Feast flash: UK staples and missteps

Cringing, I checked my stats before starting this post. Let’s be real, they’ve been dismal recently due to my almost total absence from the online world. Between not having wifi in my flat, matriculation, and a spontaneous three-day trip to London, the four posts I’ve been sorting out have been confined to my notebook, the notes app on my phone, and a steadily growing Word document piled with thoughts.

I’m still not settled in completely, and this new place and new semester means that I’ll have to plan a new writing schedule. Something different from my 50-hour summer work weeks, thank God, and hopefully involving the desk in my bedroom instead of this noisy coffee shop where a few hours of wifi come at the cost of an overpriced latte. I have a few other writing projects in the works as well, and after having to neglect all of them for the past few weeks, I’m anxious to get back in the game. A new place, a fresh semester – the jumbling of all my routines seems a fair price to pay.

Travel is sensory in so many ways. From the whiff of brine that permeated our hostel on the Isle of Skye to the way my muscles ached from the hellish overnight bus trip back from London, I’ve experienced new levels of physical immersion.

The stories of wonder and horror will have to wait for another day, because I want to start with some observations concerning my favorite travel sense: Taste.

Maybe it’s because I’m stuck in this coffee shop until my advising appointment at 1:30 pm with no food and a profound unwillingness to shell out £7 for a sandwich, but the foods of my travels feature particularly prominently in my memory today. Wherever I go, whether it’s to a favorite restaurant in Charlottesville or a new city, I make a point of seeking out signature foods, typically things that I can’t get at home and/or can’t make myself. From lobster rolls in Maine to poutine in Montreal, fried alligator in a rural town in Florida and antelope at a restaurant on the DelMarVa peninsula, food has always managed to be a surprising and visceral way to experience a place.

Tragically my phone died and I was unable to photograph the haggis. This was Sunday dinner at Morag's - peppery turnips, carrots, potatoes, roast beef, and Yorkshire pudding - to give you an idea of the massive portioning.

Tragically my phone died and I was unable to photograph the haggis. This was Sunday dinner at Morag’s – peppery turnips, carrots, potatoes, roast beef, and Yorkshire pudding – to give you an idea of the massive portioning.

First on my to-eat list was haggis, the Scottish food most likely to induce wincing among my friends and family at home. When I tried haggis, it was stuffed in a chicken breast and smothered with a whiskey cream sauce, with mashed potatoes and broccoli on the side. The hearty portion was a steal at £7.50 at our hostel (Morag’s Lodge) in Loch Ness. Even with the whiskey cream sauce and chicken to soften the haggis’ flavor, I sincerely enjoyed the bites of pure haggis I curiously scooped out of the chicken. Haggis has the texture of ground beef and is so heavily spiced that the distinctive flavor of organ meats is rendered undetectable. This description feels a bit anticlimactic considering the way my friends and relatives stared deeply into my eyes and half-whispered, “But…do you know what it’s made of?” It’s really tasty, regardless of the fact that it’s made of hearts and lungs.

However, I will say that trying it as a chicken stuffing is definitely a good call. The other common alternative is a mound of haggis with gravy served over mashed potatoes – it’s a lot of haggis for one person, particularly if you’re unable to stop yourself from visualizing fluttering lungs and pumping hearts.

You can see flaky white fish peeking through the crunchy batter!

You can see flaky white fish peeking through the crunchy batter!

chippy

I knocked out another UK classic at Ullapool, a small fishing town on the west coast of Scotland where I ordered take-away fish and chips. I’ve had this familiar combination of French Fries and battered cod before, but I’ve never had a version that was so flaky and crispy, nestled in a paper box and glimmering with oil. I doused the mound of fried potatoes and fish with malt vinegar and salt and enjoyed almost all of it on the ferry on the way to the Outer Hebrides, until I was defeated by the enormous filet and mountain of chips. A week of eating trail mix and raisin bread in order to save money while traveling shrank my normally endless appetite, but fish and chips are definitely a perk of living here. Not only am I frankly terrified of heating large quantities of oil on my stove top, but the fish is so fresh and flaky here on the coast of Scotland. Almost every town here has a fish and chips shop (or “chippy”) that claims to be the best, and I’m sure I’ll have the opportunity to try many of them before I head home in December.

I enjoyed a mocha at The Elephant House in Edinburgh, where JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book.

I enjoyed a mocha at The Elephant House in Edinburgh, where JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book.

Other differences are more subtle. I don’t believe that every aspect of life is better in Europe – like the States, Europe has problems of its own. But I will say that certain things do seem to taste a little better here. Lattes are foamier, yogurt is creamier, and tea is served in pots. But my favorite difference is the bread.

Bread and I have a complicated relationship. In high school, as I grew increasingly aware of my weight, bread became my enemy. When I saw a fluffy loaf of bread, I immediately associated it with thick thighs and a bulging stomach, and I did everything I could to avoid it. This is ridiculous, of course. Bread is delicious and definitely not bad for you in moderation. Unless you’re trying to be gluten-free – and I made an effort to eliminate gluten this summer as I tried to keep my energy up during my grueling back to back workweeks. Until I came to Scotland and saw the open baskets of fresh rolls in every grocery store, I had forgotten how much I actually love bread. I’ve been on a toast-and-jam kick all week to celebrate my reunion with that trouble-making carb.

Day one in Edinburgh brought the wonderful discovery of my new favorite bread. Soreen, the “deliciously squidgy” raisin bread, is a dark, molasses-like bread with an incredibly moist texture. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but I would guess that it’s at least 40% dates, plus it’s studded with sultanas (my new vocab word, synonymous to raisins). “Squidgy” is an informal British word meaning “soft, spongy, and moist.” It’s squishy but firm, almost sticky but not quite. It’s a heavy, dense breakfast bread that, with a little more sugar, could almost be a fruitcake. I haven’t tried toasting it yet, but according to the package, that’s even better than eating it cold.

In addition to my renewed relationship with bread, my diet has had another game-changing addition. In the States, the drinking age remains fixed at 21 and my 21st birthday isn’t for another few months. Predictably, buying alcohol is convenient but expensive. My favorite beer so far is Innis and Gunn (shout out to Emma for the great pick), a brew that’s aged in oak barrels. This unusual extra step adds incredible depth of flavor, an oaky vanilla warmth that softens the strong beer’s hoppiness.
The most unusual beverage I’ve sampled was definitely Drambuie, a whisky liqueur whose secret recipe is closely guarded. According to local legend, Bonnie Prince Charlie fled to the Isle of Skye after the bloody and brutal Battle of Culloden. To express his gratitude to the innkeeper who gave him shelter, Bonnie Prince Charlie shared his family’s recipe for drambuie, whose name means “the drink that satisfies” in Gaelic (Scottish, pronounced “Gallic,” and not to be confused with the Irish language of the same name). The liqueur packs a punch of flavor, starting with whisky’s signature singe and mellowing with a Jeger-like licorice sweetness. What was really cool about this whole experience was that we had visited the Culloden battlefield a few days earlier and sipped drambuie on the Isle of Skye. History and flavor have been preserved side by side, and through the liqueur you can gain a sensory experience that has been accessible to generations and generations of people.

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I could go on and on about food forever. I haven’t even mentioned eating sushi in SoHo while we were in London or the fact that Scots are so environmentally conscious that there is a movement to eat more venison in order to control the deer population or the fact that I now live above an ice cream shop. But like I said, not everything is better and more interesting here. When it comes to serving American food, the UK has repeatedly made a huge mistake.

On day one, Janet and I grabbed dinner at a café, where she bought a barbecue panini. Although it definitely did taste good, the small Southern part of me backed away slowly. In addition to the fact that there’s pulled pork on a panini in the first place, they served it with a slab of yellow cheddar. I never turn down melted cheese, but something inside me died a little bit. It would be like serving carnitas over mashed potatoes. Cole slaw is on the side instead of piled between the buns where the creamy dressing can cool down spicy barbecue sauce. It’s a delicate balance. And speaking of sauce, I haven’t seen any vinegar-based barbecue at all. It’s funny to see what is transmitted between countries. When I think of barbecue, it’s a Southern food first and an American food second, just like Robert E. Lee was a Virginian before he was an American. Especially in the South, regional identity is distinct and informative. However, along with £7 sandwiches at Burger King, American food is barbecue.

After a few weeks of traveling, it feels so good to be back in a kitchen. Two nights ago, Janet and I cooked dinner together – pan-seared garlic chicken plated next to a salad of juicy roasted beets, cubes of salty Grano Padano, soft baby greens, and slivers of spicy red onion, all tossed with a tomato-balsamic vinaigrette we improvised from a half remembered recipe. Late last night after going out with friends, I was (carefully) slicing tart apples from our back garden. I sauteed them with butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon, added a splash of water and a tablespoon of flour, and we had a spiced caramel apple topping for honeycomb ice cream. I’m used to cooking light vegetable entrees, but the cold weather here is driving me toward hearty, warm foods. Tonight we’re hosting a dinner at our apartment, so I’m off to buy some berries for a spinach salad. Wifi will be up and running in my flat in t-minus 2 days, so I’ll be back to the blog for good!

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