Monthly Archives: July 2010

132

A Green and Pleasant Land

Bed, Breakfast, and Happy Chickens

Before my trip to England, people warned me about the food.  The frequently repeated refrain was, “I had a wonderful time in England, but the food was AWFUL!”  They would then elaborate with stories of tough meat, mushy vegetables, and general blandness.

When I got home from England, everyone asked me, “How was the food?” A few without apparent expectations, but most with a raised eyebrow and a wry tone of voice.

I’ve heard the stereotypes, and I’ve also seen recent travel shows that describe a food renaissance in England in the last decade or so.

Salad with Goat Cheese, Beetroot, and Vinaigrette

My experience of British food was uniformly positive.  From start to finish, I was impressed by the emphasis on fresh local ingredients.  Different artisan cheeses and meats were featured in each location, and a lot of care was evident in  both the cooking and presentation.  The menus, even in the smallest village pub, used terms like local, farm assured, free range–and vegetarian options were well represented and clearly marked.

Artisan Cheese Board at The White Hart Inn, Winchcombe

After walking through pastures dotted with placid grazing sheep and cows all day, I had no qualms about the ethics of eating the local meat.

Grass Fed British Beef

And I was blown away by the layered and nuanced flavors.  Savory, rich, tangy, bright… all of the senses were engaged, and everything was perfectly balanced and plate-lickingly good.  I tried to taste the local specialty everywhere, and I was never disappointed.

Devilled Pigeon with Savory Mustard Sauce on Toast at the Royal Oak, Painswick

So I thought I’d share a few more of the many spectacular meals we had in that green and pleasant land, before I wrap up the posts on England and get back to the equally pleasant but more quotidian business of Seattle food.

Fish & Chips at the Mounts Inn, Stanton

Vegetable Curry with Rice and Papadum at the Royal George Hotel, Birdlip

Pork Tenderloin with Black Pudding and Apple Compote at the Royal Oak, Painswick

Goat Cheese & Vegetable Tart with Watercress

Pork & Stilton Sausage with Champs and Gravy at the White Hart Inn, Winchcombe

Jamie’s Italian in Oxford

Salad Nicoise in London

It’s good to be a sheep on pasture

**

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180

Look Left

Hot, hot, it’s so hot, that’s what everyone was saying when we got to London, and it’s going to be even hotter tomorrow. The temperature had been rising steadily since Christie and I left Chipping Campden for Oxford, and only continued to climb as we made our way to London.  We sat sweating in the heat of the Tube, and the sun beat down on us as we towed our roller bags through crowded city sidewalks like tugboats parting a sea of pedestrians.  Our tiny rooms weren’t air conditioned, either, in our grandly scruffy hotel near Victoria Station.

In the stifling evening heat, I made my pilgrimage to 221b Baker Street, the erstwhile lodgings of Sherlock Holmes and his loyal Watson.  I stood on the hot sidewalk and craned my neck upwards, imagining Holmes sitting at his window with pipe and violin, looking down on a foggy, gas lit winter street.

The next morning, I stuck my head out of my 4th floor hotel room window.  The noises of London greeted me—cars whizzed by, sirens wailed, conversations drifted up from passersby, and music blared from somewhere down the street.  I smelled exhaust fumes and breakfast.  Morning sun gleamed off of the white façade of the Georgian townhouses opposite.  I looked up at the sky.  The morning haze was already burning off.

Immediately after breakfast we started out on foot.  We had a lot of ground to cover and no time to let the grass grow under our feet.

Everything seemed a little more in London.  More cosmopolitan, more diverse, more crowds and hustle and traffic and different languages being spoken on the street.  It was intense and a little overwhelming.  But just when one is really in a daze, there is a helpful British sign to keep you out of serious trouble.   Mind the Gap.  Look Left.  No blinking lights or beeping warnings, just an understated but well-timed reminder before you step off of a curb and into oblivion.

It was a wonderful day.  We saw Buckingham Palace, and walked through the pleasant shade of St. James Park, then past the Horse Guards & Cabinet War Rooms to Parliament and Big Ben.  “Listen,” Christie said, and we stopped in our tracks as that famous clock chimed the hour.  We gazed in wonder at Westminster Abbey, and bought fast passes to jump the daunting (but orderly) queue for the London Eye.  We went on to St. Martin-In-The-Fields, where we had a late lunch in the crypt café and made brass rubbings.

We parted ways in Trafalgar Square.  Christie set off for the National Portrait Gallery, while I walked to Piccadilly Circus, and then on to Fortnum & Mason, where staff circulated with trays of tiny iced teas and I imagined that I was a character in a 1920’s British novel ordering a picnic hamper for a motor trip to the country…

but I really only bought a lot of rich tea biscuits and little cakes for souvenirs, all the while thinking, I am really at Fortnum & Mason! and squealing with excitement inside my head.

And finally, a ride on top of a red double decker bus.

After this whirlwind day of walking around London, the English custom of afternoon tea seemed not only civilized, but an absolute necessity.

We met up, hot and tired, and found a tea shop near our hotel that was nothing like the lace curtain variety found in the Cotswolds.  It was sleek and modern, but served all the expected cream teas, cakes, sandwiches, cookies, and scones.

I dropped my shopping bags, sunglasses, and hat and lifted the damp hair off my neck.  My tea and scone came, along with strawberry jam and cream.  I slathered the scone liberally.  I’m talking equal parts scone, jam, and cream.  We compared notes on our separate expeditions, then fell into a companionable silence as we ate and drank.

That was the best scone I have ever had.  Dense but not heavy, it was both creamy and flaky at once.  Jam and cream dripped down the side of my hand and I licked it–surreptitiously at first, then openly, so as not to miss a drop.  The sweet strawberry jam tasted twice as red as any other jam that had come before it, and contrasted beautifully with the light, slippery, tangy, slightly salty, buttery cream.

I stretched out my tired feet and gazed out the open windows of the tea shop, savoring every bite as I reflected on the kaleidoscope of images and sounds filling my mind from our busy day.  I am really in London eating scones! my brain said. Squeal!

Maybe the scones really are better in England.   Or could it be that I was just hungry and blissed out and high on sightseeing?  Or  both?  It’s hard to say for sure, but I’ll never forget the delights of that place, and that scone.

Fortified by my tea, I had the energy to make it back to the hotel, to shower and change, and go out again for dinner and more Pimm’s.

I am not a very good baker, generally.  But the  baked goods that I can reliably produce are scones.  I have been using the recipe below successfully for years.  Thus, I conclude that it is foolproof.  The raisins are optional and the scones are just fine without them, or you could also substitute currants to good effect.

The resulting scones are biscuity and substantial.  Obviously they are best just out of the oven, with lots of fresh butter and maybe a little jam.  But they will keep reasonably well in a sealed container for a day or two.  Reheated and generously buttered, you won’t find the day-old version desiccated or disappointing.

Good scones are good.  Bad scones are bad.  I think I’ll stop there, because doesn’t that pretty much sum up all scone lore and wisdom?

Raisin Scones

(from The Frugal Gourmet Cooks American)

  • 2 cups flour
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 3 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • ¼ cup cold butter
  • ½ cup raisins, soaked in hot water for ½ hour, drained (optional)
  • ½ cup half-and-half or cream
  • 1 egg, beaten

Sift the dry ingredients together. Cut the butter into the dry ingredients, using a pastry blender. Add the drained raisins to the flour mixture. Mix the half-and-half with the beaten egg and stir into the flour mixture. Use a fork and do not overmix. It should take only a few turns to get a dough. Divide the dough into three balls and pat each out into a 1/2-inch-thick circle. Cut each into four triangular scones. Bake on an ungreased baking sheet at 450 degrees for about 12 minutes or until golden brown. Serve with butter and jam. Makes 12 scones.

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098

Solvitur Ambulando

Solvitur ambulando–the solution comes through walking.  This is the motto that we adopted for our five day, 50 mile walking trip through the Cotswolds.  Whether writing a story, climbing a rock wall, putting the garden in, or dealing with life’s inevitable challenges and heartbreaks–sometimes there isn’t much else one can do.  Just put one foot in front of the other.  Keep going, one step at a time.  You don’t need to see the finish line, you just need to show up, then pick one foot up and put it down again.

And that’s what we did.  No multitasking, no rushing, no traffic, nothing but walking.  We walked through meadows alight with butterflies, fields of sheep and cows, shimmery green forests where Robin Hood surely waited just around every bend, along endless dry stone walls and hedgerows, up billygoat tracks and down shady country roads.

Everywhere, the villages were made of the local honey-colored stone.  We investigated gardens and barrows, Roman ruins and castles.  We talked, and we were silent.  We stopped to stare, and take pictures, and apply bug spray while whirling and flapping our hands at black flies, and to have a rest and some water.  Sometimes we puffed up hills like ailing funiculars.  Sometimes we strode like we owned the world.  The only objective: find the next way mark.  The finish line: a dot on the map where we would have our next meal, a hot shower and a real ale and a bed at the end of the day.

As lunch or dinnertime approached, we would crest a hill and catch sight of a church spire and we knew that we were within reach of a meal that we had fairly earned with miles of steady walking.  It was good to enter the local pub, drop our packs and wash our hands, to look around at the dark wood paneled walls and the dart board and many-paned windows.  We would go up to the counter and order our meals and then sink wearily into chairs.

I went to England with a long list of things I wanted to experience.  A Ploughman’s Lunch was high on that list.

The Ploughman was present on every pub menu, and the essentials were: bread, cheese, and pickle.  Simple, but delicious.  The details varied a bit from place to place however–stilton or cheddar or brie, salad or coleslaw, milder or sharper pickles, mustard, maybe chutney.  Oh, the glorious cheeses!  Fuel for a ploughman, fuel for a long walk.

And when your day has been honed down to the essentials, and when the cheeses are not an afterthought or an appetizer, but the star of the meal, and when you are really truly hot and tired and hungry, coated with sunscreen and bug spray and dirt, and completely relaxed and a little euphoric from sunshine and fresh air, nothing, nothing could be better than a Ploughman’s lunch washed down with a half-pint of local ale.

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025

The Road Goes Ever On

When we arrived in England, we were punch-drunk from jet lag and from having barely slept in two days.  In this addled state we managed to successfully navigate British customs, the tube, Paddington Station, a train to Stroud, and then a local bus to Painswick.  We walked up narrow winding streets through the first of many stone villages–so old!  Everything was so old!

We found our B&B, where our rooms awaited us in a vine-covered cottage behind the main house, at the back of a walled garden filled with a profusion of English flowers.

Our hostess asked us what we would like for breakfast the next morning.  “Would you like Full English?  Or just cereals, or maybe scrambled eggs with smoked salmon?  If the weather is nice, I’ll serve your breakfast out here in the garden.”

We’d been looking forward to our first Full English Breakfast, but even I was skeptical about being able to eat that much food in one sitting.

“I normally serve a selection of cereals and yogurt, or you can have porridge.  Then there is bacon, ham, sausage, grilled tomatoes and mushrooms, fried bread or toast, a fried egg, and baked beans.”

“Yes.” we said, and headed out to explore the town, the churchyard full of yew trees, and the Rococo Gardens.

After sleeping solidly for eleven hours or so, I refreshed myself with the tea and biscuits in my room before slipping out into the fresh sunny garden to sit at the patio table, already set with two places.  Birds sang, insects buzzed.  The air was full of the scent of flowers.  Our hostess brought us juice, tea, and coffee.  We examined the unfamiliar yogurts and cereals like Weetabix.  And then our cooked meals were placed before us.

The key to having three meats in one breakfast is all in the portion sizes.  One piece each of ham, bacon, and sausage is really not so overwhelming.  Especially when one is anticipating a full morning of walking.  Baked beans at breakfast are so English that I had to try them—just that once.  My American palate insisted that baked beans should only be eaten after noon, with barbeque, from a paper plate—not at breakfast.  Grilled tomatoes and mushrooms on the other hand, I could really get behind.  And toast from an actual toast rack!  Oh my!

So, after the first of many Full English Breakfasts, we shouldered our packs, donned our hats, stepped out the front door, and started our journey on the Cotswold Way.

“He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,’ he used to say. ‘You step onto the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.’”. –Tolkien

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166

And That Sweet City

I’m back from a fabulous vacation in England.  My friend Christie and I walked through the Cotswolds, stopping at B&Bs each night in storybook villages built of golden stone.  We spent a little time in Oxford too, and finished up in London with a whirlwind of sightseeing and shopping

Right now, I’m in that sweet spot between jet lag and my normal sleep schedule– that place between the exhaustion of travel and the daily fatigue of work, between the excitement of new experiences and the comforts of home.   I’m still stepping over a suitcase abandoned just inside the back door, spewing dirty laundry.  It’s good to be back, to call up friends for dinner dates and go to yoga class and sleep in my own bed with my cat wedged under my chin.

There’s a lot to tell, about what we ate and drank and saw and did and thought about it all.

But what I really want to talk about first is Pimm’s.  Little did I know there was such a perfect summer drink out there, just waiting for me to find it.   Waiting for me at the Eagle & Child pub in Oxford, to be exact.

After finishing our five day, 50 mile walk, we caught a train to Oxford and settled into rooms at Balliol College.  We only had a short time to wander the venerable city, eyes wide, and absorb the beauty of those dreaming spires.  We went on a punt ride on the Thames, and I felt the shades of literary characters I have loved, riding along with us as we floated through still green water, dappled and shaded by overhanging trees.

Soon enough, we fetched up in the Rabbit Room of the Eagle & Child Pub, famous as a meeting place for The Inklings, a literary group that included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.  The weather was warm.  We saw other people ordering Pimm’s and Lemonade, which came in tall, sweaty glasses crammed with ice, fruit, cucumber slices, and a straw.  So we jumped, enthusiastically, on the Pimm’s band wagon.

Sitting under a photo of C.S. Lewis in the dim wood paneled pub, we sipped those tall, cool drinks.  And sipped some more, and smiled, then giggled.  What was in this stuff?  Who knew?  It was lovely–refreshing and deceptively easy to drink.  A little lemony, mildly fizzy, with a slight bitter edge that prevented it from being cloying.

Of course, we had to have more Pimm’s in London, as the weather grew even warmer.

After a little research, I’ve learned some things about Pimm’s besides the fact that it is delicious.  First, I was astonished to find out that it is gin-based.  Good news!  Apparently, twenty-some years after what we will refer to only as “the incident”, I can once again tolerate the taste of gin without throwing up immediately.  Second, it seems that when the English refer to lemonade in this context, it is really something a little fizzier.  Also, there are several varieties of Pimm’s, but only Pimm’s No. 1, the gin-based variety used in Pimm’s Cups, is commonly available in the US.  Finally, I learned that there are many variations on the theme, but the basic recipe for Pimm’s and Lemonade, more formally known as a Pimm’s Cup, is as follows:

Pimm’s Cup

 

  • Slice of: lemon, lime, orange, cucumber, strawberry
  • Sprig of mint
  • 3 parts Lemonade
  • 1 part Pimm’s No.1
  • Serve over ice in a highball glass.

I think ginger-ale would also be nice, or lemonade mixed with club soda, or maybe even Sprite in a pinch.  More research is clearly indicated.

But the most important thing I have to say on the subject is this: I urge you to mix up a glass, or maybe even a pitcher, of Pimm’s and Lemonade.  Take it out on the patio on a warm evening and settle into a lawn chair, or a hammock if one is available.  Put your feet up and enjoy.

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