British Food: So Much Potential, So Much Disappointment
I tend to not put much stock in stereotypes about countries. I would rather show up without any assumptions, and see what is actually going on. So, when people teased me about moving to England and having to eat terrible food, I shrugged it off and told them, "Surely it can't be that bad. I know that's the stereotype, but I'm sure things have changed." If only. Let me clarify for a moment: what I am writing about here is not food in London. I am not talking about Marco Pierre White's restaurant in Lavenham. I am speaking of all the other food we've eaten here, in smaller towns-- but also including Cambridge.
It started with the traditional English breakfast. When we first arrived in England, we stayed in a little cottage kind of in the middle of nowhere, where there were no restaurants or stores nearby. Fortunately,we had a kitchenette, where we could cook our own meals. Also, we were provided with breakfast every morning. And every single morning (every! single! morning!) we had foil-covered plates delivered with the exact same thing on them:
A fried egg, baked beans from a can, broiled tomatoes, something they called bacon, which is much more like canadian bacon than what an American would consider bacon, hardly-cooked mushrooms, a very strange-tasting little sausage (which it turns out has all sorts of things besides just meat and seasonings in it.)
I am actually very good at eating the same thing over and over and over again. If it tastes good today, it will taste good tomorrow and the next day, maybe even indefinitely. But this meal was so weird and tasteless, carelessly prepared that I started dreading it. And then Jeff and I eventually started just skipping breakfast-- we felt bad buying breakfast when it was provided, but in the end we would rather not eat at all than face this meal again. Amelia dug right in, and ate half of our platefuls as well.
It turns out that this meal was pretty standard around here-- it had not been poorly prepared, and was probably quite good, when compared with everything else being offered. At first, we tried eating out quite a bit in Bury... Only to discover that the food was exceptionally expensive, and incredibly mediocre. Being a good cook can be a real curse sometimes, since it's hard to pay for food that you'd be embarrassed to serve at your own table. We found some reasonably okay restaurants, but the meals would cost us over $50, easily. Even at these places, we would order, for example, the Sunday roast-- alongside it would come a big bowl of boiled vegetables-- completely pale and limp, without so much as a pat of butter to season them. In fact, everything was underseasoned, and sometimes there wasn't even salt on the table to help things along. We have simply stopped eating out-- previously one of our family's favorite hobbies. We have opted to have a pint in a pub instead.
What makes this really maddening is the fact that we are surrounded by beautiful farmland. Most people have a kitchen garden, and the markets are overflowing with beautiful produce. Grass fed lamb and beef are easy to come by, as are free range chickens and pastured eggs. There are wonderful cheeses being made, and ciders and ales being brewed. But when it comes to actually putting foods together in a pan and cooking them, there is a huge disconnect. No artistry. No harmony. I really am astounded.
Let me illustrate. Before Christmas, we went to a farm shop that we had heard really nice things about. Here is the website, please take a moment to look at how wonderful it all looks! They sell a lot of gourmet foods, and the grounds are beautiful, as was the shop itself. Given how lovely everything was, we decided to stay for lunch, and we ordered the special Christmas meal: Roast Turkey, with all the fixings. Get ready. This is what turned up at our table.
Lo! The boiled vegetables!
Potato wedges, with a skinny sausage wrapped in bacon. Turkey, of course.
Am I crazy? Am I being demanding? Does this look like a fancy, fresh, festive Christmas meal to you? Here we are, surrounded by bottles of wine, a cheese counter, and a shelf of artisan chutneys. Should I not have expected something good?
France is very close by, and there are so many cultural influences which could produce many interesting food movements here. There is access to everything a person could wish to cook with.
I totally don't get it. It's like the culinary situation is completely broken, and I don't know what is needed to fix it. There are tons of food-related television shows, and lots of cooking magazines. They've got Jamie Oliver and Nigel Slater. There is a major move toward "grow your own," helping people raise their own gardens, and cook food from scratch. It's pretty easy to do here, actually. But it's not working!
On the bright side, while England may not be a good place to eat out, it's a great place to cook. All of that fresh produce, local honey, organic dairy, and pastured meats, and genuinely artisan products make really excellent raw ingredients to work with. Many of these would have been unavailable or prohibitively expensive in the States. But in Suffolk, you can find them just by taking a drive in the country. I love cooking here.
Leg of lamb for dinner-- no big deal!
We eat very, very well, and this is one of my favorite parts of living here. We can go to the farms where the animals and produce are raised, and buy them there, knowing exactly where our food has come from, enjoying it at the peak of freshness. It's wonderful! But why is it so hard to come by a good meal elsewhere?
One of the best theories I have heard is that since WW2, Britain was on food rations, all the way into the 1960s-- there were simply very few foods to work with, and hardly any spices. People just got used to eating really bland food, and there wasn't much effort toward coming up with something different, since the choices were so limited anyway. People say that the food scene is actually much better than it has been since before the war. Well, I'm glad to hear that. But if you find yourself eating out in a smaller town in England, do yourself a favor, and sneak in a bit of butter, a wedge of lemon, and maybe some fresh thyme. Because those boiled vegetables were probably raised locally and organically, and deserve better treatment.
Just a little note: Obviously, I haven't eaten in every pub in every city in England. (In fact, we really haven't been very far away from home yet at all!) And maybe we've just had bad luck in our area. I would never dream of insulting my host country, which I love, and hope that the experiences and opinions I share here can be taken with good humor by my wonderful British friends and readers.
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