The universal word on the street about English food is, no offense to my new friends, it stinks. I was cautioned to at the very least be prepared for disappointment. I say yes and no.
There are things I adore, such as the ham, the incredible cream-filled baked goods and the fish and chips, so much so that my gall bladder hurts and I’ve had to cut back on all of the above. The bread is yummier. From sandwich slices to hamburger buns, every biscuit, baked good and bap I’ve tried is chewier, softer and generally tastier.
Carrots in the basic bulk bag taste like they came straight out of the garden and the potatoes are actually flavorful (I haven’t seen a russet since I’ve been here, and they serve “jacket potatoes” (baked potatoes) all over the place). I am also a beet fan and I was thrilled to find that they have peeled, cooked beets sealed in packages in the produce section, all the yum without the fuss and/or the rubbery texture out of a can! The fruit is from this side of the globe, a little different, but still lovely. It is simply obvious that most of the meat and produce have not been trucked from ten states away. All hail the local farmers!
They have most of the same items, but they just don’t call them the same thing. I usually end up describing the food I’m looking for to the nearest unsuspecting Grimsby resident and we end up touring the store looking for it. They don’t have tater tots, but they do have “rasties”, which are flattened hash brown patties—not the same, popsicles are called “lollies” and they all drink something called “squash”. When the first person offered it to me I said a quick little prayer, ‘please don’t make it zucchini juice’, and it must have worked because I got a glass of something like fruit juice that they make by mixing a concentrated liquid with water to taste. You can even get it in restaurants, with no ice, of course. The versions I’ve had include either orange or black currant and are sugar free. The kids like it. Most of it comes “double strength” and trying to add a capful or a spash to a glass can get quite messy. A normal family could just mix it up in a pitcher, but of course one of our boys likes is weak and warm and the other likes it strong and cold. Shocker there, I know.
The food packaging just cracks me up, too. It is as if the marketers are a little more lighthearted here. In the directions for making macaroni and cheese, it lists the ingredients to add as water, milk and butter (optional but really tasty), see the photo. Ha!
And now for the part where I agree with the masses. Food tends to fall into three categories for me—‘Love it’, ‘leave it’ and ‘vow never to eat or even smell that again if at all possible’. Their version of a potato chip, generally called “crisps”, definitely fall into the final category. (Warning: the next sentence could cause serious appetite loss). Common crisp flavours include smokey bacon, t-bone steak, worcestershire sauce, tomato ketchup, savory chicken and prawn cocktail. After I got over the initial shock and waves of nausea, I ventured down the crisp aisle once again, sometimes you just crave salt. I could be missing out, I thought, so I decided to be brave and try a flavor or two (see photo of the bags I took…right before I threw them in the rubbish). The cheese and onion was in the “leave it” category at best, and it was all downhill from there. The smokey bacon made my stomach churn and the savoury chicken actually induced a bout of nausea that I fought off for several hours. If anyone in my family even suggests going down that aisle in the supermarket I give them a quick “No Crisps!” with a thick accent like Edna from the Incredibles when she delcares ‘no capes’ for superhero costumes.
Oh, and they are apparently obsessed with biscuits and/or buns with sultanas (raisins) and/or currants in them. They come in all sizes and sorts and they take up entire sections in supermarkets. I have tried several versions and I have to admit, the allure remains a mystery to me. My best guess is that it is akin to the apple pie in America.
At our first neighborhood barbecue on Sunday I was introduced to a spice concoction called “American Chip Spice”. It comes in a short, round white shaker complete with the picture of a US flag rippling in the breeze and lady liberty herself on the front. They use it on chips (fries) and burgers and all sorts of things. The kitchen full of Brits expressed a bit of indignant outrage that I’d never even heard of it, as they had been conned into thinking this little shaker came straight off our tables. It could be a midwest or east coast thing, but I’ve been in 45 of our 50 states and had never come across it. I did a little research just to make sure I wasn’t missing this product at our local QFC and apparently it’s a local thing. Here’s the website I found: http://www.chipspice.co.uk/7-american-chip-spice-buy-online complete with this description: “Originating in Kingston upon Hull, East Yorkshire in the North East of England, today it is most commonly available in chip shops & takeaways in the Hull & East Yorkshire area and has cult status among locals & people that at one time have lived in the area.” It tastes like your average msg-laden spice, a bit of barbecue, chili and ranch all rolled into one. Not bad. The one thing that it has going for it is copious amounts of salt.
If there is one thing I can say about the food in general here, it’s that everything tastes like I accidentally bought the reduced salt version—crackers, mayo, ketchup, even the food you get in restaurants. In discussing the lack of salt in this country with another mother, I learned that the powers that be regarding health in the UK have declared salt a serious no-no. Just as a polite heads up, she told me that it would be seriously frowned upon to shake salt on my children’s food–she definitely wouldn’t do it in front of the queen. Now I am not one to shake salt on everything in the US, in fact I’m a salt wimp compared to many of my comrades, but I can even be caught shaking salt on Ritz crackers here!
Being the scientific geek that I am, I attempted to research the actual salt levels in Ritz in the 2 countries and found several interesting facts. There are 6 types of Ritz crackers in the US, plus 2 types of pretzels and 4 versions of a cheese-filled cracker. In the UK they have 2–original and cheese flavor. That tells you a lot about food choices here in general. As for the salt content, I’ve either uncovered a major inconsistency in the use of the metric system, a conspiracy or I simply can’t do the math. Even when I account for the deflated US serving size, the US version works out to a lot less salt–but I’m here to tell you that if there is less salt in the US Ritz, pigs are circling the globe in flocks as we speak.
So my verdict on English food–I’ll miss the bread and ham and fish and chips (liberally showered with salt) when we go, but I’ll likely walk in and kiss the floor of the local Safeway when we get home.