Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged U.K. Newbie

[Blogger’s note: I was born and raised in America, moved to Canada for love in the early 2000s, and recently relocated again, in my 50s, with my British-born spouse to the southern coast of his homeland. This is an occasional series about learning new tricks in Merry Old England.]

I Marmite, But Then Again, I Marmite Not: British Food from Delicious to Distressing

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Recently, my partner and I were reminiscing with two old friends about our year-and-a-few-weeks of living in the U.K. when one of the chums turned to me and said, “By now you must have formed an opinion on British food. What do you think?” A good question, and one I could answer succinctly with “It’s a mixed bag.” But I’ve never been a huge fan of brevity, as my infinitely patient readers—all 12 of you—can attest. So here’s a supersized blog post to binge on; it might be wise to keep some antacid tablets at the ready.

First, we must define parameters. Even in soon-to-be-post-Brexit Britain, what’s on offer on menus and in supermarkets here is as culturally varied as most other Western countries. In our home base of Portsmouth, there are independent and chain restaurants that serve Mexican, Greek, Italian, Middle Eastern, and Asian-fusion fare, and coming soon is something called an American noodle bar. (Will Kraft Mac & Cheese be its only entree, I wonder?) Portuguese piri piri chicken is all the rage nationwide thanks to the ubiquitous chain Nando’s. And, of course, the Brits have long assimilated Indian curries into their diets, a by-product of their former empire, so Indian eateries are plentiful.

For the sake of keeping this missive to a length somewhat shy of your average Gordon Ramsay cookbook, I’ll narrow the focus to food that is traditionally English. Your fish and chips. Your meat pies. Your crumpets and your tea, tea, and, oh my god, more freaking tea. As I am fortunate enough to be wedded to a lovely British gent, I was introduced to some Anglo food faves long before we moved here. For years now, we’ve supplemented our weekend eggs-and-bacon breakfasts with baked beans and I’ve grown so accustomed to them that if I’m presented with a similar meal, but sans legumes, I feel a tin-can-shaped hole open in my enjoyment that only Heinz can fill. Oh, and a side note about British bacon: It’s different from the narrow, fatty strips Americans know and love and eat atop everything. An intrepid expat can hunt down that “streaky” bacon, as the locals call it, but it’s not nearly as close to hand as British “rasher” bacon, which looks like wafer-thin, lengthwise slices of deboned pork chop.  Its appearance may be unfamiliar, but trust me, it’s cured pork, ergo scrumptious.

The spouse and I also regularly work bangers and mash into our weekly meal plan. To the uninitiated, I simply mean pan-fried sausages and mashed potatoes smothered in thick, oniony gravy. What’s not to love? And we’re quite fond of toad-in-the-hole, a rather disconcerting nickname for bangers baked to blistered perfection in a Yorkshire pudding batter. The British are sausage savants, I have to say. Most supermarkets stock a vast array of tubular pork of varying sizes and flavours. You can get thin Cumberland chipolatas seasoned with rosemary and thyme, Lincolnshire links stuffed with sage and apple, chorizo or chili sausage to add oomph to your omelette, and many, many more. Meat pies are another triumph of U.K. cuisine. We buy these crusty wonders from our local butcher, who packs them full of pork, lamb, beef, or poultry, all in a savoury sauce.  I have yet to sample the old British standby, steak-and-kidney pie, but then I’m not really an offal guy. (Despite what you may have heard, nyuk-nyuk.)

The Brits are aces at desserts—or “puddings”— of pretty much every stripe too, be they tarts, pies, cakes, trifles, crumbles, or Eton messes. I’m looking forward to gorging on two popular holiday delights, the flaky, fruity and deliciously addictive mince pies, and that alcohol-soaked and flambeed centre of attention, the Christmas pudding. (I have a feeling it won’t be the only one that’s booze-infused and flaming come this holiday season, wink-wink. Okay, I’ll can the Vegas comedian one-liners.)

But I must confess I have yet to fully embrace other traditional English fare, for reasons ranging from indifference to outright revulsion. On the “meh” end of the spectrum for me are crumpets. If you put these round, porous, griddle-cake thingies in front of me with some butter and jam and a cup of Earl Grey, I’ll consume them and be content enough. But given my druthers, I’ll take a bagel with a smear and a mug of java any day. I’m also lukewarm toward fish and chips. There are at least 10 “chippies,” the shorthand moniker for shops that specialize in this take-out staple, within walking distance of our flat, and the dish is infallibly on the menu at any pub that serves grub. But while it’s my hubby’s go-to tavern order, for whatever reason I opt for another offering, like a burger, every time. My cardiologist has warned me off of fried foods, but that’s a feeble excuse because I regularly spurn his advice to chow down on other battered munchables such as calamari and chicken fingers. And it’s not like I’m a stranger to the combo, having grown up eating blandly digestible baskets of it at the U.S. fast-food joints Long John Silver’s, Captain D’s and Arthur Treacher’s. Maybe that’s the problem, I’ve only previously been served so-so versions. I’m fairly certain one of these chippies would knock my socks off if I gave it a chance. There’s a new fish-and-chips restaurant that’s opened near us that has concocted its own “gourmet” interpretation. I’m not sure what that means, or if it’s even possible, but I’m working up the gumption to try it.

There are a few national noshes that I find completely irredeemable.  I’ve tasted black pudding—vile fried patties made of congealed pork blood and oatmeal—exactly once. The experience haunts me to this day. I’ve never mustered the nerve to even try the bewilderlingly beloved toast spread, Marmite. You can purchase jars of this yeasty brown sludge, scooped up from the dregs of beer brewers’ kegs, pretty much anywhere that sells packaged food. The Brits consume it, unironically, by the bucket-loads. Upon our arrival in the U.K., those pals we were reminiscing with gave us a welcome basket full of fundamental foodstuffs including tea bags, hot English mustard, a brick of mature Cornish cheddar, and a jar of Marmite. More than a year later, everything in the basket has long been polished off except for the Marmite, which is still untouched. Our friends assure me it will retain its efficacy until the next Ice Age and I would gladly leave it sealed in the back of the cupboard to await our rental flat’s next tenant. But for the sake of an educated palate and to satisfy the curiosity of those of you who have stuck with this post up to now, I will go taste it. Hold on a sec…

Nope, couldn’t do it. I opened the jar of viscous, compost-coloured paste, sniffed it, and balked. I also think I threw up in my mouth a little. But I would choose licking that jar clean, plus a hundred more, over tainting my tongue with just one nibble of a horrific delicacy I’ve noticed on our jaunts to the seaside resort town of Brighton. There, in weathered stalls that abut the English Channel, you can buy portions of cold jellied eel. This abomination comes in a dainty paper cone, which I find perversely hilarious, as if you’re getting a summertime treat on a typical oceanfront boardwalk, only this one is in Hell. I’ve never had the courage to actually peer into one of these cones, let alone slurp up the contents, but I imagine if I did I would see Satan staring back, cackling.

To be fair, jellied eel is not as widely consumed as the other more commonplace comestibles I’ve mentioned. It’s a bit journalistically naughty of me to lump it in with them. But it’s jellied eel! In a cone! How could I not share that with you? And it’s an example of the extremes in all of our native diets that would assuredly turn the stomachs of outsiders—I’m looking at you, American scrapple and Canadian moose jerky. The Brits have weird food and quirky ways of preparing it that they grew up with and are used to and is perfectly ordinary to them, just the same as we all have. My partner, for instance, can’t fathom why we U.S. Southerners cook our green beans in bacon fat for hours until they have virtually no texture. (I think he would be shocked and appalled if I brought up chitlins.) A few days ago, I bumped into our very British neighbour, Clive (naturally), who had just returned with his wife from several weeks’ vacation on the Greek island of Mykonos. Clive bore the deep tan and relaxed expression that come with an extended holiday in the sun, but he was very relieved to get back to the food of his homeland, with all its distinct flavours and idiosyncrasies. “I’ve eaten nothing but f*cking salad for a month!” he exclaimed, then he sucked on his front teeth like a cartoon rabbit gnawing a carrot.

So, the moral of this long and winding story, I guess, is each to his own eel cone.

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