Tea, Crumpets and Queens!
Despite the bad rap English food takes, here’s a mouth-watering surprise.
“Pint of best bitter and kidney pie,” Christopher recites again for me. “It’s a safe bet for ordering in an English pub. Don’t order anything else. Except maybe fish and chips.” Christopher has lived his whole life in England and has just confirmed my worst fears about his native cuisine. Not that there’s anything wrong with steak and kidney pie or fish and chips – if you don’t mind your recommended weekly allowance of fats and oils packed into one lunch.
British cuisine is not Mom, Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie, and Chevrolet. It’s the Queen, Cricket, Bangers, Shepherd’s Pie, and a Land Rover. I’ve seen the movies. The British never eat anything but Roast Beef, Yorkshire Pudding, Plum Pudding, Toad-in-the-Hole, and Very Boiled Vegetables. I know that half the Western world eats Very Boiled Vegetables, but if only the rest passed the lips of the Queen’s queens, they’d be fat. They’re not. There’s nothing quite like a fresh-faced boy straight from the English countryside to inspire loyalty to the crown.
I follow said boy to said countryside. The cliffs of Dover, the back alleys of London and Liverpoll. There is real food in Britain. And an excellence I hadn’t quite expected.
The hills are alive with wood pigeons, quail, rabbits, deer. Fresh herbs right from cottage gardens. For the meat-eaters among us, there is nothing quite so mouth-watering as a straight-form-the-oven Game Pie. Tender, juicy bites of venison and hare mingle with soft wedges of carrots, turnips, and potatoes. A sprig of English thyme gives its all for the tastebuds.
I’ve lived around New York for the last ten years. I thought I’d discovered a Jewish boy’s heaven when I first tasted lox from the Lower East Side. Then I had Hebridean salmon, oak smoked, sliced thin enough to read through. It melted on my palate like an aged Bordeaux. Maybe not destined for a bagel with a schmear of cream cheese, but on a bed of greens with a light vinaigrette you could even win over your lover’s mother.
There is a tradition in French cooking to use meat stocks for soup. Luckily, a tradition the English have not fallen prey to. I like vegetable soup that tastes like vegetables, not meat. In spring, a simple watercress and lemon broth. Summer brings a light puree of fresh garden peas with pungent English mint. A cream of leek with Stilton cheese soup swirls in with the Autumn leaves. Chill winter winds are held at bay by a perfect potato, parsnip, and pepper potage.
Back in London, there is nothing quite like High Tea…with the Queen. Cups of steaming Earl Grey by our sides, we work our way up a three-tiered serving stand. On level one are the finger sandwiches. Crustless rectangles of bread with smoked salmon and herb cream cheese, watercress and cucumber, thin sliced sausage and slivered apples. On to level two with its scones and crumpets with clotted cream and jam. The crumpet, for those who’ve always wondered, is an English Muffin that didn’t fall into America’s hands. We crest the tray at level three, with bite-sized wedges of frosted sponge cake. A last draw on our mugs of tea and we wander out into the street, our quest for English cuisine sated.
Weekend mornings are no longer complete without fresh baked scones. Not the small wedges of dough with the density of lead that can be found at your neighborhood muffin shop. Light, sweet or savory, quick to make, ready by your morning coffee. Get out that food processor or crack your knuckles and…
Thoroughly mix 1½ cups of all purpose flour, 1½ teaspoons of baking powder, a pinch of salt, and ½ a stick of butter. Add a handful of whatever your heart desires; raisins, chocolate chips, chopped nuts, grated cheese. A ½ teaspoon of the spice of your choice, 3 tablespoons of sugar if you want them sweet, an egg, and 4 tablespoons of milk. Mix together quickly; don’t go overboard or the dough will get tough. Add a little more milk if the dough is still crumbly. Take 1½ inch lumps of dough and flatten slightly on a floured baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 10-15 minutes till golden brown. Eat. Long live the Queen.
Genre is a gay “lifestyle” and travel magazine. It was launched in 1992 by three entrepreneurs, two of whom shortly thereafter left to found QSF magazine. I went with them…