British Christmas traditions: the brussels sprout

Health and Safety Warning: This post contains exaggerations that may be detrimental to your mental health. Or your credibility if you take them literally when linking to the post. The Druids did not actually worship brussels sprouts. No one knows much about what the Druids did. And with that out of the way, do read on.

 

What is it about the British and brussels sprouts at Christmas? I address this topic because judging from my search engine queries it’s what people want to know. Or at least what one very determined person wants to know. Within a few days, I had at least five variations on the question Why do the British eat brussels sprouts at Christmas? It may have been more. I lost track in there somewhere. Why the person kept coming back if I hadn’t already managed to answer the question I don’t know. Determination shading into obsession?

Anyway, the question matters, and I’ve addressed it before but I don’t feel I did it justice. Because I sidestepped several crucial facts.

Irrelevant photo: gorse (that's the yellow stuff) and heather (that's the purple)

Irrelevant photo: Gorse (that’s the yellow stuff) and heather (that’s the purple). And grass (that’s the green and the tan.)

First, if Google is to be trusted (it’s not) you can spell the vegetable with or without an S: brussel sprouts or brussels sprouts. The first spelling matches our pronunciation (we just can’t make the double S audible unless we say it while standing on our heads and gargling salt water). Besides which, it’s easier to type without the extra S. The second spelling replicates the name of the city where they didn’t originate. According to Brussels Sprouts Info (everything important has its own web site these days), they’re believed to have been grown in Italy as far back as Roman times and began to be grown on a large scale in Belgium as far back as the sixteenth century before spreading outward from there.

The more common spelling seems to keep the extra S.

Second, you can either capitalize the B or not, depending on whether you capitalize the F in french fries. I don’t, but Word does and gives me bad marks every time I go back and un-cap it. It’s easier to use a cap, which is probably why I don’t. It’s a small and pointless way to fight the monopolies that are taking over our spelling. Not to mention our lives, economy, and politics. Take that, monopolies: I’m using a lower case F and a lower case B. That sound you hear? It’s Microsoft crumbling in the face of my defiance.

Third, the world contains more than 110 varieties of brussels sprouts and I bet you can’t tell any one of them from the other more than 109.

You notice how vague they are on the actual number? It’s probably because someone’s out there devising a new variety even as I type.

So far so uncontroversial, but now we come to:

Fourth, the real reason they’re eaten in Britain at Christmas is a tightly held secret and I’m going to reveal it to you and only you because, hey, it’s just us here, right? No one else is listening. I’d get into serious trouble otherwise. So here’s the truth: The Church of England may be the official and established church in this country, but it’s a thin and brittle overlay. Underneath lies the country’s deeper religion, worship of the Great Brussels Sprout. (And here, yes, it’s capitalized. Even by me. It’s a god and all. You want to show a little respect.)

What did the Druids worship? The Great Brussels Sprout. They painted themselves blue and cultivated the sacred plant. And they were nekkid when they did it.

How’d they cultivate it if brussels sprouts didn’t yet grow in the British Isles? I did say Google couldn’t be trusted. Its sources are giving you the official history. You can only find the truth by going into the dark web, where danger lurks behind every pixel, so I don’t dare give you any links. Folks, I’ll take the risk myself but I can’t be responsible for your safety. You’ll have to find it on your own or trust my report: The truth is that the Romans quietly exported the brussels sprout from Britain to Italy, and once it was established there they claimed to have developed all more than 110 varieties themselves.

Back in Britain, the Romans suppressed both the Druids and all outward forms of sprout cultivation and worship, but the belief ran deep in the population, and it survived, waiting from the sprout’s return.

How’d it do that when the pre-Roman British tribes (the Iceni, the Caledones, the Parisi, the Cornovii…) were overrun by the Angles and the Saxons and the Vikings and the Normans, making for a choppy history and a messy but interesting language? Because knowledge of the Great Brussels Sprout is planted deep in the soil. You don’t have to learn it from your community. If you get yourself a shovel and start digging, it works its way into your bloodstream. You feel a compulsion to worship something green and brassican. Rumor has it that they made do with cabbages until the brussels sprout was re-imported and jogged their memories of what the Great God really looked like. These were agricultural people, remember. They had lots of shovels. So when Christianity became the dominant religion, the best it could do was drive sprout worship deep underground, and from there it rises, godlike, every year.

Do I consider it strange, you ask (or at least you should ask), that people eat the sprout they worship? Isn’t that a bit, um, grotesque? Not at all. The Great Sprout is the essence of all sprouts and is itself inedible. The sprouts people eat at Christmas are merely its representation. And those among us who claim the ones on the plate are also inedible? They’re closest to the holy nature of the Great Brussels Sprout and everybody should back off and stop giving them a hard time.

Fifth (we were counting, remember?), the brussels sprout ripens around Christmas time. How many other vegetables are willing to do that? So of course people eat it.

*

And on a marginally sensible note, last week I forgot to link back to Laura, at A PIct in PA, who first used to word tickety boo, giving me a great excuse for another important post. She’s a Scot living and raising her kids in Pennsylvania, and she keeps a fine blog with lots of nifty artwork.

Prohibition and sticky toffee desserts

When I last asked for questions about Britain or the U.S., Dan Antion wrote, “The last night I was in London, I had some kind of gooey toffee desert (sticky something). I wrote my friend in Ipswich and said, ‘why did you send us the Beatles and keep this a secret?’ but he never replied. This makes me think there’s a law against describing that dish. If you choose not to write about this or toffee, I’ll understand (but it will confirm my suspicion).”

Never one to be scared off by sensible considerations or petty legalities, I’ll tell you everything I know on the subject. And more. Much, much more.

Irrelevant photo: a volunteer cyclamen that planted itself by the back door

Irrelevant photo: a volunteer cyclamen that planted itself by the back door

It sounds to me like Dan stumbled into an underground club where sticky toffee pudding was being served on the sly. While he was on the pavement humming “Yellow Submarine” and wondering why colors seemed so vivid suddenly, his friend was whispering a secret word to the tough guy lingering by an unmarked door, who gestured them inside and closed the door behind them. They ate and Dan licked his spoon (desserts here come with a big honkin’ spoon) and wondered why the tastes were as vivid as the colors.

It was something to do with the Beatles.

I can’t promise to reproduce that experience, but through the magic of the internet I have gotten access to several highly encrypted recipes. Being so well hidden, there are, of course, problems.

  1. They’re mostly metric, but if you can decode them, you can make then. And if you can make them, you can eat them. I won’t try to convert them because I tried that once and–well, it was over a year ago and I’m still recovering. So you’ll need a kitchen scale to follow them. Sorry, you American cooks. This involves a smallish investment.
  2. Sticky toffee pudding seems to want self-raising flour, and I never used the stuff in the U.S. It’s sold in the southern states but is rare in the northern states and in Canada—or so the wise old internet informs me. It doesn’t like the cold, I guess, but with global warming its range may be expanding. Even where it’s available, though, it’s apparently formulated differently, so using it could make your recipe go all weird.
  3. British supermarkets sell more kinds of sugar than kinds of baked beans, and they lots of baked beans. Lots and lots of baked beans. Start with granulated, demerara, turbinado, muscovado, then go on for another line or two. Me, I ignore most of this and use either white (that’s called granulated) or brown. I may lose some subtle tastes, but it works. However, I do not now and never have substituted baked beans for sugar in any recipe, nor do I recommend that you try.

In case that isn’t complicated enough, I’m going to give you several recipe links:

Behind door one is one of the rare recipes that doesn’t use self-raising flour. It also doesn’t use dates, which makes me suspicious, because dates seem to be important here.

Behind door two is one that uses both dates and self-raising flour. Don’t rule it out, though, because you can make your own self-raising flour from plain ol’ flour by adding “2 teaspoons of baking powder to each cup (150g) of all-purpose (plain flour).”

Since the recipe calls for 175 grams of flour and since my math is shaky at best, I’d have to double that, then toss the extra—what would it be? 100 grams? 125 grams? a bunch?—over my shoulder and onto the kitchen floor and blame Nigella for the mess since it’s her recipe and her substitution suggestion. Or her team’s. She may no longer exist in person but have been replaced by a team of some sort.

The recipe calls for muscovado sugar. See above. Or see the web site that says, “Sugars like muscovado, demerara, and turbinado have flavor depths and aromatic heights that blow plain ol’ granulated sugar out of the water.” Muscovado has a “very moist texture and a strong molasses flavor.” Yeah, yeah, yeah. Me, I wouldn’t put my granulated sugar in the water to start with, so muscovado would have to blow if out of the cupboard. You can get away with brown sugar. Or probably (gasp) white.

Behind door three lurks something scary: the possibility that we’re not looking for sticky toffee pudding at all but sticky toffee cake. But let’s be reckless and yank the thing open it anyway. I didn’t get where I am today by being cautious.

Remind me, would you? Where am I exactly?

Most of the recipes I found for this call for golden syrup, which as far as I know isn’t sold in the U.S. supermarkets, but one doesn’t. For reasons I can’t explain, it pops up behind a box that wants to divert you someplace else entirely, but if you work at it you can still read the recipe.

And then there’s this one that not only doesn’t use golden syrup, it’s measured in cups and baked in Fahrenheit, which makes me think it’s from the U.S.

Sorry, Dan. I’d make this simple if I could but it wouldn’t be half as much fun to write about.

*

For those of you who are following the pet saga at our house, the Big Guy seems to moved on. He went out on Thursday night and hasn’t come back. I’ve put a notice on the village Facebook page, so people are keeping an eye out for him, but as J. wrote, he seems to have a touch of the wanderer in him. It’s been rainy and cold, but he’s good at letting people know what he needs–that’s how he came to us–so I hope he’s found himself a new home.

Updates on tea and medical bureaucracy

I get some fantastic comments on this blog and a few of them just have to break out of the comment section. So I’m going to pick up on four of them, two about tea and two about medical bureaucracy.

Tea

If you’re American, you think I already wrote more about tea than is either intellectually or physically possible. But I live in Britain. Tea is the binding force that holds the nation together, and let me tell you it’s looking a little shaky lately, what with Scotland having held a referendum on whether to leave the union and, far more shockingly, so many kids these days getting their caffeine from energy drinks instead of a respectable source like tea. Not to mention the number of tea drinkers allowing themselves to be seduced by fancy coffee and if that isn’t enough the possibility that Scotland will hold another referendum in the (less than immediate) future.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: fall berries. I'm not even sure what they are.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Fall berries. I’m not sure what they are but I don’t recommend tasting them.

And I’m not sure how the Welsh feel about referendums and secession. Or even whether some purist is going to tell me that the plural is referenda.

So, yeah. We need our tea. And we need to make it right. Which brings me to the point—and yes, there is one. Or two actually. You only had to wait.

J. tells me (and this was in person, not in a blog comment, which is why she’s going by an initial; the tradition may be silly but at least I’m consistent) that I ignored the role of teapots in my last tea post. Sure, I mentioned them, but you can’t make a nice cup of tea, J. says, unless you make it in a pot. Actually, she probably said “a proper cup of tea,” but I was listening to the sense, not the words, sadly. The sense was this: Make it in a cup and it just doesn’t come out right. Even if you only make a single cup, you need to make it in the pot and then pour it into the cup.

Why? Because it’s not a proper cup of tea otherwise, and if it’s not a proper cup of tea it’s not a nice cup of tea. And if it’s not a nice cup of tea, Scotland might just spin out into the North Sea, leaving the northern edge of England a ragged tear (pronounced tare; people may or may not weep about this, but it’s not what we’re talking about) across the land.

That’s not intended, by the way, as a comment on whether Scottish independence is a good idea. I could argue both sides of the proposition with equal passion. But the spinning into the North Sea? That’s just, you know, a fact.

Oh, and the pot has to be warm. Because the tea will brew better.

J.’s of the bone china school of tea drinking. Because it tastes better that way. It doesn’t have to be a fussy little cup and saucer—a mug’s fine—but for her it has to be made of china. Me? I like a heavier mug, but I try not to argue religion with friends.

So that’s one point. And then in the comment section, helenwood wrote about a job she had long ago, working for a tea importer, pouring water over the leaves so the tasters could sip and spit. But that wasn’t what grossed her out—it was that the tea leaves scattered on the warehouse floor, and presumably walked through by one and all, ended up in teabags.

If anything’s going to convert me to leaf tea, that would do it.

Medical bureaucracies

Moving on, then, from a serious topic to the trivia of our lives, we come to what I wrote about medicine in the U.K.

Ianbcross, a doctor who’s worked in the National Health System, commented that the Choose and Book system gives patients a code so they can make an appointment with a specialist online or by phone. “If there are no appointments available,” he writes, “it is up to the hospital to find one for you. You decide whether to accept it or not. This is for routine stuff. If your doc thinks you might have cancer, you get a two week wait appointment from the hospital. Less choice for you, but as soon as they can, they fit you in. Emergencies go directly to hospital, without passing GO, of course.”

Well, this is a guy who knows the system, and his comment made me wonder if I’d misremembered my experiences and Wild Thing’s. So I did what any sane blogger would do: I took a small and unscientific survey (I’ve stolen that phrase; it’s nice, isn’t it?) and came up with the following revelation: Our local surgery (that’s a doctor’s office if you’re American) is all set up so you can use the Click and Book system, but they don’t tell you about it. If you ask to use it, they’re happy to let you use it. But if you don’t already know about it, you can’t ask. So you sit around waiting for that letter.

Unless—as happened to me recently—you get a phone call. From the wrong hospital. But never mind, it was a phone call and it came quickly.

When I acted as an advocate for our neighbor, it wasn’t about getting an appointment but about shaking loose the report from an appointment she’d already had so she could (a) find out what was wrong and (b) do something about it. The doctor had dictated the letter and there it sat, waiting to be typed. And as far as I could tell there it was going to sit and wait until pine trees grew in hell.

The practice manager and I had a leave-it-with-me conversation, and I left it with her until the end of the day, when I called back. Which reminds me to mention that the NHS has a wonderful service called PALS, which stands for Patient Advocacy SomethingWithAnL SomethingWithAnS, not (as it did when I was a kid in New York) the Police Athletic League. I called PALS just after I talked with the practice manager. I suspect it’s owed the credit for getting that letter in the mail. I heard a rumor the service’s funding is going to be cut. I hope it’s not true, because the idea that within an inevitably bureaucratic system are people whose job is to make a nuisance of themselves when things aren’t working for the patient? That’s inspired.

In another comment, Dan Antion reminded me that in the U.S. the first questions anyone medical asks are about your coverage. If you’re not American, you may need that translated: Do you have insurance? Who’s your provider? What plan are you on (secondary translation: does your insurance plan cover this procedure)? And so on. In other words, everyone talks money while you bleed onto the floor, because money is what matters. (Note to the current U.K. government: Are you sure you don’t want to rethink that whole privatization of the NHS thing?)

And if anyone in Britain thinks it’s just the NHS that has unacceptable delays, he tells the story of a friend with a life-threatening condition who needed surgery and was told she couldn’t be seen for six to eight weeks.

The thing about the NHS is that until the current round of disorganizations were introduced, it’s been a unified system, so people talk about unacceptable delays, and newspapers write about them, and word generally gets passed around and everyone’s outraged and wants something done about it, which creates pressure to actually do something. When emergency rooms keep people waiting for more than four hours, it’s considered unacceptable. In the U.S., my father was left waiting in the emergency room for, if I remember right, seventeen hours. With meningitis. At the age of ninety. And he had good insurance. We were furious, but it was business as usual and didn’t tarnish the hospital’s reputation, or the U.S. medical system’s.

Making a nice cup of tea

When my British friends seriously want some tea, they get specific about what they want: not just tea but a nice cup of tea.

Let’s take that apart: We can leave a and of alone without destabilizing anything important. But think about the word nice. Because you don’t just have a cup of tea in this country, you have a nice cup of tea. Even when the nice is silent, if you listen carefully you can hear it resonating in the background. I need a nice cup of tea, a nice cup of tea, a nice cup of tea.

And if the cup of tea you get tastes like second-hand dishwater? It’s all the more disappointing, because what you wanted was that nice cup of tea, not this travesty you’ve been handed.

In the U.S., we never sit down to a nice cup of coffee. We drink coffee, we make coffee, we drop by our friends’ houses for coffee, and we go out for coffee. But we don’t expect that comforting nice from it. It’s just, you know, an ultra-fat mocha semiccino with whipped cream and caramel sauce with a side of chocolate chip muffin and a triple bacon cheeseburger deluxe on a sesame seed bun. With mayo.

In other words, it’s no big deal.

Irrelevant photo: wild blackberries

Irrelevant photo: wild blackberries

I don’t know what it says about our two cultures that one seeks comfort from a hot drink and the other doesn’t, but I’ve known people here in Britain to welcome a cup of tea the way I’d expect someone to welcome a stiff drink after a day when the computer blew up, the basement flooded, and the dog filed for divorce; I’ve known them to take the first sip and say, like a borderline alcoholic after a brief flirtation with sobriety, “I needed that.”

Or maybe that’s me I’m quoting. If so, forget it. I’m not British. Or I am, but not deeply enough to count.

So let’s move on. People who expect comfort from a hot drink seem to find it. Point made, in a wobbly fashion.

After nice comes cup. Go into any cafe any you can ask for a pot of tea, and in some for a mug. In most places you’ll get a pot whether you ask for it or not, and all of that is fine, but if the nice gets spoken at all, it comes attached to a cup—one of those curved shells you wrap your hands around while the warmth seeps into your half-frozen soul. The thing you bring to your lips, allowing all the love that went into its making to flow into your metaphorical as opposed to your literal heart. It may have been made in a pot, but whoever made it poured it into a cup for you and that’s what we’re talking about— that cup and its the contents, and by extension the acts of making and handing.

We’ve gone well beyond the rational here. This is about caring and nurturing. It’s about love itself, in an indirect way.

So tea is central to the culture. Does that mean an American can’t march in and make a decent cup? Americans seem to hold one of three opinions:

  1. [Fill in the blank] criticizes my tea-making and always will because I’m American. Even if I do it right, I’ll never do it right.
  2. I’ve been to Britain and read every book ever published on the subject. Tea is my religion and I’ve returned home to convert a refined few among the heathens.
  3. Oh, get over it. It’s just a drink. Wanna cup?

If you’ve been hanging around my blog for any length of time, you can guess which category I’m in.

I don’t know how many categories British opinion falls into on the subject, and that may be for the best. However, in my unbiased opinion, I make a decent cup of tea, and if a friend’s in serious need I can even make a nice cup of tea. It’s hot, it’s strong (except when I make it for M., who drinks it so weak that I just boil the water and wave a teabag through the steam), and under normal circumstances it comes with something home baked.

And with that we arrive to the heart of this post. How do you make a nice cup of tea?

Am I qualified to answer that question? Do I care? Uncertainty hasn’t stopped me in the past, and neither has good sense. I don’t see why they should now. I predict, though, that from here on everyone who drinks tea will disagree with me about something. Have a good time, folks. I’m looking forward to it.

You start with the tea. If you’re American, this is the hard part.

Leaf tea: You can go to a fancy tea store and buy leaf tea, choosing one that was picked before sunrise from plants that have never been spoken to harshly. And you can pay any amount of money you like for the privilege, as long the amount is large. If you live in a tea-drinking country, on the other hand, you can buy leaf tea in a supermarket. No one in sight will know how the plants were spoken to or when the tea was picked. But it’s tea.

Wherever you buy it, try a few kinds and see which one you like.

Which means you have to brew it, and the first trick is to avoid stuffing it into anything that won’t let the water flow through. I’ve tried a variety of brewing gizmos over the years and most of them are as useless as stuffing the leaves in an old sock, and that includes the cloth or paper gizmos that imitate teabags. Why you want to avoid teabags and then use something that imitates them I don’t know, especially when they don’t work as well as the teabags you’re avoiding. (I am going to catch such hell for saying that. I can hardly wait.) Choose the wrong gizmo to stuff your leaves into and you’ll end up with expensive tannish water.

Open baskets do work—in this barbarian’s opinion.

In Britain, a lot of the cafes that use leaf tea dump it directly into the pot and give you a strainer, which comes with something to rest it on so you don’t end up splattering teadrops everywhere. Because the leaves are swimming around in the water, you don’t have to worry about whether the water’s flowing through them. The tea will be good and strong, but if you’re slow about drinking it, it’ll turn bitter. Some cafes give you an extra pot with hot water to thin it out with once that happens, but even with the extra water it sometimes gets strong enough to make you grow hair on your tongue.

Teabags: British supermarkets sell more kinds of teabags than they do baked beans, which is another way of saying you have a lot to pick from. If you’re in the U.S., your choices are limited. You can buy Twinings or something along those lines—one of those brands that entombs each teabag in a little plasticky-foily packet so you’ll understand how special it is, and how special you are to have bought it. I hate Twinings. Which—according to Kate Fox’s Watching the English—is because I’m not upper class. The lower classes drink their tea strong. The upper classes wants theirs to be as refined as they (think they) are, so their tea has to be pale and (lack-of-objectivity alert here) flavorless. So if you’re American and you like Twinings, go ahead and drink it and know that you’ve got more class than I have. Or want, thanks.

When I lived in the U.S., I bought Lyons tea from an Irish store near us and it was strong enough to turn my hair gray. Just look at the photo I use. Back when I drank coffee, I had (mostly) black hair. But Lyons is great stuff. If I hadn’t been able to get that, I think I’d have gone for Lipton’s rather than Twinings. At least it has some oomph to it.

Do I use leaf or teabags? Teabags. I used to keep some leaf tea for special occasions but the tea I made with it was never as good and how’s that a way to celebrate?

Water: This is the other ingredient in tea. If you want, you can use bottled water and it may or may not make your tea taste better. It will be more expensive. Your choice. You can use a kettle or a pan to boil it. If you’re in Britain, you’ll almost surely use an electric kettle because it’s fast. You’ll use it so often that you never put it away. If you’re in the U.S. you can still use an electric kettle but only if you’re willing to invest some time in the project. I grew old waiting for electric kettles to boil in the U.S. I’d have been 56 if I’d just put the water on the stove, but no, I had to buy an electric kettle and so I’m 68.

I have no idea why American electric kettles take so long.

What you can’t do is stick the water in the microwave. Even if it’s in a nice cup. Because microwaves don’t get the water not enough. The true secret of a nice cup of tea is that the water has to be boiling when you pour it over the tea. Or, okay, if it stopped boiling 30 seconds before I get to it, I don’t quibble, I just pour. But if it didn’t boil, or if it boiled back when my hair was black, it’s not worth using.

Do you have to warm the kettle? In my book, it depends on how cold the kettle is. Which depends on how cold the house is. If it’s cold, pour a little of the water in it, slosh it around, let it sit if you want to, warm the thing up, then pour the water out and make your tea. And if you’re making a single cup? I’ve never stopped to warm a cup, although it makes as much sense as warming the kettle. And the tea’s been fine, thanks.

I’ve read that you shouldn’t reboil the water because all the air goes out of it, or all the—oh, I don’t know why you’re not supposed to do it. You’re not. All the experts agree. So put in as much as you need and no more.

How long do you brew it? Well, how strong do you like your tea? I remember a huge ad in Paddington Station saying that after five minutes tea was stewed, not brewed. Stewed tea is bad. Why? Because a huge poster in Paddington Station said so.

I don’t leave my tea that long unless I wander off to do something else and forget it, in which case it may be as much as ten minutes before I wander back. If I’m in a hurry, I stir it. What you (and you’ll notice how seamlessly we’ve switched from me to you here) don’t want to do, if you’re using teabags, is squeeze them. It makes the tea bitter. Really. It does. Just lift them out, all dripping and nasty. Or leave them in, but if the tea’s going to be sitting a while, you may end up with a hairy tongue.

Add milk. Or milk and sugar if you feel strongly about it. Then sit back and enjoy a nice cup of tea. With love.

The cream tea wars

Cornwall and Devon are separated by the River Tamar and by a whole lot of bitter claims over who makes the best cream tea. Since a few people have left comments lately saying—and I’m about to paraphrase them both inaccurately and irresponsibly—that almost no wars are worth fighting, I think it’s time we stop and contemplate whether this one might not be. Because some things really do matter.

But first, for the sake of those of you whose feet have never been tucked under a table blessed with a cream tea, I need to explain what I’m going on about. The cream tea one of the few things that might convince this atheist that heaven exists. You take a scone and split it in half, then put jam and clotted cream on each half and as you take that first bite you’ll notice your eyes rolling upward toward the heavens in thanks.

swanage 073

Irrelevant photo: To be fair to both Cornwall and Devon, I’m posting a photo from Dorset. Which probably also thinks it invented the cream tea.

What’s clotted cream, though? It’s roughly as thick as whipped cream (don’t quibble; I did say “roughly”) but unsweetened. As well as yellower, gooier, and better. Ignore the disgusting name.

What’s this got to do with wars? Well, in Devon they think they invented both clotted cream and the cream tea. And they put the cream on first. In Cornwall, they also think they invented clotted cream and the cream tea and they put the jam on first. You at the back, settle down. This will be on the test.

In fact, it’s on the test every time I get a cream tea—which isn’t often because the arteries will only put up with just so much abuse. But it does happen now and then and when it does I sit in front of the scones, the dishes of cream and jam, and can’t remember which goes on first. Because I live in Cornwall, and this is serious stuff. It’s also exactly the kind of stuff my mind spits out like a toddler offered rutabaga. Ptooey, it says. I’m not remembering this, and it dances off to review some song lyric it already knows perfectly well, or the name of a wildflower, or something else of its own damn choosing.

Meanwhile, I could get myself run out of the county for this. And if I do, my mind’s going with me so I wish it would pay more attention.

Why does anyone care? Once upon a time, I’d have said it was just something to fight over, but food scientists have researched the issue, looking for the perfect cream tea formula. It turns out you want 40 grams of scone, 30 of cream, and 30 of jam. And—although they don’t mention this—a good-size pot of tea. With milk, a sunny day, and some people you like. Because hurling yourself at a cream tea on your own is right up there with drinking alone.

It turns out that the Devon method makes it easier to spread the fillings but the Cornish method allows you to serve the scone hotter, because the jam insulates the cream and keeps it from running. They don’t actually say which is better, the cowards. Which means they’ve been overtaken by the fate of most peacemakers, which is to piss off both sides.

You will, of course, pledge your allegiance to whichever side you choose, but don’t be surprised to make a few enemies when you do.

If you don’t live in Britain but want to make your own cream tea so you can participate in our wars? You’ll find a scone recipe in a back post and you shouldn’t have any trouble finding strawberry jam in a store, but you’ll have to either find a fancy supermarket and pay an outrageous amount of money for real clotted cream or try to fake it. Here are a couple of attempts I found online. I can’t vouch for either of them. This one’s from Food.com and used heavy cream and sour cream. And this one’s from Just a Pinch and uses cream cheese and whipping cream. Both add a bit of sugar, which makes me skeptical, but it may work. For the real thing, you’ll have to visit. On a sunny day. With friends.

Dealing with the public, U.K. style: part 2

Last Friday I posted a piece about what it’s like dealing with the public in the U.K. Then I did the grocery shopping and became the public.

I need to bore you with a bit of personal background here. On Thursday, I made pizza for Wild Thing, a friend, and myself. Two pizzas to be exact, because our friend is young, with youth’s boundless and enthusiastic ability to eat a lot of whatever’s available. I make a decent pizza, if I do say so myself, with homemade dough but, sadly, bottled sauce. I used homemade sauce once, and although it’s good on spaghetti it was all wrong on pizza. So I use bottled stuff.

But pizza calls for mozzarella.

Irrelevant photo: beach huts at Swannage

Irrelevant photo: beach huts at Swannage

Now unlike the U.S., Britain never attracted a serious wave of Italian immigrants, and it’s a poorer country for it—something that’s worth keeping in mind as we battle it out over how many refugees we’ll allow to reach these green shores. So Cornwall shouldn’t be your first stop if you’re planning a mozzarella tour of the world. When you ask for mozzarella here, most stores will show you little wet balls of the stuff, called fresh mozzarella, sealed in soft plastic coffins.

Do I sound biased? I’ve never tasted truly fresh mozzarella, but I’ve read that it has 24 wonderful qualities and one is lost in each hour after it’s made. The stuff in plastic coffins, then? It’s edible, even if I can’t get excited about it. But it’s Italian, and we’re all impressed with Italian food, so it sells. As the British recover from a traumatic food history, which includes not just rationing during and after World War II but long exposure to baked beans and overboiled cabbage, they’re exercising their gourmet muscles, trying to build up—well, maybe not a reputation as a gourmet nation but a something, a, um, gee, I seem to have gone all flappy and wordless as I try to describe this.

Okay, here’s what I’m trying to say: I opened Saturday’s paper and turned to the recipes while I worked up the courage to face the latest brutalities of the refugee crisis. Because—I know, in the context it’s grotesque, but our world a grotesque place these days—I love reading recipes, and trying a few of them. And the ones I found called for orange blossom honey, fresh curry leaves, and quails’ eggs. And good sherry vinegar. If you have any of the crappy stuff, don’t use it. Not to mention fennel bulbs. (Bleah—licorice flavor. Shudder, shudder, shudder.)

Not all in one recipe, to be fair about this. But still, you know, it’s not the stuff every home cook keeps on hand. Or the stuff rural supermarkets stock.

I can’t help thinking that these things get tossed into British recipes to establish the gourmetocity of the cooks who write them. You know: Look at us. Aren’t we worldly? Don’t we know our ingredients? So what if you never cook it: Aren’t you impressed?

I’ve wandered. Where was I? Fresh mozzarella in little wet packs that preserve it for so long that calling it fresh violates every Truth in Advertising standard ever established. It’s trendy. So the supermarkets sell it. Hell, even our village store’s been known to stock it. And it’s useless for pizza. Once, in desperation, I tried squeezing the water out of it and using it. I might as well have boiled the pizza.

I do not recommend repeating the experiment.

Plain ol’ mozzarella—the nonfresh stuff; I guess you could call it the dry stuff—is hard to find where I live. Maybe in cities it’s easier. For a while our local supermarket, Morrison’s, sold it by the block, which was great. Then they didn’t sell any. Then they sold it grated. Then that disappeared and was replaced with a mozzarella and cheddar mix, which is blasphemy. Then, finally, they sold a Morrison’s brand grated mozzarella again. And all was at peace in North Cornwall.

Until of course it wasn’t. Because the stuff I bought and used on our most recent pizzas? It was white and it melted—so far so much like mozzarella—but it didn’t taste like cheese. The packaging was the same as the mozzarella I’d bought before, but they’re substituted some uncheeselike substance.

And this in a country that takes cheese seriously. That makes and eats wonderful cheese.

And now we return to Friday, when I was shopping in Morrison’s, having made two bad pizzas the day before, and I was in the dairy aisle, where a kid was stocking something and on an impulse I asked him, “If I made a comment on one of your products, is there anyone who actually listens to that sort of thing?”

To which he said something along the lines of, “Gee, I don’t know.”

We both laughed. There was no point in going on about the mozzarella, but there was also no way not to, so I told him about it. We stopped to unscramble that I didn’t mean the fresh stuff, I meant the grated (since they no longer sell it in bricks).

“I only buy the red Leicester,” he said, “and to be honest that’s crap too.”

How could I not like this kid? I seem to remember Wild Thing swearing off red Leicester years ago, for just that reason, although on the basis of our recent experience I’m ready to guess that we don’t know what red Leicester really tastes like. I don’t remember what else we said, but as we were winding down I said, “Well, if there’s anyone to pass my comment on to, tell them some crazy American who lives here complained about the mozzarella.”

He said he would. We were both, I think, pretty sure he wouldn’t, because who was he going to tell? I thought about calling the emergency services number—which is 999 here, in case you need to know that—but I restrained myself.

Serving Texas hamburgers in Cornwall

Texas ran head-on into Britain last weekend and—. I was going to say that I’m not sure who won but it wasn’t a contest so maybe no one had to. Let’s say that both sides learned something.

Maybe.

Our village hall held a fundraising barbecue, and Wild Thing volunteered to make and grill Texas hamburgers.

Irrelevant photo. Four people. Evening. The cliffs.

Irrelevant photo. Four people. Evening. The cliffs.

The first thing you have to understand is that barbecue is one of those words that look like they’d mean the same thing on both sides of the Atlantic but don’t. In Britain it means cooked outside, on a grill. In the U.S., it has to do with sauce, fire, secret rites and recipes. It’s close to being a religion. Maybe it is a religion. I’m a vegetarian and originally a New Yorker, so you shouldn’t take my word on the subject.

The second thing you have to understand is that hamburger’s another of those words. In the U.S., it’s both the raw meat and the cooked thing that you eat. It’s made with ground beef and nothing else. In Britain it means only the thing you eat. The meat it’s made from is called mince, and to make it into a hamburger you add stuff and then cook it. Not just stuff, though, all kinds of stuff. Onion, egg, bread, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, garlic, sweet chili sauce, cumin, coriander, tomato puree, breadcrumbs, bicycle tires. Not all in the same recipe, I admit, but one recipe I found tossed thirteen ingredients into the meat.

It’s enough to drive a Texan to tears. Or drive her to say she’ll make the burgers and everyone else should stand back.

The number of ingredients explains why so many people here buy their hamburgers ready made. Because it never occurs to them that they can just divide up the meat and flatten it. They have to empty the contents of their kitchen cupboards into a bowl and mix it all up before they have—as folks here would say—a proper hamburger.

I don’t suppose I can go any further without mentioning that there were some scandals here a couple of years ago about horsemeat working its way into the food chain and showing up in, yes, preformed hamburger patties. They’re a perfect host, since they have enough extraneous ingredients to hide anything that doesn’t belong there. You could probably slip in a screwdriver and call it chopped onion, only onion’s cheaper so why would you bother?

If you’re from a culture that doesn’t eat horsemeat, finding that you just chowed down on it is shocking. More serious, though, is what its appearance in the burger patties says about how much any of us knows what we’re eating. Is someone selling not just the wrong animals but diseased animals? You can see the problem.

Anybody want to bet that the funding for food inspection has been cut?

Enough with the politics, though. We’re talking burgers.

So Wild Thing bought the beef and shaped the patties. She had some help, but if anyone had been tempted to add anything but beef she was right there to fight them off. Then she stood by the grill, flipping the meat and promoting the politics of the Texas hamburger. When meat’s involved, she does tend to, as J. puts it, open a can of Texas.

So how did the hamburgers go over?

A lot of people liked them enough to ask what was in them.

Beef.

Yes, but what’s in them.

Beef. You don’t add anything.

A. stopped by yesterday to say they were the best hamburgers he’d ever eaten, but he had trouble believing they wouldn’t need something to bind them together. No egg?

Just beef.

So that was one group of people.

Then there was the other group. They brought theirs back and asked if Wild Thing would put them on the grill for another few minutes. Or another twenty. Two or three brought them back again because they could still see pink. If a trace of juice landed on the bun, it wasn’t done.

A couple of the re-grillers volunteered that they liked their steak rare but couldn’t eat hamburger that way. No matter how much Wild Thing begged them to close their eyes and try.

So Wild Thing put them back on the grill. She’s not given to tears, but if she was she’d have wept to do that to good beef.

Who learned what? It’s hard to say. Wild Thing thinks she’s learned that she won’t get to grill the hamburgers next year, although it’s too early to know if she’s right. A few people learned how to make an American burger. If anyone learned to eat their hamburgers rare, I haven’t heard about it.

Community life in a Cornish village

Some days you find an adventure around every blind curve in the narrow road. At least if you’re 144, as Wild Thing and I cumulatively are (I think; don’t trust me with numbers), it’s enough to pass for adventure.

We drove to a garden center on Sunday to buy a dwarf hydrangea. Doesn’t that sound like the kind of thing you do when you’re cumulatively 144 years old?

Irrelevant photo: St. John's wort, or rose of sharon

Irrelevant photo: St. John’s wort, or rose of sharon

We weren’t yet at the main road when we saw a ewe and two lambs on the road. I slowed to a crawl and thought I’d edge past them, but they weren’t having it. The ewe led her lambs straight ahead, so that I was either driving them back toward their field or further from it, only I had no idea which.  Either way, I was adding stress to their day.

City kids that we are, we’ve lived in the country long enough to know we needed to stop at the nearest permanently occupied house (this is second-home country, and vacation-rental country, so not just any house would do). But we weren’t near the nearest house—we were near fields, none of which had sheep in them.

Wild Thing got out of the car, thinking she could edge them to the side of the road, but they treated her the same way they treated the car: They kept going down the road.

Eventually we—me in the car and Wild Thing on foot—came to a field gate and they plastered themselves against it. I drove past and got out of the car while we talked about what to do. It was tempting to open the gate and let them in, but it was a recently mown, sheepless field. Wherever they came from, this wasn’t it. (If it had had sheep, we’d have had no way of knowing if it was the right flock, but never mind, it didn’t.)

We drove on and stopped at the next house, which turned out to belong to people we know slightly. They narrowed the possibilities down to two farmers and promised to call them both. In the meantime, a litter of six springer spaniel puppies swarmed us in that charming, brainless way that puppies have and they—that’s the people, not the dogs—said they had two left, did we want any?

I dragged Wild Thing away before she could claim them both and we got back in the car feeling very much like part of the community. Which is something, I suspect, that only people who aren’t quite part of the community bother to feel, but never mind, it felt wonderful.

We drove on and about a mile on the other side of the main road picked up two hitchhikers carrying skateboards. They were, at a wild guess, somewhere in their late teens and facing a long, long walk if they didn’t get a ride.

Wild Thing’s part of a group of people trying to create a skateboard park in the village. The group was kicked off by a couple of fathers whose kids—well, one of them is just walking and the other hasn’t gotten that far. So you can think of this as a long-term project. The village is a great place for young kids but not so great for older ones, and a skate board park wouldn’t solve the problem but it would help a bit. And it might keep the kids from skating on a stretch of road between two blind curves, where sooner or later somebody’s going to get smooshed.

So Wild Thing talked with them about skateboard parks and they loved the idea that someone wanted to build one. The three of them happily traded information for a few miles. They talked about how adults tend to treat skaters like a threat to the fabric of society—I’m paraphrasing here; I can’t remember their exact words—and I talked about how generation after generation adults are convinced that whatever kids are into is a threat to the fabric of society. The only thing that changes is the activity. When Wild Thing and I were kids it was hanging out on the street corner.

We dropped them in Launceston and left feeling like—you got it—part of a community. Then we bought a blue dwarf hydrangea and some pansies. I’d told Wild Thing just the day before that I wasn’t going to grow pansies anymore because the slugs and snails love them (yumm, salad) but they were so cheery that I bought them anyway. And I’ve been out slaughtering slugs and snails pretty consistently in recent weeks, so I might be able to get away with it.

From there, we drove home and walked to a village tea that was raising money for the Air Ambulance. We shared a table with two women from a nearby town and Wild Thing got a conversation going, which isn’t always easy but she has a gift. As they were leaving, Wild Thing said we’d stop by on Monday to help them eat the cake they were buying. They said we’d be most welcome. It was gracious thing to say, and since we don’t know their address(es), a safe one.

Then some people from the village joined us and J. wanted the recipe for a chocolate cake I brought to a party last week. Actually, she’d asked the day before and I hadn’t gotten around to sending it, but she explained that she needed it that day because she wanted to make it on Monday.

The recipe’s based on one in The Joy of Cooking, and I’m in love with it at the moment. British pie crusts are richer than the ones we make in the U.S., but their cakes tend to be drier. And I’m on a mission to mess with British baking anyway. Not because I don’t like it–some of it’s wonderful, and I’ve learned how to make a mean ginger cake. But what culture’s national cuisine couldn’t be improved by peach cobbler and New York cheesecake?

Anyway, being asked for the recipe left me with that same feeling of being part of a community, and we waddled home, happy and full of cake and scones.

Tea on the lawn: what could be more English?

Is anything more English than tea on the lawn of a great house? We’ve were talking about stereotypes since I fell for an inaccurate one about Americans, but linking tea on the lawn—especially the lawn of a great house—to Englishness seems like a safer gamble. (Feel free to take me apart on that if I’m wrong.)

Cream tea at Penhele

Cream tea at Penhele

Recently, Wild Thing and I went to a cream tea at Penhele, a great house not from where we live. It was a fundraiser for the Charles Causley Trust, which (I just checked the website) keeps alive the memory of a local poet and promotes writing in the region where he lived. I’d love to give you a link to some of his poems, but although I’ve been impressed by some of his poetry I didn’t like the only one I found online. Others are under copyright and that makes them a no-go zone. Sorry.

But we didn’t go there to support the Causley Trust. In fact, we didn’t know what the event was raising money for. We didn’t even go for the cream tea, although it was a welcome bonus. What we really wanted was to see the gardens and the house, which are well enough known around here that we ran into half the village almost as soon as we walked in. One of them, J., was a carpenter before he retired (only they say joiner here, or builder, and I’m not all that sure what the difference is) and worked restoring historic buildings. Basically, once he’s done you can’t tell he’s been there. I asked if he knew how old the house was and he pointed to a stone plaque above a doorway in what he told me was the hall. It carried a date in the 1600s—1660, if I remember right. For all I know, other parts are older.

“I worked on those windows,” he said, pointing to the right of the plaque.

I felt like I was sitting next to a rock star.

Most of us—maybe all of us—lined up to buy tea and either scones with jam and clotted

Walking by the lake.

Walking by the lake. Photo by Ida Swearingen

cream (that’s the cream part of a cream tea) or cake, then we drifted along paths and past fields, a lake, a swimming pool (covered), in and out of a series of open rooms formed by a high, dense hedge, and past an empty flowerpot stuck deep into the hedge and looking like a place for someone to hide his or her cigarettes, although I didn’t reach in to be sure since that seemed like an invasion. We paid closest attention to what I’ve learned to call a herbaceous border (you pronounce the H on herb here; I still don’t, but I’ve gotten to the point where both pronunciations sound odd to me), stopping to admire this flower and that one.

penhele 055

Part of the herbaceous border

According to Wikipedia, herbaceous borders became popular in the Victorian era. They’re basically a bunch of flowering plants—what I’d call a flower bed—and they’re gorgeous but take a lot of work. The Wikipedia entry talks about digging up and splitting and replacing plants, but even more than that they take weeding. Endless weeding.

Did I happen to mention how many weeds Wild Thing and I have grown since I started blogging?

I haven't a clue what the flowers are, so I'm not going to try identifying them.

I haven’t a clue what the flowers are, so I can’t identify them.

I overheard several people saying the same thing that came to my mind: “I wonder how many people it takes to keep it looking like this.” No one had the answer, but quite a few seemed like a fair guess.

It all felt a bit like something out of a BBC costume drama—the great house opened for an afternoon so the villagers could put on their company manners and enjoy a day out. It’s less lord-and-lady-of-the-manor these days, but you can’t help noticing the difference between the place you’re admiring and whatever you call home. Still, whatever people’s feelings were about class and inequality—and I expect they ranged all over the scale—everybody seemed willing to put that aside for the day and enjoy the beauty and the hospitality.

Both class and people’s feelings about class are more open in the U.K. than in the U.S., penhele 061where we break out in a rash if anyone uses the word in any context except middle. And the tradition of a grand house opening its gardens to the public is also something I never heard of in the U.S. Wild Thing and I speculated on whether it dates back to Victorian times or to the medieval period. I’d put my money on medieval, because, as crushing as the lord-peasant relationship must have been, it did lay a few obligations on the lord, and those may have included fetes or feasts.

The inescapable raffle

The inescapable raffle

But that’s guesswork. What’s certain (or as certain as I dare be about anything right now) is that the tradition of great houses opening their grounds for fundraisers is part of an English summer.

At the end of the afternoon came the drawing for the raffle. You can’t hold a fundraiser in Cornwall without holding a raffle. There’s no law on the books, but it’s just not done. So at Penhele they held a raffle. And we didn’t win anything.

Peach or blackberry cobbler: an American recipe

One of the small joys of living in the U.K. is messing with British cooking. In the interest of which, I’d like to share an American recipe with you: peach (or blackberry if you prefer) cobbler. And if you live in the U.S., you’re still welcome to it.

I’m not actually from cobbler country. I’m a New Yorker by birth and a Minnesotan by I’m not sure what but whatever it was it lasted many long years. Wild Thing, however, is from Texas so over the years I’ve learned some Southern cooking. Not from her—the only things she likes to cook involve meat—but because it’s fun to feed her something she can get sentimental about.

cobbler, eddie 006The recipe’s is adapted from Trilla Pando’s collection of recipes and interviews, Stirring up memories all the time, which I can’t find online anywhere, new or used, or I’d give you a link. I’d tell you how good the book is, but it would be cruel.

I am, as anyone who’s been reading Notes for a while knows, hopeless with numbers and thoroughly unsystematic, so you’ll find a certain, um, flexibility in some of the measurements. If that worries you, remember that the recipe has survived my numerical incompetence, so it should survive almost anything you can do to it. Except maybe tossing in a half pound of bacon, or some coffee grounds.

A warning: This cobbler (assuming you leave out the bacon and the coffee grounds) has a way of disappearing quickly—it really is good—and I’ve tried doubling the recipe and baking it in a larger dish, but the center never baked through. If you’re going to double it, use two smaller pans.

 

Peach or blackberry cobbler

4 cups of fruit (or a bit more; I always add more; if you’re using peaches, it’s about 7)

1 to 1½  cups sugar, divided

2 to 4 ounces butter

1 cup flour

2 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. salt

½ cup milk (whole or 2%, which is called semi-skimmed in the U.K.)

 

Heat the oven to 350 F. That’s more or less 175 c. Don’t worry about it–it’s close enough. Set a square baking dish (anywhere between 8” and 9” square will do) inside it to heat.

The original recipe has you sprinkle ½ a cup of sugar on the fruit and set it aside for half an hour or so. I don’t bother. It’s sweet enough already. So if you leave that out, you’ll only need a single cup of sugar. If you’re using peaches, slice or chop them. Melt the butter. Sift the dry ingredients together, or measure them out and use a whisk to mix them. As far as I can tell, the whisk works just as well as sifting.

Pour the butter into the baking dish once it’s hot, then convince the batter in on top of it. It’s thick, so this is awkward, but spread it around as best you can. Then spread the fruit on top of that. The batter will rise up through the fruit as if bakes.

Bake for 50 minutes or until the center’s set. Test it with a knife to make sure it’s fully set. If it isn’t, toss it back in the oven (okay, okay, slide it back in the oven) until it is.

Serve plain or with cream or yogurt.

Trilla, if you’re reading this, thanks.