09 May 2013

British Food: Neeps, Squeak, Chips and Guts

When the fish hit the fat, it made a racket.  Sputtering, splattering, bubbling and squealing, it cooked fast and hot.  Within a bare few minutes, we were handed our lunch.  It was still hot after we'd walked from chippy ("fish and chip stand" is too long a name for something so simple) to beach, sat down, taken this picture and tasted the fries.  Or, "chips," as we all know they're called. On the Welsh island of Anglesey, in the middle of November, this felt like our most British of meals, and it came so close to the end of our time there.  The haddock was juicy, the crust was crisp, the whole thing tasted of salt and empire.
Beside the fish is a little dish of "mushy peas," which is exactly what it sounds like.
America and Britain are not culturally similar.  Anyone who tells you otherwise hasn't been to both places.  We may speak the same language, but would a typical, small-town American restaurant serve haggis with neeps-n-tatties?  Is blood sausage a normal part of American breakfasts?  Can you imagine supermarket freezers displaying pre-made kidney pie?
Brits love their offal, especially certain pieces in certain places.  Haggis might seem like a joke to us Americans, a weird food that couldn't possibly be common, but it's truly a staple in Scotland.  This plate of haggis (the "neeps-n-tatties" beside it are simply mashed turnips and potatoes) was served to me in a raucous pub in Elgin, which is about as blue-collar a place as there is.  I ate the dish a few other times while in the north, and grew to really like it.  And I really liked it; not as in "it's weird, but I can tolerate it."  As in "I hope they have haggis on the menu!"
It's made from ground sheep's heart, liver and lungs mixed with oatmeal and traditionally cooked in a sheep's stomach.  Nowadays, a plastic casing is often substituted for the stomach.  The flavor is richened with mace, nutmeg, allspice, marjoram, thyme and plenty of ground pepper.  It is so aromatic, so uniquely spiced, that vegetarian versions (using grain instead of organ) tasted undeniably haggis-like.  It really is delicious, and definitely isn't a joke.
Scotland isn't the only country within Great Britain with a signature dish that gets the imagination going.  Welsh rabbit is neither originally Welsh nor made of rabbit.  You'll find it referred to as "rarebit" in Wales, a word invented for the purpose of saying something other than "rabbit" for this meatless dish.  Welsh rabbit originated in England and is, essentially, fondue.  Cheese, usually cheddar, is melted and mixed with ale, mustard, cayenne, wine, what have you.  Then, it's either poured over bread or served with "soldiers" (finger sized slices of toast) for dipping.  So how did this cheesy food, which tastes exactly as you'd expect it would, get named after Bugs Bunny?  The two theories I've read point to the English insulting the Welsh - either that they were so poor, cheese was their rabbit (an animal the English already considered 'the poor man's meat') or that they were so bad at hunting, cheese on bread would be a Welsh rabbit hunter's dinner.
In Criccieth, while walking beneath a seaside castle, we stopped into a bakery.  It was early morning. The sun was coming up over the Snowdon mountains. The town smelled of baking.  We asked the girl behind the counter what these little rectangles were - she'd just pulled them from the oven and they were puffed up and emitting visible plumes of steam.  "These?" she said, giving us a suspicious look. "These are pie."  Pie?
"Yeah," she said. "Cheese pie."  She gave us another funny look.  How could we not identify pie?
In the UK, pie can be fruity, meaty, cheesy, round, square, deep, flat or otherwise.  It seems that if it's wrapped in pastry, it can be called a pie.  This one was mildly cheesy, with a small dose of grassy herbs and sweetish potato inside. It tasted a bit like a knish.

In Hawes, in one of the small stone pubs that dot the Yorkshire Dales, we tried steak, kidney and "Old Peculier" pie.  The beer, which really is spelled that way, made the dish an English take on an Irish classic "steak and Guinness pie."  Fish pies were about the same, with cream replacing gravy and large, pillowy chunks of fish.   It became clear that 'pie' could mean a stew with a puff pastry hat sitting on top or a broiled topper of mashed potatoes.

That's not to say that sometimes a pie is a pie just as you'd want it to be.  The United Kingdom kept our  excellent baked goods streak going.  Through Scandinavia, over to Ireland and now here, it's been three months of excellent whole grains, seasonal fruit and powdered sugar.  It was the stuff of dreams, of magazine pictorials.  And 'stuff' couldn't be a more appropriate word, because there was never a case in which we needed dessert.  We were often full on ale before a meal even began.  And yet...  who can resists?
Once we had 'pies' sort of figured out, there was the whole issue of 'puddings.'

Now, to address the elephant in the kitchen.  Is British food bland?  We can't deny the fact that salt shakers were employed at almost every meal and that things like "mushroom stroganoff" (a vegetarian pub staple) had a dizzying array of ingredients while still managing to taste like nothing at all except for a hard to describe, oxymoronic mix of 'rich' and 'watery.'  But we can't say that this, umm, subtlety of flavor was necessarily the mark of bad food or unskilled chefs.  It's just a style, one that favors the heartier, homier flavors of cinnamon, clove, cream and thyme rather than the punch of salt and spice.  One that prefers you tailor your own dish to your taste with the always readily available supply of condiments.  Above, a selection of packets in a Scottish pub.  Traditional British food may have a reputation for being bland, but does it really get much more British than worcester sauce, HP, English mustard and malt vinegar?

There's all that Indian food if you're looking for something punchier.  Some of the best Indian food of our lives.  It's what Brits eat out, if they're not having stew in a pub.  Like red-sauce Italian food in America, it's not seen as "ethnic" anymore.  We never had a true, traditional afternoon tea - towers of sandwiches, scones, china pots, clotted cream.  Nor did we stop for a "sunday carvery" - a man with a saber, thick cuts of meat, plentiful sides.  But we did eat plenty of curry, saag and daal.  Indian food is popular from London to Inverness, an omnipresent second flavor.  It is also not particularly photogenic, especially in dimmed restaurant lighting on reflective copper dishes.  Instead, we leave you with this picture of a ram.  Lamb or "mutton" is very common in the UK, and at Indian restaurants it is simply referred to as "meat."  Sorry, big guy.

04 May 2013

A Riot Of Color On The Welsh Shore

Traeth Mawr means "Big Sands" in Welsh; it's the name given to the wide estuary between Portmadog and a blank hillside of trees and rock.  Or, a mostly blank hillside.
Portmeirion is a fabricated, storybook "village" that is unlike anything else we've seen.  It is literally a patch of Italian baroque set down in Wales, like a spill of paint on a concrete slab.  Nobody knew how to explain it to us, and I'm not sure I can explain it here.  Imagine two postcards set side by side; the first is of wintry Britain, the second is of summery Portofino.  Portmeirion is like two distant vacations, remembered in a dream, thrown together and piled atop itself on the rocks.  Some people actually live here.  The rest of us pay an entrance fee and walk around, bemused and surprised.
The emblem of Portmeirion is a naked woman, calf-deep in waves, a hint of mermaid tail rising behind her.  When we walked those rocky shores, it was hard to imagine swimming or sunbathing.  The beaches of North Wales are empty expanses of sand and rock; the sounds of gulls and waves only made the loneliness more vast.  November there is a time of frosted fields and rattling, leaf-bare forests.  The fish and chip shops are closed for the season, the ice-cream stands boarded up.  This isn't a season when the rough coast - barnacled rock, concrete wharf, frozen sand - could seem hospitable to bare flesh.
But the pale citizens of this grassy land do emerge in the summers to venture into cold waves and lie in tepid sunshine.  North Wales, like the whole of North Europe, is home to hardy people who tire of winter. People are always drawn to the sea, aren't they?
A man named Sir Clough Williams-Ellis built this place in the half century between 1925 and 1975, using Italian seaside villages as a model, and bits of other buildings as his material.  Many of the architectural pieces already existed, and were moved and reassembled at Portmeirion.  Ornate clock towers jostle against wrought-iron porticos. Hard angles take surprising turns, statues peer from unexpected windows. The whole thing has a postmodern, collage-like air of disorder and order.  It feels a little like a town made from children's toys, where disparate parts are thrown together in a pile and expected to play out a fantasy.
Though some of the buildings are semi-inhabited (there are "private" signs everywhere, so that we tramping tourists don't stumble into an actual Welsh living room), the majority of the structures really serve their own purpose.  William-Ellis was building a piece of art, not planned-housing in the mold of Le Corbusier.  Room is needed for a cafeteria, of course, and for souvenir shops and ice cream, a hotel and restaurant.  Tens of thousands of people visit Portmeirion every year.  It might as well be a called a museum.
The small touches are some of the most poignant.  Little copper fixtures, wooden statues of sea-captains, painted rocks, a sermonizing Jesus on a balcony.  The town isn't actually town-sized, but the few acres of buildings are so intricate that they feel like a much bigger place.
While William-Ellis used Italy as a rough template, the buildings and architectural features are from every corner of the globe. A colonnade from Bristol, England, is set against statues from Myanmar and Greek gods.  It's meant to be surprising and confusing, and some of it isn't even real - one whole facade is done completely in trompe-l'œil.  If there is one commonality, it's the influence of the sea on all these surfaces.  Everything is salt-touched and vaguely nautical.
I remember wondering, in the November darkness of two years ago, how the cold Lithuanian coast could ever attract hollidaymakers and sun seekers.  Cold light, beach-walkers in parkas, the threat of overnight snow.  We turn towards the sea for half the year, and away from it the rest of the time.
Something that remains is the smell of the ocean, especially in the still waters of the Big Sands.  That odor of kelp, salt and something indescribable emanating from the deep - it's the same all year.
Portmeirion was originally called "Aber Iâ," which Williams-Ellis took to mean "frozen mouth."  He changed the name to make it seem more pleasant, but he couldn't erase the actual image of a cold estuary.  As colorful and tropical as the village is, it will always look out over a big slick of Welsh, northern sand.  It's beautiful, but it could never be confused with Le Marche.
Near the estuary, on a rocky hillock, the Portmeirion "lighthouse" stands duty over nothingness.  The tiny, metal figure in the scrub is something like a playhouse feature - we ducked inside and peered out through the empty porthole. It's only about ten or twelve feet tall, and doesn't have a light (as far as we could tell).  The design suggests moorish rocketship more than naval signal.  The view from inside is empty except for glistening sand, reeds, wheeling birds.  Maybe it's the sea that projects to this lighthouse, not the other way around.
If I haven't really explained this place, forgive me.  Portmeirion isn't so much a defined space as it is a funny concept.  It isn't the right season, or the right texture, or the right temperature, color or height - not just for Wales, but for anywhere. In a children's book, the zaniness might make better sense.  In a architectural textbook, the ideas might be better ordered.  On a rock beside the water, it's just a pile of buildings.  Which is to say, it's fun.  It made us laugh, which is something a town usually doesn't.  It made us want to open every door we could find.