Friday, September 17, 2010

Food, glorious food....

Part of travelling is experiencing new cultures, and cultures are in part defined by their food. My residence may be in Canada now, but there will always be a corner of my heart that is British so perhaps I was not so much experiencing British culture as re-experiencing it.

Scotland was weird, but not in the Mike Myers "Scottish food invented on a dare" weird, but because I was there for a reason, and not to lollygag around and enjoy the experience (per se). I was there to get the job done and my gastronomic experiences were similarly utilitarian. For example, the bike-loop in Edinburgh was ridden on the right, just like we drive in Canada, and I spent so much time driving on the right (as rear-gunner on Moto1) it felt strange to be on the left hand side of the road driving to the airport. So I never really got into the British way of life there, I was just on the blue carpet for a three days and I could have been anywhere in the world. Same with the food. Most of my meals were either refectory breakfasts....

Black pudding and haggis, two food-stuffs guaranteed to raise the gorge of your average North American (and not in a good way). And this was breakfast! No wonder Scotland tops the cardiac disease league table. If it weren't for the dire state of their coffee, espressosnob could make a mint here!

....or something-in-a-bun from the concession stands at race site....

They may look interchangeable, but two of these something-in-a-buns are from Highlandhogroast and the other from a beef-products based company with the saucy seaside postcard name of Well Hung And Tender (titter ye not!). On race day, they were selling branded cups; two pounds fifty for the coffee in a cup and a quid per refill after that for the remaining two days of competition. They didn't make any money from me! TIBS it may not have been, but it helped me in not falling asleep on the back of that Goldwing (the usual caveats of not drinking too much coffee before a long stint on Moto#2 lest a Dumb and Dumber moment ensues; you know the one).

Although I did make a break for it one afternoon and got a "real" coffee from a cafe around the corner from halls

Still, we tried a coffee-shop before we left that made some bold claims

which was ironic as bold was not a word I would have associated with their coffee. Normally I trust the Grauniad; clearly I shall have to revise my opinion of their opinions!

London was better. Think about it; Scotland has a population of 5 million, a fraction of whom live in Edinburgh, whilst 8 million live in London alone. By statistics alone, this has to improve the standards of food delivery.

Any visit to a supermarket was like going to Petes but without getting gouged on the price. Marmalade for 60p, digestive biscuits (and good ones too) for 50p a pack. Then again, the British Empire was virtually built on digestive biscuits, marmalade and tea and if prices rose, there'd be revolution on the streets! Tescos had Jaffa Cakes at half-price; I was so there!

Some of the best words in the English language....

Also at Tescos, I could, if I had wanted, have re-created the Pollack Hall refectory breakfast experience, for the princely sum of two pounds (about $3.50 CAD).

I suppose at that price you could still afford to go private for your angioplasty!

I was also reunited with Soreen Fruit loaf.

Funnily enough, I remember my Grandmother cutting tiny slices off this tiny loaf, perhaps toasting them and serving them buttered. Me, I just cut the loaf in two lengthways and have it for breakfast. Clearly, there are significant generational differences when it comes to Soreen Fruit Loaf consumption!

Brick Lane, E1. Hmmm. Two gastronomic delights in one, perhaps three. The closest tube is Liverpool Street (which actually has a sign directing you to the nearest bike shop, sweet!)

We walked through the gentrified Spitalfields Market, now full of cafes, boutiques and Evans Cycles. It was too early to buy a bike or a tie-tied Indian-look blouse so we settled for coffee from Leons instead.

Suitably fortified, it was on to the Bethnal Green Road end of Brick Lane. The bagel bakery was exactly where I'd left it.

Two pounds thirty later, I was the proud owner (albeit temporary owner) of a salt-beef bagel with mustard.

Salt beef is essentially the same as Montreal smoked meat except, as you can see, instead of shaving off wafer-thin slices, they hack dirty great big chunks off a huge piece of meat in front of your eyes and slap it between two halves of a freshly baked bagel.

If you're looking for it, just find this intersection on Brick Lane and you're nearly there...

For better or worse, bacon, or indeed pork-products of any kind, seem to be a unifying factor in British "cuisine"

Speaking of British cuisine, did you that it has been seriously suggested that Britain's true national dish is the chicken tikka masala? This is essentially an Indian dish that none-the-less doesn't exist in India, the original (chicken tikka) being westernised to certain degree with a creamy masala sauce to make it more palatable to the British Raj.

But I digress! After a day of wandering around the City, SE1 and the Tate Modern it was back to Brick Lane. I liked Tate Modern; even if there are only so many monochromatic canvases about the monotony of modern existence and impenetrable installations you can take in one day, it's all about the space dahling. The coffee shop at the Tate had cool cups though;

with a more personal take on the "warning, contents may be hot" message

Back to Brick Lane, this time the Mile End Road end, also known as Banglatown. Banglatown is curry central, and the restaurants run the gamut from lah-di-dah to sleazy, from large to (seemingly) four tables in the front room of someone's house. We also ran the gamut of people trying to entice us into their restaurants with offers of free drinks or free naans. We stuck to our guns and chose a place somewhere between lah-di-dah and sleazy, of reasonable size and they hadn't tried to aggressively get us through the door. Plus, there were Bangladeshis eating in there, not just white-eyes, so it had to be good. No?

No chicken tikka masala for us! hariyali chicken, biryani, dhansak, rice and nann washed down with a pint of Cobra. The food was awesome and possibly for the first time in a week, I felt full.

and we got a free drink anyway! Djam!

We also came across this place, just south of Covent Garden.

It had the same beers as any other London pub, with it's Canadian credentials only bolstered by bottles of Sleemans and Moosehead and served the same food as everywhere else but with maple syrup. Give it a miss.

Speaking of giving places a miss, when in Chinatown I also had the worse Chinese food I'd ever had, and I've eaten "Chinese" in foot-courts. Through a combination of events which aren't worth relating, I ended up in a place in which the jasmine tea (plus one point for this place at least) was served in a melamine cup (minus three points) and I was given Western cutlery (minus several billion). Forkin' hell.

The Chinatown experience was balanced out by a Dutch (yes Dutch) place on Bloomsbury way. Large savoury pancake (crepe) washed down with Hoegaarden

To give you an idea of scale, here's the plate with la belle's pet Pig puppet

Who as you can see, was lucky to leave there in one place. He didn't have legs when we went in, did he?

Dessert was Poefetjies; little mini-crepes dusted with icing sugar and served with butter and maple syrup

Except the maple syrup wasn't real maple syrup, but I don't suppose your average Londoner would be able to spot that (unless they hung out a lot at that Covent Garden pub). A tip however; if you're ever at My Old Dutch, get the poefetjies without butter!

On our last night we went out with my brother et al to a place in Muswell Hill called Giraffe. It was a kid-friendly place so we didn't need to worry about my three year-old nephew going ballistic, because the place was already full of toddlers going ballistic.

In a interesting twist when asking "what's good here", my sister-in-law had just finished the art design for Giraffe's cook-book, coming to a bookshop near you soon (well in Muswell Hill at least) and consequently was feeling decidedly M'eh about the menu. La Belle had the hoisin duck stir-fry (at least in part making up for the Chinatown debacle) and I had the peri-peri chicken.

If memory serves, peri-peri is a South African BBQ/chilli sauce/spice thing. It seems to be the big thing in British cuisine now thanks to the arrival of Nandos, a South African chicken restaurant solely (in)famous for the innuendo of their advertising strap-line "our cock's bigger than yours". Oo-eer missus indeed.

Nice to see racial sensitivities being preserved in the new South Africa. Amandla ngawethu!

The food at Continental hadn't got much better in the 12 days we were away, but at least my pet cow was happy with the tea.

Those aren't Conti biscuits though, I got 'em at Costa Coffee before we boarded! Speaking of which, Moo preferred the coffee at Cafe Nero.

There's just no pleasing some cows, is there?

As predicted, the first thing I had in Canada when we returned was a Timmies. Purely to keep me awake after a 20hr journey so I didn't drive the car into a ditch!


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