Friday, January 29, 2010

Week #22 British

These days I recall with more amusement than annoyance the meals I ate in the refectory of London's King's College in my graduate school days. A plate of food there typically contained at least three starches, usually potato, rice and pasta. Plus bread. And room temperature milk to wash it all down. While it was essentially kid chow, still it was fairly representative of the meals I ate off-campus during my tenure in the British Isles.

While the dining scene there has come a long way since then (never you mind how long ago that was!), I find that the meals I remember most fondly are hearty victuals, such as roast beef with a little Branston Pickle on the side. So the occasional trek to Buchanan Arms in Burbank helps me reconnect with those days. This stronghold of comfort for the community's British expats features plates of basic grub (mushy peas, anyone?) and a nice array of ales and stouts on tap. The place is fairly dripping in plaid and proudly bears a framed portrait of the queen. Adjacent to the restaurant is the Piccadilly Shop, where you can pop 'round and buy many of those foods that Brits miss when they move to L.A.--packages of Darjeeling, jars of Marmite, pots of Devonshire clotted cream, tins of mushy peas and all manner of prepared frozen foods. It carries souvenirs and gifts, too, in case you need a Union Jack or a tea cozy.
Himself and I decided to stop in for a proper British dinner and got that--and more. I started the meal with a bowl of cockaleekie, a nourishing Scottish soup. The name reveals the essential ingredients, chicken and leeks, although this rendition contained rice, too. The leeks give the soup a great, velvety mouth feel. In my opinion, most any soup is more satisfying if you add leeks to it. I like to make cockaleekie and take it to church potlucks, just to hear people walking around saying "cockaleekie." Different words activate the giggle mechanism for different people, you know? Cockaleekie does it for me. (By the way, Himself ordered tortilla soup for a starter. Maybe if it had been mulligatawny, I'd have included a photo and description. Seeing as how the British didn't colonize Mexico, there was just no adequate tie-in.)
However, he hit it dead on with his dinner of shepherd's pie: ground beef topped with brown sauce, mashed potatoes and cheddar cheese (as in that particular cheese from England's southwest), carrots and English peas--although I've never gotten a solid answer as to just what makes them English. This is one of my favorite meals to order here, but it always makes me want to go plow the back forty when I leave. Not an office worker's meal, to be sure.
I had the steak and kidney pie, a lovely, golden puff pastry covering a bowl of stew featuring, as its name suggests, chunks of steak and veal kidneys bathed in a rich broth, and served with English peas and chips. Veal kidneys are rich and delicate, with a clean taste, certainly one of the easier organ meats to love. Buchanan generously hands out stacks of plain white sliced bread, which is handy for sopping up the extra broth. I might have done that if I'd been planning to plow the back forty.

We noticed a lot of bustle during our meal, as a dozen or so men trekked through in kilts and carrying musical instruments. Then more people, both men and women, arrived wearing kilts and plaids. We finally learned that it was the birthday of Scottish poet Robert Burns (dang! We didn't even bring a gift!), and everyone was getting ready for a grand party scheduled for about an hour after we arrived (they graciously seated us for dinner, even though they were booked for the evening.) And we discovered that haggis had been prepared for the occasion. We knew we had to sample that bastion of the Scottish table, or as Burns so eloquently pronounced it in his poem "Address to a Haggis," the "great chieftain o' the puddin-race."

So we asked sweetly if we could have a taste. Our server generously brought us a dish of this both venerated and highly suspect food. Our sample of haggis arrived in its full glory, flanked by neeps (a.k.a. turnips) at 10:00 in this photo and taties (spuds, of course) at high noon, and seated in a pool of gravy.
Is there any more maligned and trembled at food on Earth than haggis? Possibly so, but I'd have to review a few episodes of Andrew Zimmern's television show, Bizarre Foods, to name any. Essentially, haggis is a mixture of a sheep's internal organs that are ground, mixed with onions, oatmeal and seasonings, stuffed into the critter's stomach and simmered for a few hours. This makes it essentially a type of sausage, a remarkably earthy tasting one (since the cook-it-in-the-stomach part is illegal in the States, they used sausage casing, so yes, it is a type of sausage!). Honestly, it's better than I'd expected, and I'd actually eat it again. I just wouldn't put it at the top of my must-have list. But I'll mark my calendar, and next year when Bobby Burns' birthday rolls around, I'll return and have it in his honor.

"Most Scottish cuisine is based on a dare," says Mike Myers' character in So I Married An Axe Murderer. He may have a point, but if you dare sample haggis, you'll find it's really not so diabolical. I'd imagine that if it were seasoned more aggressively, it wouldn't seem any stranger than most any meat dish you'd have anywhere.

British food has taken it on the chin for ages. But when you think about it, most cuisines in the far northern reaches don't naturally offer big bold flavors (pickling excepted). Only after the Age of Exploration did Europeans begin introducing spices and peppers into their cuisines. And the exchange of foods went both ways: Can you even imagine Asian food without peppers, Hungarian without paprika, Italian without tomatoes or Irish without potatoes?

Or England without curry, which is said to be its national dish?! Not only did they bring home chutneys, curries and spices from India, but the British introduced those flavor principles as well, resulting in such umami-rich condiments as Worcestershire sauce and all sorts of brown sauces to liven up their standard plate of meat-and-potato-with-a-couple-of-veg (or meat-starch-starch-starch!).

The English make some of the most satisfying comfort food around. You can get a hearty, nourishing meal with a little personality, thanks to their willingness to incorporate into their cuisine those exotic elements they picked up in their travels.