until a friend introduced me to the real stuff, and now a day is incomplete without a few squares of Lindt with my shortbread (a crumbly, buttery cookie) and tea.
I’ve blathered before about my obsession with crumpets, and I’ll blather some more. The pleasure of a crumpet, as I recently lamented to my mum, is almost not worth the sacrifice of finishing it; the flavors still dancing away on your taste buds as you stare at the now tragically empty plate. I call this “crumpet remorse,” and I subject myself to it daily. The U.S. is SERIOUSLY missing out on these things, and I can’t for the life of me fathom why. Instead, in the States we stock their outrageously inferior cousin, the “English Muffin.” They may appear similar, but English Muffins are dense, dry and taste in my expert opinion like compressed cardboard. Crumpets, on the other hand, are light, airy, porous, buoyant squishy sponges of flavourful fun. Whatever you put on them, the bread absorbs it so that the entire muffin is thus infused. When I return to the grievously-deprived States, I may leave my clothes in favor of a carton of crumpets.
How to crumpet: As I understand it, most Scots just ready it in the toaster like your ordinary slab of wheat, but since I like to fry up an egg and sausage for breakfast, I toss the crumpets into the skillet as well. The result is a soft and spongy concoction on the inside with an outwardly crispy crunch. Personally I like to top one off with a square of salted butter and (optionally) a smidge of jam. I lay a fried egg over the other and nibble on my jammy crumpet while I melt a slice of Scottish cheddar in the still-hot skillet. As soon as that’s soft, I pour it over the egg and nip into the most delicious anti-mcmuffin you could imagine.
When they hear you’ve been to the UK, Americans will love to ask: “How was the food?” in tones that sounds more in line with the question, “How was the toothache?” If you ever have the pleasure of the answer, be sure to tell them it’s terrible. More wealth for the rest of us.