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Tastings: Tasting Britain

Fruit Vender in Seoul South Korea (Rosemary Scheibel)

According to Joanna Blythman, an award-winning investigative food journalist and author of Bad Food Britain: How a Nation Ruined Its Appetite, England lives in a fantasy food world. Although cookbooks line kitchen shelves and Jamie Oliver products permeate the grocery stores, this façade obscures reality. Blythman offers some staggering statistics:

In 2003, the British ate more ready-meals than the rest of Europe combined.

69 percent of British people are confused about which foods are healthy.

Only one in five Brits will go out of their way to buy British-produced food if it means paying more for it.

There’s a definite link between the nation’s health and its dependence on ready-made food. The shift from cooking homemade meals to defrosting microwaveable dishes compounds the problem—if the British themselves no longer prepare their own traditional dishes, how can they combat their cuisine’s bad reputation?

In the course “Food, Society, and Culture” that I took in London, I discovered traditional British cuisine. During an in-class tasting, I sampled savory items like pork pies and Cornish pasties, pickled onions and finally sweet treats including digestives, Bakewell tarts, and mince pies.

The classic British crumpet kicked off the sampling. Piping hot and soaked with butter, this breakfast staple resembled a bland pancake. My instructor said the Brits either love or hate crumpets; there is no middle ground. Some of my classmates piled on orange marmalade to add flavor, but this sweet spread still couldn’t compensate for the crumpet’s rubbery texture.

Next up were the pork pies. Their flakey, golden brown pastry shells act as a sealant and preserve the moist meat inside. With this contrast in mind, it’s simple to see why the Brits favor pork pies. To intensify the flavor, most add a dollop of sauce—sweet mango chutney, tomato chutney, or Coleman’s mustard, for example.

Marmite was the curveball of the tasting. High in vitamin B, the sticky spread is made of the waste products (primarily yeast) from brewing beer. Although it looks like thick soy sauce, don’t be fooled. This versatile paste that’s spread on crackers and toast is a bitter, acquired taste. To state it bluntly, I felt like I was ingesting gasoline.

Fortunately, the desserts saved my taste buds. After sampling a sliver of mince pie—which conjured holiday tastes and smells like cranberries, currants, and spices—I realized the British have mastered the art of pairing flavors and textures to complement each other. In the case of mince pies, the pie crust’s understated and rough texture accentuated its sticky and sweet filling.

Two types of digestives—plain and chocolate-coated—came next, and finally, I tried a Bakewell tart. Although small and seemingly angelic, this cherry treat packed a punch. Buried between layers of plain pie crust, the thick confectionary icing and tiny cherry pieces satisfy both sweet and tart cravings.

Based on this sampling, I think some British dishes suffer from undeserved bad reputations—I loved the cockles (small saltwater clams) and pickled onions. Because cuisine is such a crucial component of a country’s culture, I went on to try a variety of traditional Britsh foods, from the sandwiches and scones of a leisurely high tea to a Sunday roast. And I’ve formed my own—favourable—opinions of British cuisine.

—Carrie Stevens


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Moments: Muddy Boots

“Dame tu mano.” Barrio Flores, Mendoza, Argentina (Brianne Ellis)

“You know what would clear that skin right up?” Still recovering from the act of heaving her large, soft body into the van, the old woman pauses for breath. “Calendula.” She smoothes out the shawl across her broad shoulders, her cheeks becoming less flushed by the second. “Calendula. Right down at any pharmacy. Good for the complexion.” Coughing slightly from the closeness of the air permeated by the scents of twelve other bodies, she nods to the passenger across from her. The young woman beside me, for whom this sage advice is intended, clutches her purse tighter, but flashes a slight smile that passes for polite acknowledgement. It is rare to hear a stranger’s mundane ramblings in this country. I feel an anxious anticipation for the next inappropriate words that might spill forth from her mouth.

Now fully recovered from her prior exertion, the grandmother turns her attention to the glum driver as he speeds breakneck through an intersection. Several weeks ago, this would have frightened me. This morning, I calmly plan out what I will say to the medics as they pull my body out of the wreck. It’s important to have thought of such details beforehand when operating in a language that is not your mother tongue. Grandmother makes a clucking noise in the back of her throat. Her chin wobbles as she extols the orderly streets of this city during her youth. Angling her neck back she explains to the driver a better route he might take in the future. “Just as fast,” more clucking, “Yes, but safer.” The van driver grunts and exhales more smoke into the fetid air. Clearly suffering from craning her head at such an awkward angle for so long, she settles back comfortably into her seat like a very smug mother cat.

A laugh catches in my throat. I force it to emerge as a quiet cough. Immediately Grandmother’s sharp gaze snaps towards me, lingering on my filthy boots. A look of composed displeasure molds her features, but softens as her eyes roll upwards to my face. Foreigner. I sense her recognition and fiddle with my fraying mitten to avoid meeting her stare. Surely my stop must be coming up? I scratch at the iced window. A small, foggy hole reluctantly forms. Increasingly uncomfortable that she has called my poor bluff, I doggedly watch for the familiar line of buildings to emerge out of the snow. Eventually, their silhouette appears through the grey. Aware that her eyes are still upon me, I call out for the driver to stop; the routine words feel strangely clumsy under her gaze. After making my way through packed-in bodies and bags, I leap for the grimy curb. Turning to pay, Grandmother’s watery eyes find mine. “A young lady,” she says in a firm, quiet voice, “should always have clean boots.” With surprising strength, she slides the door shut and the van speeds away. Faintly puzzled by the unlikely kindness of her remark, I remain teetering on the curb before turning towards the path. Trudging away through the slush, I take care to avoid the especially muddy stretches.

—Julia Gibson

From Aleph 8

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