Americans and Brits seem to speak the same language, but really we don't. American soldiers wear camouflage and ride around in tanks; English soldiers get dipped in runny egg yolk. American seaside rock pokes your feet when you are wading into the surf, but Brits pop their sugary version into their mouths to suck on. The British eat rocket; Americans launch same. And I used to have to babysit a bunch of jammy dodgers, but in England they are considered a biscuit. By which they mean a cookie.
And that is the chief delight of reading Eating for England: The Delights and Eccentricities of the British at Table by Nigel Slater (London: Fourth Estate, 2007). This whimsical collection of mini food essays is the current book pick for Cook the Books, the bimonthly online foodie book club that I co-host with two food blogger buddies, Deb of Kahakai Kitchen and Jo of Food Junkie, Not Junk Food. As a devoted Anglophile and logophile I loved learning about all the Britishy foods that I've read about in novels through the years and figuring out that a dog's dinner is not a bowl of kibble, but a real mess of things.
All the better to savor the short takes on British foods, traditional and modern, that author Nigel Slater slings about with great humor and elucidation for this American reader. Many of these foods beloved by Britons have such wonderfully distinctive names: Junket, Pontefract Cakes, Faggots and Gravy, Gooseberry Fool, Jam Roly Poly, Chudleighs and Old English Spangle and it is delightful to read about their history and what they are exactly.
I loved his writings about brussels sprouts, the fond descriptions of his childhood sweets, and was particularly taken by one paragraph about British cakes that "have a certain wobbly charm to them, and what might be missing in terms of finesse is there in lick-your-fingers stickiness". They are "not delicacies you eat politely with a cake fork, they are something you tuck into with the enthusiasm of a labrador at a water bowl" (p. 13)
Slater is also devastatingly funny when he sums up the various species of cooks: the pedant who never deviates from a recipe, the pre- and post-Jamie Oliver Man (the former cooks up "The Great Dish" and must not be criticized, even though there are mounds of dishes in the aftermath, and the latter thinks nothing of purchasing a champagne-priced bottle of vinegar). I must confess I think Nigel may have described me a bit too closely for comfort in his passage on "The Grow-Your-Own Cook": George Bush face planted on the garden scarecrow (great idea!); sunflowers left over in the garden to feed the winter birds (check!); committed recycler, compost-maker and seed-sower (triple check!); kitchen pots are old and mismatched (home run!); knives and forks were their grandmothers (whoa!); every ingredient is organic or free-range or made by a tousle-haired artisan (slow down, Nigel, I am also a cheapskate, so I do hie off to the supermarket for quite a lot of kitchen shopping).
I thought about what to make from this terrifically entertaining book for quite a time. All those British sweets seemed so tempting, but eventually I decided to try my hand at a Ploughman's Lunch since the Spring weather has turned so mild of late and we are enjoying picnicking out of doors again.
The Ploughman's Lunch is a modern British pub staple, consisting of bread, cheese, chutney or pickle and a nice pint of ale. It is supposed to conjure up a rustic lunch such as an English farmer might have enjoyed after a hard morning in the fields, though there is some evidence that this may all be an advertising ruse cooked up by the British Milk Marketing Board in the 1960s to sell more cheese. Perhaps dreamed up by this fab cat with the monocle. The Mr. Peanut of Cheese.
Ruse it may be to suggest that this modern pub fare is a British working man's lunch from time immemorial, I thought it sounded rather tasty and decided to pack up a robust ploughman's picnic for my sweetie and I to enjoy after a rugged morning of edging the garden and turning that overwintered compost pile, Good Grow-Your-Own Cooks that we both are.
Here's what we ate:
I made up a batch of Sesame-Rosemary Crackers, a cream cheese and chutney ball rolled in some garden parsley and chives, cucumbers, apples, a couple of bottles of naturally gluten-free hard cider, a jar of pickled onions, and a selection of English cheeses: a Cheddar, a sliver of White Stilton with Lemon Zest and a Double Gloucestershire.
Cheddar needs no description, so I will proceed to give you a virtual taste of Double Gloucestershire, a hard cheese, rather like a mild Cheddar or Colby, but a bit creamier on the tongue. It is perhaps most distinctively known as being the cheese of choice in Cheese Rolling, an extreme English sport involving a hurtling run after the coveted cheese wheel down a steep hill, with both participants and spectators in danger of injury from the speeding cheese and out-of-control Cheese Roller athletes. You can read more about Cheese Rolling in True Brits, by J.R. Daeschner, a book I reviewed a couple of years ago here.
And now, back to the cheese. Lemon Stilton was a lovely choice. There are two kinds of Stilton, a blue cheese with deliciously moldy veins running throughout and a milder version which is studded with dried fruits, ginger and in my case, bits of lemon zest. This was subtly sweet, crumbly, and full of lemon perfume. A bit messy, but tasty enough to overlook that.
For a wonderful take on the Ploughman's Lunch, I refer you to Foodycat's excellent post this past January, in which she put together a sumptuous repast of Beer Damper, homemade pickled onions and two kinds of wonderfully-named English cheeses, Hereford Hop and Dambuster.
Foodycat will be the judge of all the blog entries we receive this time round for Cook the Books and will no doubt bring her wit and kitchen erudition to this task. I credit her with inspiring me to try my hand at pickling a jar of onions, a slow food task indeed, as it requires a bit of salting, brining and waiting to make a proper batch. I turned to this recipe for English Pub Style Pickled Onions, and fiddled with the ingredients and seasonings to make it gluten-free (traditional malt vinegar is not gluten-free).
Here's what I did:
Britishy Pickled Onions
1/2 cup pickling salt (do not substitute regular table salt)
2 quarts water
1 1/2 lbs. boiling onions (also known as pearl onions, the ones you make traditional creamed onions with at Thanksgiving)
2 Tbsp. brown sugar
2 c. cider vinegar
1 teaspoon black peppercorns, crushed roughly in a mortar and pestle
1/4 tsp. ground allspice
1/4 tsp. hot pepper flakes
1 bay leaf, crumbled
2 Tbsp. snipped fresh chives
Dissolve 1/4 cup salt in 1 quart water in glass bowl. Add the
onions. Weight them gently with a plate that fits inside the bowl (I used a can of 14 oz. can of pineapple on a saucer). Let them stand overnight.
Drain the onions, and peel them. Remove tips of onions with a sharp knife. Return them to the bowl. Make another brine with the remaining 1/4 cup pickling salt and water, pour it over the onions,and weight them gently again. Let them stand 2 days. This will soften them, but they will still have a bit of a crunch at the end.
In a nonreactive saucepan, bring the sugar and vinegar to a boil. Stir to dissolve. Let the liquid cool.
Drain and rinse the onions, and drain them well again. In a 1-
quart jar, layer the onions, peppercorns, allspice, pepper flakes,
bay leaf and chives. Cover them with the cooled, sweetened vinegar. Cover
the jar with a nonreactive cap, preferably all plastic.
Refrigerate the jar for at least 1 month before eating the
onions. They will keep for at least 6 months.
Well, I was on a Cook the Books deadline here, so I only waited two weeks before snacking on them and it was really quite tasty. The onions have a nice vinegary snap and are right in between being crunchy and soft.
The original recipe indicated that one could process these pickled onions in a water bath, in which case you would sterilize 2 pint jars, bring the vinegar mixture and onions to a boil and then seal and process 10 minutes in a hot water bath.
Makes 1 quart or 2 pints pickled onions.
You can see the full range of book reviews and blog posts for all the Cook the Books participants who read "Eating for England" after our May 21st deadline. Come see what we all cooked up!