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Steak and ale pie
Steak and ale pie

BEIJING - Before even leaving for the United Kingdom, we had already decided to try out the local cuisine as much as possible.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to avoid Chinese food – even though there are Chinese restaurants in every corner of the world these days. After all, we were only spending a dozen days in Britain.

British food does not enjoy a good reputation, and we were hoping that this trip would break the myth.

The French are probably the ones who spend the most time making fun of British cuisine. How bizarre that a nation that once claimed that the sun never sets on its empire does not possess the same conquering spirit when it comes to food.

No wonder it couldn’t win the respect of its neighbors. Whereas France takes eating very seriously, the British somehow manage to stew every possible ingredient into something grey and unappealing. As long as it’s accompanied with a few potatoes on top, it’s fine for them.

British food culture is quite contradictory. On one hand the British are the world’s best gardeners and London is renowned for its design. And until about 100 years ago, the UK was still the nation that consumed most of the world’s sugar, tea and spices. But on the other hand, British cuisine is like an outdated part stuck to a machine that operates with difficulty. This is not to say that you can’t find exquisite food in Britain. London has more than 50 Michelin-starred restaurants. However, none of them seems to be serving typical British cuisine.

But even though their culinary environment keeps changing and evolving, the British remain nevertheless enthusiastic about their national dish, fish & chips. If this is not the collective unconscious expression of their numb taste buds, only British pride can explain such a phenomenon.

Our “British Cuisine Tour” began in a bed & breakfast near Bath. The cook, who was also the owner, served us a typical English breakfast. In a somewhat over-the-top style, she was wearing rings all over her lips and tongue. A tattoo covered her from the fingertips all the way up to her neck.

Apart from the tea and toast, there were poached or scrambled eggs, lean bacon, fried mushrooms, boiled cauliflower, two sausages and slightly grilled tomato slices with black pepper. On top of this was also a slice of black puddingand fluffy baked beans.

I had never eaten black pudding before. At first sight, it looks like the Chinese black rice cake – lightly browned with an oil slick. The first bite also gives the impression of eating rice cake. Unfortunately, an unexpected meat smell appeared immediately, as an after-taste. I glanced around. The cook was just outside the kitchen staring at us, her only guests, looking bored.

Being watched, I was unable to spit out the food so I asked her what the recipe was.

This pudding is made of pig’s blood, mixed cereals, minced liver and offal, then filled into a chitterling, which is what a pig’s intestine is called in polite company – and there you have your sausage, she said. According to her the treat goes best with Lea & Perrin’s Worcestershire sauce. I certainly wasn’t going to contradict her knowing that it is in small towns such as Bath where people are the most fundamentalist about British food. “You couldn’t possibly find a more authentic English breakfast in London!” she proudly announced.

However, from here onward and throughout the whole trip, I had to suppress a generous impulse of offering a dozen bottles of Chinese cooking wine to all British cooks. This is a magical and essential ingredient in Chinese cooking, which helps the texture and taste of meat, poultry and seafood.

Rustic and plain

Apart from the uniformity of British cooking, the other obvious feature is their passion for the potato. You can find as many as four or five different varieties of potato in any supermarket. Black or yellow, they can be long like a pencil case, or weigh a pound each, or be as small as pigeon eggs.

We had arrived in Bath at Christmas time, so all the restaurants in town were closed. After repeatedly begging the owner of the bed & breakfast, she agreed to cook us dinner as well.

We had cauliflower and mushroom soup for starters, and the famous jacket potato – in essence just a baked potato – as a main course. Each buttered potato was wrapped in aluminum foil and baked. Then it was cut open and filled with bacon, lamb, lettuce and peas.

The second day’s menu was even more rustic. Leftover potato from the previous night was mashed to go with the famous British pie with chopped beef and onion stuffing. It was doused with two spoonful’s of dubious green gravy mixed with some kind of wine flavoring. As tasteless as it could be, the pie’s pastry was also hard and thick. After one bite, my mouth was filled with grease instead of meat.

To be fair, British cuisine cannot be described as generally tasteless. It is usually made of fresh and reasonably good-quality ingredients. If you like authentic food, you might even find English cooking very satisfying. Nevertheless, I got the conclusion that British cuisine owes its unpopularity to its unimaginative seasoning. Perhaps because of the way the meat is slaughtered, it smells particularly strong in Britain. I can’t help but wonder what happened to all those spices for which the British Empire went to war?

On our way up to Edinburgh, Scotland, we noticed that all the highway rest stops offer entirely the same food, and the same fast food brands over and over. This is enough to quash anyone’s appetite.

In China, a British friend from Glasgow, Scotland had told us how much he missed the fish & chips from his hometown. In his opinion, fish & chips from a small port city is much better than the fish & chips found in big cities like London.

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Photo: Paul Wilkinson

Since we happened to be going to Glasgow, we decided to give this national dish a chance. We chose a small restaurant in an alley just next to the city’s cathedral. It was packed with locals. A few teenagers seemed to be having a good time, eating the fish & chips wrapped in paper.

If the fish is well fried and crisp, sprinkled with a little lemon juice, it can be quite palatable. However, unfortunately for us, the batter was thickly coated and the cod tasted more like flour than fish. Not tasty.

Reading our minds, our friend suggested that we try a nearby French restaurant. When the stewed beef with an overflowing aroma was served, I looked out the window and thought: what a wonderful place Britain is!

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