Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Cuisine of the British Isles

Can any cuisine have a worse reputation than that of England and Ireland? How much of it is deserved?

I went to Ireland four years ago and had a very pleasant experience with the food. I was out in a very rural area, where I'm sure much of the produce and all of the dairy were fresh. The butter was the best I ever had. I liked the brown soda bread. I had some interesting and creative meals in restaurants that were in tiny little towns. It was all a very pleasant surprise.

The reputation of the food in those areas is still not undeserved. I see a lack of fruits and vegetables, lots of processed foods and white breads, butter or mayonaisse cover almost every sandwich, and it's generally a very "meat and potatoes" food culture. Even fish tends to be fried most of the time (unless it's Irish salmon) considering the popularity of fish and chip shops.

It has been said that London will be to the 21st Century what New York was to the 20th. It's the ultimate hip cosmopolitan destination. It is thought that this is going to scrub the reputation of bad British food. After all, some of the world's best chefs have restaurants in London and the city is filled with swanky restaurants.

The problem with British food and its attempts to upgrade is image is the same problem we have with American food and its image. American food used to be considered boring and low-class even though this country is filled with talented chefs and excellent restaurants. The problem is that good restaurants and top chefs are not accessible to the entire populace. On top of that, humans are humans no matter what country they are in and tend to go for the things that are comfortable and familiar. Just as Americans who may not have the financial resources or the adventurous spirit to try an exotic or pricey restaurant, your average Brit probably feels that same. Americans will eat cheeseburgers and pizza and casseroles with Velveeta and hot dogs and deep-fried everything. So it goes with the English who down fish and chips, and meat pies, and greasy sausages, and bubble and squeak. Sure traditional English food may not be delicious to the American palate, but it's what the average English person is used to just as American classics may seem bland, distasteful and gross to a European. Still, it's customary food to the American.

The food I have eaten on my last two trips to London has run the gamut from merely average to excellent. I have found when it comes to beef, I much prefer American beef. I had a traditional roast beef and Yorkshire pudding (a popover really) a few nights ago and found the beef tough. At an Italian restaurant in London a couple of years ago I had beef and cheese cannelloni where the beef had a really odd taste. Serious eaters in the past have told me that London has superior Indian food - at least to everywhere else in the world except for India. I had a meal at an Indian restaurant two years ago that was excellent (and I'm really picky about Indian food), but it was no better than any of the best places I have eaten in New York. I ate a tasty sausage risotto for lunch two days ago, but I can make a risotto that's just as good.

I do still believe that gems can be found among the mediocrity of London restaurants. For dinner two nights ago I started my meal with a "white tomato soup" with goat cheese. I had no idea what to expect. I don't always like goat cheese as I find many varieties to be unbearably tangy (I've had some that were as strong tasting as blue cheeses). I also wondered if the tomatoes involved were white. I decided to take a risk. The soup was utterly divine. The goat cheese flavor was mild and the cheese was infused into the broth rather than in chunks. There were chunks of roasted tomato throughout the soup and it was delicately flavored with thin shards of basil. I would put that soup on the list of the All Time Greatest Soups I Have Ever Had, second only to the cider soup at the Iron Forge Inn.

I'll never go hungry in London, but I prefer the food in New York.

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