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.

A foreigner’s guide to Boxing Day

If you’re not British, or living in a British-inflected country, you’re asking, What?

Boxing Day is the day after Christmas.

So what does everyone do, go out and hit each other?

The people Wild Thing and I know mostly stay home and eat the Christmas leftovers. Especially those brussels sprouts. For breakfast, you can use them in bubble and squeak (which does neither, as far as I can figure out). It involves leftover sprouts (or cabbage, or anything else along those lines) and potatoes, bacon, onion, butter or some other sort of fat, and a frying pan. More or less. It’s one of those recipes that use up whatever you have on hand, so there’s no point in being precise about it.

Christmas cake. Photo by James Petts, on Wikimedia.

Christmas cake. Photo by James Petts, on Wikimedia.

After that, you can start on the Christmas cake.

It may be called Boxing Day because it was the day that Victorian ladies and gentlemen gave gift boxes to tradespeople and the servants (who had to work on Christmas day, and probably had to work on Boxing Day as well). Or it may have come from a medieval tradition involving alms boxes, which were opened on Boxing Day and the money given to the poor. Basically no one’s sure, but if you repeat the stories often enough they take on a certain authority.

What’s certain is that it’s a second legal holiday that involves brussels sprouts. Only in Britain.

 *

I’ll be posting once a week until—probably—mid-January, when I’ll go back to twice a week. Enjoy the holidays, whatever you celebrate and however you celebrate them. 

A foreigner’s guide to Christmas in Britain

You can say anything you want about the meaning of Christmas, but I’ll tell you what the meaning is here: brussels sprouts.

What? you ask.

At Christmas dinner, you eat brussels sprouts. Even if you don’t touch them for another 364 days, you put one on your plate and chop it into pieces and poke at it so it looks like some part of it entered your stomach and is becoming one with your body. It doesn’t seem to be a law, but it’s a very powerful cultural imperative. And when someone uses a fancy phrase like cultural imperative, you’d damn well better do it.

Christmas pudding with flaming brandy. Photo by James Scott-Brown, on Wikimedia.

Christmas pudding with flaming brandy. Photo by James Scott-Brown, on Wikimedia.

The brussels sprout is so completely symbolic of Christmas that D. and D. just gave us a box of chocolate brussels sprouts for a Christmas present. Rest easy, though, because they’re purely symbolic. No vegetables were harmed in the making of the candy.

Why is a round green vegetable synonymous with Christmas? Because they grow through the fall and by Christmas they’re ready to eat. And if you’ve got a vegetable so cooperative that you can harvest it in the winter, you’d better include it in the holiday meal. Even if you hate it.

Christmas also involves crackers. Not the crumbly kind you eat with cheese, but rolls of shiny paper and cardboard with bad jokes and riddles, a little plastic present of some kind (about what you used to find in a box of Cracker Jacks, if you’ve ever seen those), and a tissue-paper crown inside. The way to open these is to pick yours up when everyone else does, cross your arms so you can simultaneously offer yours to the person on one side and seize the one the person on the other side is offering you. Then, in unison, everyone pulls and the crackers tear open and spill out their giftlets.  Inevitably, someone ends up with two short ends and no goodies, and if you’re over the age of five you redistribute the riches and everyone ends up with, at the very least, a silly paper crown to put on his or her head. Then everyone who can’t avoid it (and I usually can) reads the jokes and riddles out loud.

In the spirit of Nothing Exceeds like Excess, Christmas demands two desserts: a Christmas pudding and a Christmas cake. The cake is a heavy fruitcake that’s been soaked in brandy for two months and coated in not one layer of icing but two, one of marzipan and another made with egg whites and sugar. The double dose of icing is enough to send even a non-diabetic into a diabetic coma, and that’s without the cake. The pudding, again, has dried fruit and alcohol, but this time with suet and spices and a bunch of other stuff—you’ll have to look up the recipe online if you’re interested, because I’ve never made one—and then it’s steamed (this is why I’ve never made it: I can’t be arsed, as our much-missed friend B. used to say) and soaked in yet more alcohol for a month or so. If you need a bit more in the way of excess, you can serve it with rum or brandy sauce, or with custard, and you can also serve it with flaming brandy if you promise not to set the house on fire.

Messing with British Baking: Chocolate Chip Cookies

Since moving to Cornwall, I’ve made it my mission in life to mess with the Britishness of British baking. Not because British baking is bad. It isn’t; it’s fantastic. Have you eaten shortbread? Or scones? Or pain au chocolat? Or—wait a minute, that last one’s French, isn’t it? (And in case you’re not familiar with the stuff, it’s not pronounced like the English word pain, it’s closer to pan, and it’s basically a croissant with chocolate inside. Mmmm.)

So okay, we’re not talking about a tradition that goes back, unmixed and unmessed-with, to Alfred the Intolerable. British cooking has done what pretty much every culture does: it’s adapted, stolen, borrowed, and claimed as its own whatever bits happened to work—so much so that now people ask, with an almost straight face, “What’s more English than curry?”

How am I carrying out my mission? I’m baking, and I’m feeding my friends and neighbors. It all sounds so harmless, doesn’t it?

Irrelevant Photo: Fountains Abbey

Irrelevant Photo: Fountains Abbey

So here’s my recipe for chocolate chip cookies, because chocolate chip cookies are even more American than Mom and apple pie. They’re probably more American than the flag. The recipe’s in imperial measures. (Shouldn’t we start calling them American measures, by the way? The empire’s gone and—does any country other than the U.S. still use them these days?  And I’m not sure how many people know what imperial measures means.) But back to my point, I’m not going to try translating it into anything sensible like the metric system because the last time I did lost three weeks of my life and didn’t get it right anyway. So forget it. Besides, what’s more American than an irrational and antiquated system of measuring that we inherited from a country that’s since abandoned it and which we will fight to the death rather than give up?

Am I off the topic yet?

The recipe was adapted from one my friend J. found in the Duluth, Minnesota, News Tribune. The introduction explained that the more sugar a cookie has, the more it spreads out in the oven. The original minimized the sugar, which suited me because my chocolate chip cookies had been turning into chocolate chip wafers and I like a thick cookie. I’ve cut the sugar back even further and substituted oatmeal for some of the flour. If that sounds healthy, don’t kid yourself, they’re lethal, but you can increase the sugar if you like. I’ve left the amount a bit vague (a scant ¼ cup, in one place) for exactly that reason. Not to mention because I’m exactly that sort of cook—a bit vague, probably even a bit scant.

If you want the cookies to turn out well (and why would you make them if you didn’t?), you have to find really good dark chocolate—preferably chocolate chips. In the U.S., that means semi-sweet—none of that milk chocolate mess. In the U.K., I’ve had a battle to find good chocolate chips. For years, all I could find were brown waxy things that tasted like buttons that had popped off an old-fashioned shoe. If that’s all you can find, don’t buy them. Chop up chocolate bars (I’ve used 70% chocolate) with the back of a knife and make chocolate chunk cookies, but chunks of chocolate bars don’t keep their shape the way chips do. They’re good but not the same. For some time now, friends have kept us supplied with American chocolate chips, which is a real luxury, especially when you look at the cost of postage, but recently I’ve discovered that Dr. Oetker’s make decent chocolate chips, even if they come in itty bitty bags and are overpriced. In the U.S., you can buy chocolate chips in industrial-size bags. We’re seriously serious about chocolate chips.

If you’re in other countries, I have no chocolate chip advice to offer, but I do know this: If you open the bag and taste them and they don’t taste like much, they won’t get any better when you stir them into the batter and bake them.

The recipe makes an insane number of cookies. (I did warn you that, as a cook, I’m a bit vague.) I freeze whatever we don’t eat on the first day and take them out when we have company. They’re good frozen. Maybe even better. Honest. I discovered this the time I hid them from myself and—surprise surprise—found them. And ate them on the spot.

 

Chocolate Chip Cookies                               

1 c. whole wheat flour

2 1/3 c. plain white flour

1 ½ c. rolled oats (any thickness will do)

2 tsp. baking soda (that’s bicarbonate of soda)

2 tsp. salt

12 oz. (that’s 3 sticks if you’re American) butter

Scant 2/3 c. brown sugar

Scant ¼ c. white sugar

4 eggs

2 tsp. vanilla

Lots of dark chocolate chips  (about 2 ½ c.)

 

Cream the butter and sugars. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, and the vanilla. Mix in the dry ingredients, then the chocolate chips. Drop spoonfuls onto greased cookie sheets, leaving some room for them to spread out.

Bake 9 – 11 minutes at 375 F.,  or 185 c., or 165 c. with a fan oven.

Cool 2 minutes or more on baking sheets before removing.