Is British food dull?

British food has a reputation for being—sorry, folks, I’m just reporting—somewhere between dull and inedible. Google “British food reputation” and the entries fall into two categories: 1) why British food deserves a bad reputation and 2) why it doesn’t. There’s no 3) why it has a great reputation.

Or none that I found, anyway. Dig deep enough and you can almost always find a contrarian, probably funded by Vladimir Putin or a pair of aging billionaire brothers intent on destroying the world’s sense of taste.

Why do they want to do that? It’s just one of those things you do when you become an aging billionaire, your every whim has already been satisfied, and you’re bored silly. People need challenges. That’s what life’s about.

The people who argue that British food deserves its reputation love making lists of the foods they hate most: baked beans on toast, overboiled vegetables, bangers and mash (that’s sausages plonked on a plate of mashed potatoes). On some lists, fish and chips are part of the problem. On other lists (because the people who defend British food make lists too), they’re the solution. Ditto yorkshire puddings. Ditto a whole bunch of other things. So we’ll skip the details, because if we don’t, we’ll end up arguing over them when we could so easily argue about something more worthwhile.

Although if you want to argue, don’t let me stop you. I’m happy to host (almost) any argument as long as we’re not taking ourselves too seriously.

Irrelevant and not-quite-in-season photo: Primroses. They should be in bloom soon. Photo by Ida Swearingen

One word that comes up a lot in this discussion is stodgy. In British English, that means food that’s “heavy, filling, and high in carbohydrates.” (I’ll skip the link; it’s one of those unattributed definitions Lord Voldemort—sorry, Lord Google—likes to supply.) The synonyms are “indigestible, starchy, filling, heavy, solid, substantial, lumpy, and leaden.”

Yum.

As usual, Lord Google offered to translate that into French. It’s lourde or indigeste.

Why French? Why not French? Hell, why offer to translate it at all? I reset the offer to Spanish and got pesado (heavy) and indigesto (indigestible). I had to check my Spanish-English dictionary to be sure of indigesto, because it’s not a word I’ve had any reason to use and although it sounds convincing you can get into all sorts of weird situations relying on words that sound like words you know in your home language.

Do I distrust Google translations? You bet your mistranslated ass I do. Sadly, my dictionary doesn’t include the Spanish for stodgy, so I ended my research there. The dictionary’s a paperback. It’s missing lots of stuff. On the other hand, it doesn’t weigh much.

I’m off the topic, aren’t I? How does that happen?

The word stodgy comes up a lot in connection with British puddings. Before we go on, it you’re American, write your definition of pudding on a slip of paper, crumple it up, and throw it out the window. It’s not helpful here.

Done? Good. Now: In this context, pudding means (I think, but don’t trust me on this) more or less any dessert, although a pudding can also be an unsweetened non-dessert. Dessert also means dessert. So, if you’re still with me, dessert means dessert and pudding means dessert as well as non-dessert, and dessert includes what Americans know as pudding, which (and we’re talking about pudding here) can include non-dessert.

And with that level of confusion, you wonder why British food has a reputation problem, right?

What does stodgy mean in the U.S.? Dull and uninspired. I can’t remember ever hearing it used about food, but if it was it wouldn’t stretch far enough to mean an entire category of food, it’d just be a description of some one thing.

Anyway, all I want to do here is establish that British food has a reputation problem. Whether it’s deserved or not doesn’t matter. At least for the purposes of this post, because we’re not actually going to eat anything. We’re online. The technology that would make eating together possible doesn’t exist yet. What matters here is how British chefs respond to their reputation problem.

Now, by way of (even more) background, I read recipes in the newspaper. They extend the range of my cooking, they amuse the hell out of me, and they’re entirely nonfattening. Plus the recipe section of Saturday’s paper is one place where, reliably, nobody’s being run out of their country or left to freeze in a refugee camp while the world says it’s all someone else’s problem, and no one’s being sent back to the country that ran them out in the first place because they didn’t say, “Mother, may I?”.

It’s not that I don’t read the news, it’s just that I need a place to hide from it now and then.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that a lot of British chefs work hard at being interesting. It may keep them from being stodgy and predictable, but their recipes tip over into the strange very easily.

A while back the paper had a series of lasagna recipes, and before I go on, I have to tell you that when I looked for them online Lord Google, for no apparent reason,  offered to define lasagna for me in Hindi. Well, who could resist? It’s spelled लॉसॉन्य (unless I accidentally copied a word from an ad—I’m illiterate in Hindi) and it seems to mean “lasagna.” I say “seems” because neither of the two sites that offered to translate it for me were particularly clear about the whole business, and after two tries I kind of lost interest.

But—this won’t surprise you, will it?—we’re off topic.

Now I do understand that Italian lasagna (or maybe that should be plural: lasagne; British food writers like the E spelling, even if they’re talking about a single lasagna) varies from region to region. Having grown up with American lasagna, which has a limited range, I think this is wrong, wrong, wrong, but the Italians invented the stuff, so I guess they get to do what they want with it and I get to not argue.

The standard British lasagna is also wrong, but since they didn’t invent it, I feel free to complain.

The American version uses tomato sauce, ricotta, mozzarella, and parmesan, plus either hamburger (that’s mince, if you’re British) or no hamburger (and possibly some veggies) to make it vegetarian. And, of course, lasagna noodles. The British version substitutes lots of thick, tasteless white sauce for the tomato sauce. It’s the perfect example of stodge, now that I think of it. I’m not sure what kind of cheeses they put in there, if any, because the white sauce overpowers everything. It’s basically noodles and glue.

Lasagna’s one of the things British pubs have figured out they can feed vegetarians, so periodically I get stuck eating it. It probably comes to them frozen, from a lasagna factory in Liverpool or some other Italian city. They all taste the same, which is to say, they don’t really taste at all.

But the lasagna recipes I mentioned went beyond the standard British version. That was the point: To be inventive and edgy and out-there and earn five gold stars. To not be stodgy. So what did they add? One had hazelnuts and dill and caraway seeds. Another had fish and coriander and feta cheese.

Is coriander Italian? Slices of Blue Sky quotes the New York Times as saying that it was used in the Roman Empire and foreign-born chefs are bringing it back into use in Italy. So it’s traditional in roughly the same way tattoos are (or may be) traditionally British, which is to say you can make a case for it but you’ll need to do a lot of warm-up exercises first, because it ain’t easy.

I’m working on a piece that makes the case for tattoos. It’s fun and may even be correct, but it’s not a simple argument–or possibly even a convincing one.

Feta cheese is Greek.

Italy is not Greece, something you’ll learn quickly if you go there and try to get by entirely in Greek.

Fish come from the water, and although all countries on this planet have at least some water, that doesn’t mean fish belong in lasagna. Most countries also have at least some grass, but that’s not a good argument for tossing it into lasagna.

The recipes were online and had a comment box, so I thought about offering my own let’s-not-be-stodgy take on lasagna. It involves dark chocolate, mayonnaise, half a cup of Coke, and one finely chopped bicycle tire, but someone with an Italian name had already written, “None of these recipes have anything to do with Italian cuisine,” so I kept it to myself. I didn’t want to make an international incident any worse, but the world is a poorer place because of my silence.

Enough about lasagna. The same thing happens with hamburgers. British chefs approach them as nothing more than a blank slate on which they can write their names.

In the U.S., a good hamburger’s made with ground beef and nothing more. You make it interesting by the way you cook it and what you put on it. And, of course, by using good beef.

In Britain, it’s the rare cook who’s brave enough to do that. One relatively simple recipe I found calls for egg, cracker crumbs, parmesan, and fried onions. You  mix all that together and set it in the refrigerator for two hours while it recovers from the insult. Another one asks you to mix in mustard, ketchup, egg, garlic, onion, and chili. I’m not sure what they mean by chili. Probably a chile pepper, but it could as easily be the sweet, gluey (c’mon, I’m being as neutral as I can manage) chili sauce sauce they sell here, or else that stuff you make with beans and meat (or buy in a can). Who can tell?

A third wants egg, bread crumbs, evaporated milk, Worcestershire sauce, cayenne pepper, and garlic.

Evaporated milk? Inspired addition. Would it be okay if I substitute whipped cream?

Someone else adds sun dried tomatoes—along, of course, with a whole bunch of other stuff.

You see what’s happening here? Every one of those recipe writers is screaming, “I’m not boring!”

And they’re right. They’re not. But they’re also doing nothing to redeem the reputation of British cooking.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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. 

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.

True Lemon Drizzle Escapes the Comments Box

Belladona Took sent a link to a traditional lemon drizzle cake recipe, and it deserves to be let free of the comments box so anyone who reads only the posts can find it. It uses plain flour, so it should translate reasonably well to any country. Judging from the comments on the recipe I published, no two readers share any single measuring preference, so I’ll warn you that it’s measured in cups and so forth and let you decide in the privacy of your own kitchen whether it makes sense to follow the link.

In case it changes any minds, 4 cups of flour equals a pound, so you can still weigh it.

http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Lindas-Lemon-Drizzle-Cake-51159200

Enjoy. Or run like hell. It’s up to you. Thanks, Belladona.

Autumn in Cornwall

Irrelevant Photo: Wild Blackberries Ripening in the Hedge

One Great British Cake: Lemon Drizzle

British cooking has a lousy reputation, which is only partially deserved. Sorry, sorry, sorry. Yes, I do love it here, but honest, folks, baked beans on toast? Mushy peas?

To make up for that, though, British baking is amazing, and somewhere in the blog fog that surrounds my life lately, I promised to post a recipe for lemon drizzle cake—something I’d never tasted, or even imagined, before I moved here. That sounded simple when I wrote it. I’d translate grams to ounces, milliwhatsits to—oh, god, what did I measure in back in the U.S.? The U.S. measures in a system officially called imperial measurements, but nobody knows what you’re talking about when you call it that and I’m not a fan of empires anyway, so I find myself fishing for a set of words people will understand. You know, something clear, like cups and whatsits.

I’m not inspiring confidence, am I? It’s okay, though. I can count past twelve, and even if I’m not reliable once I get into the high teens, I have an oven and I’m not afraid to use it.

Egg. Drawing by Janneen Love

Egg. Drawing by Janneen Love

But before I give you the recipe—actually, two recipes, one metric and one in cups and whatsits—let me shake your confidence a bit more. (If you want to just get to the recipe, scroll down and I will meekly shut up—something I seldom do in person.) A friend gave me a simple lemon drizzle cake recipe and I thought I’d use it, but it calls for self-rising flour. A bit of online research told me that self-raising flour in the U.S. not only has an extra letter but also has salt—an unspecified amount—which it doesn’t in the U.K. Short of investing in a ticket to the U.S. to try out the recipe or asking a friend to mail me a bag, which would inevitably split open in the mail, causing an anthrax scare, I couldn’t predict how that difference would affect the cake. So I looked up substitutions and learned that every cook on the internet has a slightly different idea of how much baking powder you have to add to plain flour to come up with the equivalent of self-rising flour.

I went with a cook whose website sounded convincing, made the cake following her formula, and ended up with too much baking powder. And, oddly enough, a fairly flat cake, as if it needed more baking powder. But it already had too much, something you can tell because your tongue feels like it’s growing fur. So not only couldn’t I add more, I had to take some away.

Screw it. I tried a different recipe. This one is based on Dan Lepard’s version , which isn’t a traditional lemon drizzle but does use plain flour and is damn good. He’s a genius of a baker. Where we’ve diverged is the butter (he uses unsalted and I can’t be bothered) and the sugar.

A word about sugar: The first time I went to buy sugar in Cornwall, I was almost paralyzed by the decisions involved. I’m used to seeing white, brown (I’m not fussy about whether it’s light or dark, which tells you a lot about my approach to cooking), and confectioner’s sugar, but here I was looking at granulated, caster, Demerara (which Word just capitalized for me, thanks, and I’m sure it’s correct but I don’t know why), brown, muscovado, and icing.

Since recipes in the U.K. specify one kind or another and some use a bit of each, and I have, once or twice, messed around with caster and Demerara, but the results haven’t transported me bodily to heaven, so I said screw it and stuck with the three basic kinds I know: granulated, which is what I call plain ol’ sugar; brown; and icing sugar, which is what I learned to call confectioner’s sugar.

There’s only just so much shelf space in the world, never mind in my kitchen.

So I haven’t used the caster sugar Lepard recommends, and I haven’t topped the cake with his lemony sugary topping because I can’t see that it needs it. I like my sweets a bit sour. But I’ll include it for anyone who wants it.

Lemon Drizzle Cake

Metric                                                                                    Ounces Etc.

50 g. butter                                                                             2 oz. (4 Tbsp.) butter

50 ml. sunflower oil                                                                3 Tbsp. sunflower oil

Finely grated rind of 2 lemons                                              Finely grated rind of 2 lemons

150 g. sugar                                                                             ¾ cup sugar

2 eggs                                                                                        2 eggs

50 g. ground almonds                                                             ½ c. ground almonds

150 g. flour                                                                               1 ½ c. flour

2 Tbsp. corn flour                                                                    2 Tbsp. cornstarch

2 ½ tsp. baking powder                                                         2 ½ tsp. baking powder

90 ml. lemon juice                                                                    3 fl. oz. ( 3/8 c.) lemon juice

[opt.: 75 g. icing sugar]                                                            [opt.: ½ c. confectioner’s sugar]

 

Heat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade / 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Melt the butter and pour it into a mixing bowl. Add the oil, lemon zest, sugar, and eggs. Whisk them until they’re smooth a little bubbly. Stir in the ground almonds. Sift the flour, cornstarch (or corn flour—whatever you want to call it), and baking powder into a different bowl. Sift about half of this into the first bowl. If you’re working metrically, add 75 ml. of the lemon juice and set the rest aside. If you’re working in cups and ounces, measure out 1 Tbsp. of the lemon juice and set it aside, then pour the rest into the batter. Stir until they’re well mixed, then sift in the remaining dry ingredients and mix well.

Oil a small loaf or square pan. Cut a strip of baking paper wide enough to cover the bottom and long enough to lap a bit over the sides. This will make it easy to lift out the cake. Fit it into the pan, then take it out and fit it back in upside down, so the side that picked up the oil faces up. Is that clever or what? Smear the oil around if it’s not completely covered. Convince the batter into the pan and spread it evenly. Bake a loaf for 45 – 50 minutes or a square pan for about 25 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

If you’re not adding the sugar, brush the remaining lemon juice over the top. (You could probably skip this step and never notice the difference, because the batter’s already very lemony. Traditionally, you pour quite a lot of lemon juice over the cake, mixed with sugar, but then traditionally you don’t add lemon juice to the batter. When I make the traditional version, I skip the sugar and just add lemon juice, because I like my sweets tart.) If you want a sugary topping, mix the remaining lemon juice with the sugar, let the cake cool in the tin for five minutes, and spread the lemony sugar on top.

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And with that I have fulfilled my promise. Enjoy your cake.

At some point (she typed rashly), in the interests of subverting British cooking, I’ll print a brownie recipe and a chocolate chip cookie recipe.