Today, I am going to talk about food. Not just any food, but quintessentially British food. Over the years, the British have developed a reputation for not excelling culinarily (to put it mildly). People laugh about British food, saying it is bland and practically inedible. I cannot vouch for the food of 10-20 years ago or more, but in my experience the bad reputation of British food is entirely unfounded.
Aside from fish & chips and shepherd’s pie, the British have quite a variety of dishes that have not made their way to America, or at least not in any large quantities. I have fallen madly in love with the Full English Breakfast (as opposed to the continental). The St. Catz dining hall offers a full English every morning for 2.30 pounds sterling, and it almost never disappoints. What a full English consists of varies by region, but the staples are sausages, bacon (think closer to Canadian bacon), toast, beans, mushrooms, tomatoes, and—of course—tea. Yogurt is also common. The breakfast is heavy, like most British food, but it prepares you well for a long day of studying and researching.
Pub food is very popular here in the UK, especially when accompanied by a pint of ‘real ale’, which is generally served room-temperature and flat. Say what you will, the British ales are a bit bitter to my taste; I prefer the cider (which, incidentally, is always hard cider in the UK; non-alcoholic cider here is called ‘cloudy apple juice’). Besides the ubiquitous fish & chips, other staples include steak and ale pie, bangers (sausages) and mash, toad-in-a-hole (sausages in a Yorkshire pudding), and the ploughman’s lunch (a piece of bread with cheese and a pickle, sometimes with ham). Oxford is positively packed with pubs, including several famous ones including the Eagle and Child (favorite haunt of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien), the White Horse (haunt of Inspector Morris), and my personal favorite, the Turf Tavern (several centuries old, famously built outside the old city walls to avoid the civic authorities; also connected with Bill Clinton). All the pubs I have been to thus far have been friendly, a bit eccentric, and full of good food, good drink, and good times.
A new favorite regional food of mine is the Cornish pasty (rhymes with ‘nasty’). It is the ultimate packed lunch: the traditional pastry is stuffed full of steak, potatoes, root vegetables, and gravy, baked to a golden brown. There are a myriad of different varieties, including a surprisingly scrumptious lamb and mint pasty I had in Bath. Theoretically, for a pasty to be a true Cornish pasty it must be prepared in Cornwall, although it does not have to be baked there. The dish was popularized by Cornish miners who would bring them as their lunches for a long day in the mines. Pasties are usually reasonably priced and make a wonderful cheap meal on the go.
Where the British truly excel, however, is with their desserts. Never have I had so many scrumptious desserts. Formal hall at Catz is a three-course meal, and the desserts are almost invariably excellent. One of my favorites thus far was a ‘fruit salad au gratin’, which was, as far as I could tell, a fruit salad mixed with marshmallow fluff and baked. So good! Chocolate mousses routinely make an appearance, and millionaire’s shortbread is simply divine (a layer of butter shortbread, a layer of caramel, and a layer of chocolate). Bread and butter pudding is always a nice treat when it is an option as well. But the dessert that takes the cake (pun unashamedly intended) is without a doubt sponge cake with custard. As my family well knows, for the longest time I was not a fan of cake; it has only been in the past couple years that it has grown on me. All that changed when I discovered cake and custard. First off, the cake themselves are usually delicious, light, and fluffy, and the hall staff generally gives out very generous portions. Then the entire thing is smothered in warm, gooey custard (much like a warm, runny pudding). One night, we had a yellow sponge cake with a rum caramel custard was the absolutely pinnacle of my UK culinary experience (at least thus far!). I cannot wait to bring back many of these recipes back to the States to introduce them to my friends and family; although first I will have to figure out how to convert all the measurements out of the metric system.