Wednesday, September 2, 2009
The last time I was in England I was writing a piece for Bon Appetit: I got paid, it didn’t get published – not the worst result. So I went to Simpson’s in the Strand, Fergus Henderson’s St John, Gordon Ramsey’s Maze and Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen – all pretty great except the last – although if you want to pay $200 dollars for a so-so Italian meal, you’ll absolutely love it.
This time I was paying for myself, so I ate a lot of pies. What is it with the English and pies? Why do they do them so well, why do they (I) like them so much? Interesting fact: the first English pies were called coffins.
Well obviously comfort is involved, but why do the Brits find comfort in something the rest of the world views with suspicion?
When I first moved to LA, I became aware of the House of Pies “a slice of heaven on earth” – corner of Franklin and Vermont – frequented by Kirstie Allie among others - and I thought great, I’ll be able to get a Cornish pasty or a cottage pie of a steak and kidney pudding. Yeah, right.
House of Pies is a burger joint – the pies are the desserts – Banana cream, French Blackbottom, Bayou Goo - perfectly good pies if you like that sort of thing but a very long way from the English tradition.
So, once back in England, I tucked into the Cornish pasty seen above, Melton Mowbray pork pies, a home made cottage pie, and this (tastes better than it looks) steak and oyster pie at O’Neill’s Irish pub in Southend on Sea.
However, if you go to Southend what you really want is not pies but seafood: whelks, cockles, jellied eels.
I hadn’t been to Southend in a long while but my memory was that you couldn’t walk ten yards without running into a jellied eel stall. Now the place seems to have been oddly gentrified. The cockle stalls are to be found huddled together within a shell’s throw of each other at Leigh on Sea.
But, and it’s a big but, and I don’t know if my palate has become more sophisticated or less, whether the local cooking methods have changed or improved, but these cockles and whelks, were some of the best I’d ever tasted – subtle, delicate, briny but not salty, and the jellied eels were absolutely, no doubt about it the very best I’d ever had.
I think it would be an odd person who went to England solely for the food; but a man who went there and couldn’t respond favourably to steak, kidney, oysters. eels, whelks and so on: well he’s no person at all in my book. whether Kirstie Allie fits into this category, I'm not sure, (fact is I still think she's pretty hot) but she doesn't quite look like a savory pie girl to me.