Sunday, November 27, 2011


I don't think I ever showed you this.  It's a piece I did for Gourmet Live.
You can read it at their website here:

And do let me apologize for the photograph - I don't really look like that, honest.


A jar of mint sauce leads to a rare experience for Geoff Nicholson
—commonsense and cultural solidarity while traveling by air

The last time I came back to America from England I got pulled over by security at Heathrow because the x-ray machine had detected something suspicious in my hand luggage. My bag was unpacked and out came the offending article, a jar of English mint sauce. The English security man looked at it and me sternly, and pointed out that since the sauce was runny and the jar was large, I was breaking the rules about how much liquid could be taken on planes. Of course, if I’d thought about it even for a moment I would have realized this, but the need for mint sauce had clouded my judgment.

The security man softened a little and looked at me with sympathy rather than hostility, as though I was an idiot rather than a threat. I certainly expected him to confiscate the jar, but I found myself explaining that I was an Englishman living in California and it was hard to get authentic mint sauce there. The man’s face cracked the smallest of smiles, “Well,” he said, “an Englishman can’t have his roast lamb without mint sauce can he?” I agreed that he couldn’t, and I was then waved through, taking my jar with me, having experienced a rare example of commonsense and cultural solidarity while traveling by air.

In general I’m not one of those Englishmen who lives in America and spends a lot of time feeling nostalgic about warm beer and Marmite sandwiches, but there are moments when I crave a Fortnum and Mason’s hand raised pork pie, some good English piccalilli, a nice pair of kippers and so on, and I’m clearly not alone in this. There’s a very curious scene in Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye, in which Philip Marlowe, the tarnished yet noble private eye, has some thinking to do. He decides he needs prime rib and Yorkshire pudding, and goes to a Los Angeles restaurant called Lowry’s. Now I would have thought Marlowe was far too tough and all-American to be a Yorkshire pudding kind of guy. Great though it is, Yorkshire pudding seems a little too soft, frivolous and British for a hard bitten gumshoe, and this fictional moment just doesn’t ring true in the book. And I seems to me it was the author, Chandler, partly raised in England and very much an Anglophile, who was craving some British nosh, and placed the urge on his fictional hero. It’s hard to blame him.

There is no restaurant in L.A. called Lowry’s, and as far as I can tell there never was, but there is one called Lawry’s, and it certainly existed in Chandler’s time, though its location has moved since then. There you can indeed get prime rib and Yorkshire pudding, although in my experience the majority of the customers are unsure what a Yorkshire pudding is or how to eat it. Quite a high percentage of the puddings return to the kitchen untouched, which is a terrible shame. The interaction of well-beaten batter and sizzling hot beef fat in oven is one of British cookery’s most delicious and mystical processes. Lawry’s can certainly satisfy some of my yearnings for British food, and if it isn’t exactly a taste of home, it’s a decent approximation.

In fact Lawry’s, a small chain that now extends to Dallas, Las Vegas and Chicago, as well as outside America, is a respectful though not especially accurate, imitation of the classic London restaurant, Simpson’s in the Strand. The story goes that Lawrence L. Frank, the begetter of Lawry’s, never visited Simpson’s, but he heard reports that they carved beef tableside from grand silver trolleys, and this led him to create a version from his own imagination. I wouldn’t be the first to say that the imitation is rather better than the original.

Lawry’s doesn’t advertise itself as serving British food per se, and it’s not hard to see why. All Americans “know” how terrible British food is. They accuse it of being both bland and disgusting, not an easy trick to pull off. And the claim is that the food’s not just bad, but downright laughable. The jokes probably didn’t start with Mark Twain whose recipe for “New English Pie” involves a bullet-proof dough, several days of cooking and then petrifaction. And it certainly didn’t end with the Simpsons’ Mutton Chop Murderer episode, set in Victorian England, in which the killer is caught through his love of eel pies.

Old jokes and stereotypes die hard. The obvious way to counter them is to say that British food has seen huge changes and improvements in recent years. This is perfectly true, although I admit we British remain deeply attached to some quaint old delicacies such as spotted dick, toad in the hole and mushy peas, things that are never going to become hot favorites on American menus. But the biggest change of all is that the British, who once thought it was effete and unmanly to care what they put in their mouths, are now proud of their own gastronomic passions and connoisseurship.

The other way the British might counter the casual abuse of their national cuisine is to ask why, if Americans hate British food so much, they have such a love affair with British chefs. Jamie Oliver’s TV show Food Revolution just won an Emmy. Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck is about to be feted at the York City Wine & Food Festival. Fergus Henderson’s book Nose to Tail Eating, subtitled “a kind of British Cooking” was a smash hit with the pig’s trotter and marrowbone crowd. And there are times when it seems impossible to turn on a TV without seeing Gordon Ramsay joyfully cussing and calling people donkeys.

I find it intriguing to watch the contestants on Hell’s Kitchen struggling to cook beef Wellington—a thoroughly British dish—and I wonder how many of them knew what it was before they went on the show. For that matter, I wonder how many in the TV audience know even now.

It’s surely part of Ramsay’s success that he contradicts the received idea of the polite, reserved Brit. Whether he’s screaming at incompetent risotto-makers or hugging the newly on-track restaurateurs of Kitchen Nightmares, he’s nothing if not emotional. You also have to respect Ramsay for being the only British celebrity chef to open restaurants in America: that takes some nerve. It’s a surprise to go to one of his restaurants and find it’s a cool and sophisticated place, rather than a center of loud verbal obscenity and thrown food.

It must also be said that in Ramsay’s American restaurants, the Britishness is toned way down. Yes, on his menu at the London in West Hollywood you’ll find partridge and venison, at Maze in New York, there are some English-sounding desserts such as vanilla custard, and the London Bar, also in New York, offers “full English breakfast,” but he seems to be holding back. The website for London, West Hollywood, states that the cuisine is “western European with subtle Asian influences,” and Britain is certainly in western Europe, but Ramsey obviously doesn’t want to labor the point. The ox tongue and cheek, which is a signature dish in his British restaurants, and well worth seeking out, was only briefly on his American menus, which frankly is a damn shame: it’s a terrific dark, rich, gamey, very elegant concoction. There’s no beef Wellington on the menu either for that matter.

So if Gordon Ramsay isn’t going to satisfy our need for good British food in America, where should our quest take us? Well, there are quite a few, as it were, British “theme restaurants” scattered across America, various Britannia George and Dragons, Cat and Fiddles, along with an increasing number of gastropubs, a genuinely British invention that continues to mutate both in Britain and America. You hope these places will serve shepherd’s pie, bangers and mash, maybe Cornish pasties. When these things are good they’re very good indeed, and to an Englishman even when they’re not really good they’re still not bad.

Some places may even serve curry, a British version of Indian food that’s a long way from anything actually eaten in India. The British have made curry in their own image, usually spicy but mild, sometimes creamy, occasionally extremely fierce, and generally accompanied by copious amounts of Indian bread. I suspect that not every American food lover will want to put too much energy into seeking out authentic versions of inauthentic copies of foreign cuisines, but if they do they’ll definitely be sharing flavors that are comfortingly familiar to millions of Britons.

Among the more interesting places where I’ve satisfied my urge for British food are the Lyons English Grille in Palm Springs—which serves a steak and kidney pie that’s satisfyingly heavy on the kidney, and sometimes they even have beef Wellington as a special—while in New York there’s Keen’s which certainly has British origins, as part of Lamb’s Club in London in the nineteenth century. There, as well as the famous mutton chops, you’ll find English trifle and Stilton from Neal’s Yard. High quality British cheese is certainly something that a deracinated Englishman often craves. It’s not impossible to find in America but here it’s a high priced luxury, whereas in Britain it’s an affordable staple.

And how about fish and chips? For the true British fish and chip experience you should be standing on a beach in a bleak English seaside town, the wind numbing your fingers as you eat the vinegar-soaked chips. It’s not an easy one to replicate in America. In southern California there’s the H. Salt Esquire chain, which is very authentic in some ways. The original owner really was named H. Salt (the H stood for Haddon), an Englishman, son of a fish and chip shop owner in Skegness, a bleak seaside town to be sure. The story here is that American tourists who ate at the shop enjoyed themselves so much they convinced Haddon that America would go wild for his food, and he duly moved to California. This may or may not be true: the hardest part to believe is that there were ever any American tourists in Skegness. I rather like my local H. Salt; the fish and chips are pretty good—they’re not haute cuisine, but fish and chips aren’t meant to be - and the layout of tables, counters and fryers really does have the feel a genuine English fish and chip shop, but the windswept beach is a long way away.
Much greater claims are made for A Salt and Battery, in New York’s West Village, with its English owners, cooks and sensibility. These result in chunky, irregularly shaped French fries, and crisp golden batter that doesn’t overwhelm the melting taste of the fish inside. One of A Salt’s fryers, Mat Arnfield, even beat Bobby Flay in a Food Channel “throwdown”: the fact that Flay used serrano chili vinegar certainly suggests he wasn’t going for authenticity. Fortunately he didn’t attempt the deep fried Mars bar, another A Salt and Battery specialty, one with Scottish origins, not as perfect an invention as the haggis, but definitely in the running.

Finally there’s one category of British food that’s absolutely unobtainable in America, and that’s game. A good local butcher in Britain will sell you venison, hare, pigeon, pheasant and whatnot, these will be genuinely free range - recently shot by a neighboring farmer. These are nothing like their farmed equivalents, however since such a trade would be both unthinkable and illegal in the U.S., in order to experience that particular element of British food, you’re going to have to travel to Britain, and once there you’ll be on a quest of a very different kind.

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