The Olympics of British Food: A User's Guide from a British Guy
Beans and toast at the Jones Wood Foundry in New York
When the Observer emailed me with the offer to, and I quote, "continue our gross exploitation of your heritage" by somehow shoehorning together the two subjects of the Olympics and food, how could I possibly resist? I suppose this allows me to tackle that thorniest of subjects, British "cuisine".
While I have much greater knowledge of this subject than I do of BBQ, this blog will still be badly researched and contain factual errors, so, if you're British, try not to get too upset. I am also, and I will be up front about this, just going to put some plain lies in to see if I get called on them, because that is the sort of exercise I find amusing, and we can dedicate at least one of these columns to me being amused, rather than the usual result of no-one being amused.
So, British cuisine.
The Olympics are in Britain and the readers of this blog like food. Fine. But I will require more Olympics references than that to pass muster, so, here we go with the Olympics of British food. There are three categories, and medals Bronze through Gold. I know, but seriously, they want me to write about the Olympics and food. What would you do? Far less clichéd suggestions on a postcard, please.
The Most Commonly Misunderstood British Food
Bronze -- Gravy I can't tell you how confused I was by the appearance of white gravy when I first got over here. It's thick, it's like sort of savoury double cream, and I am scared of it. It shouldn't taste how it looks. British gravy -- always made of meat fat and chicken/beef stock, almost always with onions in, and much, much thinner than any I've encountered in the U.S., is delicious. Will improve any meal apart from cheese-based ones, at which point the whole dish becomes confusing.
Silver -- Spotted Dick Hah! He said dick! In reality, a delicious spongy dessert with raisins in, sponge puddings being another thing that has passed America by. Usually features custard. More on custard later.
The Fish and Chippers at the Londoner
Gold -- Fish and Chips I have lost count of the places I have seen over here (I'm looking squarely at you, The Londoner) that will serve fish and chips delectably battered, with thin, crispy fries for $12. No. No no no. This is not fish and chips. Fish and chips are obtained down "the chippy," a feature of every British high street, they cost about $5 at most, and are served in newspaper, by a man who's not working for tips, and therefore could not care less (note the proper use of this phrase, could care less is entirely nonsensical) about you or your food.
It is poorly battered, often hotter than the sun, the chips are soggy and the size of potato wedges, and it is invariably accompanied by mushy peas, a pickled onion, or some other side you would shrink in horror from. I like mine with Brown Sauce. It is literally called Brown Sauce. No, I can't describe it. It tastes like Brown Sauce. If I opened a proper chippy over here, I would be out of business before you can say "small ex-pat community."
Bronze -- Steak and Kidney pie Steak and kidney pie holds a lot of memories for me. It is the dish of choice at "soccer" games, me being something of a soccer fanatic, and contains red hot steak, kidney and gravy in a flimsy, squishy pastry. It is unbearably great. If it was launched over here, America literally couldn't handle it. Firstly, I understand, kidney is a strange ingredient. Unfortunately for you, it's actually all right (it has something of a "tang"), especially when encased in a thick brown gravy. Secondly, meat pies. How have you missed this idea?! It's meat! In a pie! You love meat! You love pies! Simply combine the two and understand gravy better! Then, profit. You understand this sequence of events better than anyone.
Silver -- Haggis I don't even want to list what's in haggis. Jesus. It is bad news. However, something that sounds so awful has combined together to be far more than the sum of its parts. It's the culinary equivalent of the U.S. soccer team -- a collection of really abysmally terrible footballers that somehow gets out of their group at the World Cup every single time (I am well aware this is because they understand what teamwork is while England are a group of millionaires with no regard for even the most basic principles of a team sport). In summary, haggis with mashed potato is amazing. You should give it a try.
Gold -- Black/Blood pudding Oh I know. I know. I only ate this at first because I didn't know what it was. It's basically pigs' blood and oatmeal put inside an intestine and grilled. I feel sad just typing it. Unfortunately, it is really very nice indeed, and a fairly integral part of any traditional English breakfast of bacon, sausage, baked beans, fried egg and toast. The café next to my old house (in Cardiff, Wales) did a hangover-busting fried breakfast that was called "The Triple Fat Bastard." I miss that place a lot.
Bronze -- Indian Curry I'm putting this at bronze for a few reasons -- one, I have actually seen a few curry places around North Dallas. Two, I mean, it's not strictly British, although there is a definite British mutation of it (due to high immigration from India) that has become pretty much the most popular food in Britain (chicken tikka massala, a curry found in Britain but not India, finishes top of pretty much every poll of the most loved British food). Third, I'm not actually a huge fan. I've only come round to it recently. Still, try out a chicken korma with some rice and a naan bread. It's pretty lovely.
Silver -- Custard Custard is GREAT. I LOVE CUSTARD. A thick vanilla paste made from eggs, which goes on desserts. Frozen custard (whatever that is) doesn't count at all. My grandfather and I used to see how thick and inedible we could make the custard, using the custard powder that somehow makes a dessert paste. It didn't pass muster until the spoon stood up in it on its own. Perfect on pretty much any dessert, especially ones with pastry, or a fruit pie. You have a lot of need for good custard. Sort it out America.
Gold -- Bacon Right. This is controversial. It's not going to go well for me. I anticipate the comments section turning into a flame war. However, I have checked with Richard and we both agree. Basically, America, your bacon sucks. Well ... it doesn't suck. It's just not the optimum bacon. It could be so much better. European bacon has not only the strip of marbled fat you call bacon, but a proper medallion of meat. It is a much better cut. It makes for a better sandwich. I think, what it is, is that American bacon serves a different function. It needs to be kind of sweet, and often an accompaniment for waffles and pancakes and maple syrup (which, don't get me wrong, I am a huge fan of. I think Waffle House is the American establishment I most frequent, whereas Brits will recoil in horror at the thought of such a flagrant combination of sweet and savoury). British bacon is, essentially, American bacon with more meat and less fat. You can't get mad about that. Right?
By way of balance and as some closing thoughts, here are things America does which are great. Steaks -- you cannot get a properly cooked steak in Britain. The first time I had a medium-rare steak over here I almost cried with happiness. Hash browns -- I had no idea these were a thing. Great work America.
Mexican food -- not at all popular in Britain. Wonderful, if essentially the same foods in different packages. The alcohol selection and quality is excellent. America really knows how to get drunk in style at a reasonable price. Sushi -- again not so popular or so good in the UK. Vietnamese food, Korean food, the same. Doughnuts -- do exist in the UK, but nowhere near the quality or number.
I hope you all enjoy watching the Olympics. There will be a lot of rain, a lot of stereotypical British things, a lot of village idiots (watch out for the Mayor of London, he's an actual cartoon character made flesh), and, critically a lot of tea. Because you can't beat a good cup of boiling hot tea, milk, two sugars, and a digestive biscuit to dunk in it. Long live British cuisine!
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