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.

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