Friday, May 30, 2014


And of course while in England I ate what the English would call potato crisps, and what my American neighbors would call potato chips.  I selected these two as a couple of interestingly similar examples - both sausage and mustard flavour.

You’ll notice that Corkers don’t immediately declare themselves to be either crisps OR chips, but rather “Natural British Crunch” which sounded to me like a euphemism for some sort of chemical construct, although the promise of East Anglian spuds on the packet was vaguely reassuring, and indeed potato crisps is what they are.

Both varieties definitely seem to be peddling some dubious version of British nostalgia.  Corkers have silhouettes of phone boxes, Minis, cricket bats and whatnot.   Tyrell’s have happy girls, perhaps from the farm, perhaps from the factory, and they tell us, just in case we’ve been living in a bunker for the last 30 years, that crisps go well with a pint of ”ale.”

I can’t say I’d ever heard of Ludlow sausage – there’s no mention in Antony and Araminta Hippisley Coxe’s Book of Sausages  (which is my bible in these matters) but of course it’s declared online that they’re part of a long and noble tradition.  This may just possibly be true.

In any case I didn’t get a strong sausage taste from the Tyrell’s, more of an all-purpose savory flavor, and they were perfectly fine, and no doubt better still with ale (perhaps in a flagon for old time’s sake).  The list of ingredients runs as follows, “Potatoes, Sunflower Oil, Sausage and Wholegrain Mustard Flavour (Lactose, Sugar, Salt, Mustard Powder, Yeast Extract Powder, Onion Powder, Sage, Spice Extract, Pork Powder, Citric Acid, White Pepper, Garlic Powder, Flavouring, Colour: Paprika Extract)” which leaves me wondering whether there’s any actual meat or sausage in the mix.  Again, I had never heard of pork powder, but I now know it’s a pork-free seasoning, containing hickory smoke, dried jalapeno and a bunch of other things.

Corkers tasted far more like the real deal.  There was a big tangy burst up front, which I suppose was the mustard, though if I’d had to guess I might have said it was vinegar, and then at the end there really was a genuine, intense, lingering pork taste.  How they managed that, I’m still not sure.  The pack lists as the ingredients as “Potatoes, Sunflower Oil, Yeast Extract Powder, Potato Starch, Whey Powder (from Milk), Salt, Wheatflour, Sugar, Spices (including Mustard), Natural Flavourings, Herbs, Onion Powder, Natural Colour: Paprika.”  So again no obvious presence of meat or sausage, unless sausage can be construed as a “natural flavouring.”

And finally, for those who want to believe that British food is a series of unnatural shocks that flesh is heir to, may I present the Very Peculiar Marmite chocolate bar. 

Now, I think anyone who goes out of their way to proclaim peculiarity is already trying too hard, and so it was here.  It really wasn’t very peculiar at all.  It tasted fine, rather like one of those bars of chocolate with sea salt.  I got the savoriness, and once you know it’s Marmite then you can taste it quite clearly, but really I’m not sure I’d have got it in a blind tasting.

The problem I think is that it’s 98% chocolate and only 2% Marmite, and I reckon 2% is way too low.  As a man who tends to have both chocolate and Marmite in the house I shall be doing some experimenting – 3 per cent, 5 per cent, spreading Marmite thickly across a chocolate bar as though it were a slice of toast.  Hey – don’t judge me!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014


When I first moved to London I was aware there were establishments called “eel and pie shops,” though I didn’t really know what they were.  I liked pies and I thought I probably liked eels, though I’d never had any (my childhood was both sheltered and deprived).

     So I went along to an eel and pie shop: I think it was Manze’s in Islington, but I could be wrong about that; it was a long time ago.  And I imagined that I’d be ordering a pie filled with eel.  This wasn’t the case.  You could buy jellied eels, but I didn’t, and instead I ordered what turned out to be a fairly standard meat pie with mashed potatoes on the side. 

The unique selling point however was the intense green parsley sauce that accompanied the pie and mash, the liquor as the man behind the counter called it, and in fact, traditionally the name is eel liquor, because it's made from the liquid the eels have been cooked in, though I had no idea about that at the time.  The pie, mash and liquor was good, but not quite the brand new experience I’d been hoping for.  I had, after all, eaten plenty of meat pies in my life.

Now, reading a bit of history, I discover that in their Victorian beginnings eel and pie shops really did sell eel pies, but over the years eels have become ever more of a rare and expensive delicacy.  These days not all the surviving pie and mash shops even make authentic eel liquor, but one that does is Goddard’s of Greenwich and it so happens that I was recently at a launch/party/exhibition (for Bleeding London - go look it up) at the Cave in Greenwich, where Goddard’s pies were served.

Now you and I might think that this (below) is the way to serve and eat a pie:

But in this case we’d be quite wrong, apparently.  According to tradition and custom, the pie has to be inverted, pierced with a fork to open up the insides, and then vinegar is shaken into the crevices along with the liquor. So that it looks like this:

The shrewd observer may also note that two kinds of pastry are involved in the pie: the top is short crust, the bottom is made with suet.  Suet pastry – hallelujah!

I’m not sure this is a dish that would convert many Americans to the joys of British food, but I thought it was just tremendous.  There was liquor galore (which might almost be an Ealing comedy) both authentic eel, and vegetarian.

 I suppose this was “low” food, though when you consider the Rex Whistler Restaurant is serving faggots, and Fergus Henderson is serving potted meat, who knows if that term means anything anymore?  The meal I had in London that best covered the high/low spectrum, was the Plateau de Fruits de Mer at the Bibendum Oyster Bar, though there was nothing low about the setting. 

Up at the top end were langoustines and crab and oysters, in the middle were Atlantic prawns and brown shrimps, and at the “bottom” were winkles and whelks.  Photo by Del Barrett (who also, most generously, bought the meal):

 I’ve written elsewhere about the role of whelks as a signifier of masculinity in northern England in the late 20th century.  As I was growing up, my dad was the whelk-eater, and as the lad I only ate cockles.  I can’t say I was craving whelks all through my boyhood - they looked vaguely unpleasant and had the texture of rubber - but I could see that eating them was somehow synonymous with passing through the portal of manhood.

The Bibendum whelks came in their shells, unheard of in the Sheffield fish market where I used to see my dad eat them, and here they were accompanied by lemon wedges, again unheard of: in Sheffield it was vinegar or nowt.  There at Bibendum, squeezing my lemon wedge, I felt secure in my manhood, while still aware that there might be certain old school northerners who’d think I’d turned into an effete southern softy.  They don’t eat many jellied eels up north either.

Friday, May 23, 2014


Some people, i.e. anybody with a grain of sense, find themselves offended by the crassness of the souvenirs available in the gift shop at the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York: hats with the FDNY symbol, cuddly stuffed dogs with a search and rescue bandanna around the necks, and so on.   Some people, of course, are offended by the mere existence of a gift shop at the site.  I am prepared to be counted a member of both groups, without being much surprised by any manifestation of human crassness.

And yet and yet; I see (above) they’re selling a cheeseboard in the shape of the United States (though without Alaska and Hawaii naturally), and I admit I found myself wanting one. It seemed, at first glance, inoffensive, but then I noticed the three hearts indicating where the 9/11 terrorist attacks took place, which of course makes it utterly untenable.

So I went online to see whether you can buy a cheese board cheeseboard in the shape of the United States but without three hearts indicating where the 9/11 terrorist attacks took place, and it seems you can – there are various versions available including this one found on Etsy, made by AHeirloom.

It doesn’t seem crass at all.  Before long however this version of America may well become stained, greasy and a little bit cheesy.  Go pick the symbolism out of that one.

Thursday, May 22, 2014


I’ve been in England for a spell, doing the kind of things I do in England; eating, drinking, walking, being a writer: it’s not the worst.  I’ll probably do more than one post about my eating adventures but here to start with are three small observations of the English gustatory life.

On my second day in London I had lunch in the Rex Whistler Restaurant at Tate Britain.  This, it seemed to me, is everything a good modern English restaurant might be; a great looking room - in this case with Whistler’s restored mural The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats (1926–7) on the wall.  Hard to beat that.

 The menu has depth, tradition and reinterpretation, a bit of nose to tail, a hint of foraging.  Starters included nettle soup, smoked eel, and devilled kidneys but I went for the “Air-dried Old Spot pork, with celeriac and chervil root slaw” which was a bit more salami-ish than I’d been expecting, though Old Spot is fine by me in just about any form.  Safe to say I’d never eaten chervil root before.  I have eaten and indeed grown chervil but I never even noticed the root; my error, surely.

Main courses were slightly less interesting it seemed to me: spring chicken, Cornish pollock, and black bream, but I couldn’t resist the “Lamb faggot, with minted peas and broad beans.”  If nothing else I knew it would allow me to tell my American pals I had a tasty faggot while in London.  How we laughed.

I also thought the service was terrific in the Rex Whistler Restaurant (though some reviews suggest it isn’t always that way), and it was noticeable that none of the waiting staff I encountered were native English.  Maybe there’s something in this.

On the last day of my visit we went to Walton on the Naze, in Essex, a rough and ready and likable seaside town.  We were in search of fish and chips and we ended up at an anonymous fish and chip shop where the food was decent enough, though the 10p extra charge for mayonnaise or tartar sauce seemed a bit mean.

We sat outside on a patio (“Not for public use”) that was shared with the traditional seaside restaurant next door.  There may have been some commercial connection between the two, but I wouldn’t swear to that.  We were there for a little over half an hour from two o’ clock onwards, and we noticed that in that time nobody went into the restaurant next door, though at one point a woman, a waitress I supposed, or possibly the cook, came out, sat at a table and ate a slice of cake, then went back inside.  
        That was the only bit of business observable until a couple of minutes after 2.30 at which point three middle-aged ladies arrived and went into the restaurant in search of lunch.  A minute later they came out again: they were too late.  The restaurant closed at 2.30 and the woman who’d eaten the cake now reappeared and locked the front door of the restaurant as the three ladies walked away.
         Was this a bit of absurdist drama?  You bet.  Or perhaps Catch 22.  “We’ll stay open until we get some customers and then we’ll close before serving them.”
         There was something thoroughly, familiarly English about this, something that some of us hoped was behind us.  How well we all remember going hopefully into a pub with a big sign outside saying “Pub Grub” only to be told, by a delighted barman, that service ended a few minutes ago.

         Another manifestation of petty spitefulness (or so it seemed to me) was to be found on the napkins in Pret A Manger (which sometimes seems to call itself the less Frenchified Pret).  We all know that Pret a Manger is part of the new breed of eatery that employs largely meaningless words like good, natural, handmade, etc. to describe itself, which is pretty annoying, but to be fair, the Posh Cheddar baguette (above) that I had there was perfectly fine.  It was the napkin (aka serviette) I had trouble with. 

First there’s all that predictable greenwash about avoiding “obscure chemicals” which I guess means that well-known chemicals are just fine.  But it’s that line “If Pret staff get all serviette-ish … please give them the evil eye” that really gets to me; encouraging customers to scowl at staff.  Is that a good thing?  At first I thought there was something quite novel about this, but then I realized the truth is that in England, customers and servers have been giving each other the evil eye for centuries.  It’s called tradition.