Third-year Mechanical Engineering major, Chris Hamlin studied abroad in Lancaster, England during the fall 2009 semester. Along with the usual lessons in cultural differences, crash course in navigating a different University environment and jam-packed travels throughout the region, Chris discovered the merits of British cuisine. Surprised? Read more below:
Four Months of British Food
I arrived in England in late August, having consumed nothing during my 14 hours in the air but a bottle of Chardonnay. Needless to say, I was hungry, and my head hurt. For those of you who don’t know me, I should explain: I have some severe (read: life-threatening) food allergies, and I found out the hard way that airline meals don’t come with any kind of information about their ingredients. The steward was eager to help, but I had to explain to him that “opening one and looking” wasn’t really an adequate means of finding out what, exactly, is in the blister-packed food substances they feed you on airplanes. 40,000 feet up and 2,000 miles from land is the wrong place to gamble with your health. So after making I made it clear that I couldn’t safely eat the chicken, fish or vegetarian entrées, the good people of Air France provided me the aforementioned bottle of wine, which made being hungry a lot more tolerable.
So I arrived in England, understandably ravenous. Thinking back, I think this began my love affair with the much-maligned cuisine of the British Isles. A lot of people have said a lot of bad things about British food (Possibly almost as many bad things as have been said about airline food or the food at school cafeterias). Bland and greasy, heavy and uninspired are all words you may find regularly applied to the food of the UK. The first is blatantly untrue, and the last debatable: British food certainly lacks the imagination and flair of the French, but that is only the first in a long list of contentions between those two embittered rivals. And to put it bluntly, the French chefs may be inspired, but their grand visions do not always produce food that real people have any interest in preparing or eating. That English food is greasy and heavy; I will not attempt to argue. This is true, but I don’t think that it is necessarily a bad thing. The world is full of well-loved foods and styles of cooking that could never be described as light, by any stretch of the culinary imagination. Take for example Chinese food, or the local cuisine of the American south.
Food is, as you probably have gathered, a big part of my life. I guess you could say that it is in fact a big, even vitally essential part of everyone’s life, but when I say it mean it in more than the strictly physical sense: buying, trying, cooking and eating food is a source of great enjoyment, comfort and satisfaction for me. Things are rendered slightly more difficult, especially when eating out, by my allergies, as you would probably imagine, but I would like to think that motivates me to cook things for myself that most people would just buy ready made. I’ve chosen to make food the subject of this response because of the position of importance it holds with me, and because it is such a vital part of the experience of travel.
When I arrived in England, I discovered, as most travelers likely do, the wonderful nature of the British Public House (don’t call them that, you’ll get funny looks. The shortened, and more familiar term is ‘pub’). As I traveled around the country before settling down for the semester at Lancaster university, I ate and drank at a dizzying number of pubs all up and down the country. Chips (“French fries” to the American) are served everywhere, but rather than being dredged in ketchup, they are instead dashed liberally with malt vinegar and sprinkled with salt, a combination I would strongly advise you try. The sweetness and thick texture of ketchup absent, the fried potato itself takes a star role, and as such, is generally of a higher quality than the limp specimens found in an American burger joint. A British chip has a crisp exterior and an interior that is fluffy and light, rather than saturated with grease. I should also mention they arrive unsalted, so you can spare yourself the tongue-numbing effects of their American counterparts. The malt vinegar completes the trinity, and when dashed on fresh chips, soaks in and evaporates on reaching the still-steaming center, suffusing the whole interior with its tangy, savory flavor. Add a fillet of breaded cod to the assemblage, and you have Fish and Chips, the British takeout standard that even the hamburger has yet to displace.
Another item which featured highly in my experience of the British Isles was sausage. When it comes to sausage, the Poles, Germans, and Italians seem to get all the love and glamour. I have yet to see a British sausage in an American supermarket, but in my opinion they are unique and worthy of a place alongside the bratwurst and kielbasa that populate the shelves of your local meat department. British sausages are unique in that they contain finely ground meat, mixed with ground wheat or breadcrumbs, giving them a texture which is fluffy but resilient, rather than the heavier all-meat sausages, which depending on variety and preparation can range from crumbly to outright rubbery. Additionally, the added starch seems to allow the exterior to be browned fully without drying out the middle, an added bonus. Finally I should mention the seasonings, which are again different from any sausage I’ve eaten before: absent are the overwhelming fennel and anise flavors of the typical Italian style sausages, also the heavy salt and garlic flavors of German and Scandinavian varieties. Instead, they are seasoned lightly with pepper and sage, allowing more of the flavor of the meat to come through. I enjoyed these golden-brown beauties in traditional preparations like Bangers and Mash (sausages resting atop mashed potatoes, smothered in onion gravy), Toad in the Hole (sausages and onions baked in a pan of a fluffy, eggy batter known as Yorkshire Pudding) and my favorite convenience food of all time, the sausage roll (a solitary sausage wrapped in flaky pastry dough and baked) which kept me going through many long nights out with my flatmates.
Of course, there are so many more things to mention. My stay in Lancaster taught me to enjoy black tea, and by the time I left my friends had me drinking 4-5 cups a day, with milk, no less. I gained a newfound appreciation for beer, in all the myriad varieties I never dreamed existed. I learned to cook with leek and Stilton. I ate a beef and kidney pie that came from the store, unbaked, in a steel can nearly nine inches in diameter (just take off the lid with a can opener and throw the whole thing in the oven!). I discovered a strange British attitude towards sandwiches: while an American generally puts whatever he wants in one, every British sandwich has a name and a recipe which is strictly adhered to. I fell in love with HP, the spicy, fruity brown sauce which goes perfectly with chips or any kind of red meat, from bacon to steak. I tried (and enjoyed) haggis, which turns out to be a lot less scary than they make it sound on T.V.
Most importantly, I think, I learned about a different attitude towards food in general: that simple food, made from simple ingredients, can stand up next to the most elaborate imported specialties. British cuisine is humble and unpretentious; its key ingredients are local and inexpensive. The ingredients flavor the dishes, not spices. The preparations are simple. You seldom find fresh rosemary, extra-virgin olive oil, Kalamata olives, caviar, oysters or Miso paste in a Briton’s kitchen. I think that is an important lesson for all of us trying to eat well and save money: It doesn’t have to be haute cuisine to be healthy delicious and satisfying. Simple is good.
Chris submitted this essay and these pictures to fulfill the requirements for a Tutorial Alternative, an opportunity for students to waive the third-year tutorial requirement if they study away from UMaine and fulfill certain requirements. More information is available here.