By Austin Raymond
Three weeks ago, I packed my life into two 20 kg suitcases and shipped off to the land of tea, royalty, and constant drizzle for six months of intellectual bliss. As someone who hails from a place that is addicted to hot caffeinated beverages and never sees the light of day (oh hey, Washington state), I considered myself a shoe-in for quick acclimation to life in the UK. My determination to survive and thrive was fueled by the squeals of delight of countless well-wishers: “Yay study abroad! Ooh gorgeous accents! BBC! Bring a rain coat! How exciting!” But then came the rain on my parade (I had already packed my umbrella, so I was not prepared): “heh heh, have fun with that awful food though…” Womp wom waaaaah.
It was funny how often I actually received this cautionary message from people I knew; it was always delivered with an apologetic grimace with a slight hint of ruthful glee (perhaps we’re all so jealous of the Brits’ melodious accents that we jump at any possible flaw). The best version was from an ever-thoughtful relative who, having it on authority that British food was severely lacking in nutritional value, got me a water infuser so I could at least introduce the flavor of Vitamin C into my diet (“don’t want her to get scurvy over there,” my mother quoted).
So how did I, the die-hard, bleeds-maize-and-bleu-cheese foodie, react to these troubling reports? WITH STODGY DEFIANCE, THAT’S WHAT. Reason number one: I worship at the altar of British afternoon tea, with its elegant trays laden with delicate finger sandwiches and cakes and SCONES. Oh honey, I swoon at the very mention of scones. And no, I am not talking about those crumbly little royal icing-drizzled pieces of hard tack that defile the counters of American coffee shops, my friends. I am talking real live British “SCONS,” those warm, buttery, velvet-crumbed pillows of biscuity heaven that taste best laden with home-made berry jam and clotted cream. What is clotted cream, you ask? Only the best thing since the dairy cow. Think of the freshest, coolest, most luscious heavy cream you’ve ever had. Now think of the richest, silkiest butter you’ve ever tasted. Now stir those two memories together into something thick and seductively spreadable and redolent of hot milk. Clotted cream, baby.
I’m sorry, my passion for afternoon delights (Wooo-OOP!) got a bit out of hand there. Back to being an indignant epicurean. Because that’s what I was, don’t you know, at the suggestion that I would be gastronomically deprived during my skip across the pond. As someone who hears slow jams whenever she thinks about scones with clotted cream, I felt slightly wounded on behalf of my British culinary brethren. But another thing: I am the Bryan Mills of foodies. I have a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career, skills that make me very good at finding and eating whatever is delicious within a 20-mile radius. Food is my mission, and my mission almost never fails (keyword almost). So yeah, I took the suggestion that I would be choking down bland, unwholesome, scurvy-inducing food for the next six months as a slight personal affront…and a major open challenge.
There was delicious food to be had on the British Isles, I just knew it: fragrant curries, sponge cakes and tart shells piled high with fresh cream and strawberries, melty butter smeared on crusty bread, boozy, custardy trifles, steamed puddings swimming in toffee sauce…as my dear old friend Ina says, “how bad can that be?” So that was that: this girl was resolved to eat that British food till the Guernsey cows came home, and she was going to have the time of her bloody life doing it.
“Well then, how is your mission going so far, Austin?” you ask. All in all, I’d say bloody brilliant. Here are my takeaways from three weeks of eating as the British do:
1. Do you like eating fats and dairy products with your carbohydrates? Then you like British food, my friend.
I have eaten more baguettes and bread and butter/cheese/mayo combos (no seriously, there was a dark, dark day when I thought a sandwich made with all three of those toppings sounded like a good, non cardiac arrest-inducing idea—I was wrong) than the normal person would care to divulge in print. But I am not a normal person and I wear my ability to eat warm, crusty baguette sandwiches every darn day like a badge of honor. If you had daily access to foot-long, artisanal mozzarella-arugula-sun-dried tomato-pesto mayo sandwiches on fresh-baked baguettes for $4, would you do anything differently??
2. My name is Austin, and I am a shameless tea addict.
I don’t even try to fight the cliché-ness of it all anymore. I drink three to six cups a day, blissfully inhaling that liquid manna like a diehard Anglophile. It figures that I would survive a whole childhood in Starbucks-land and three years of college with nary a drop of coffee, only to come to England and get hooked on a mildly caffeinated hot beverage from day one. But really, I’m not addicted to tea as a caffeine source: I’m addicted to tea as a ritual. There is something so incredibly soothing and intimate about having your own little silver pot of English Breakfast piping at your elbow, of measuring out a steaming cupful in one elegant stream, of breathing in that delicate aroma, of letting the fragrant steam waft over your face, of pouring again and again, with each dip of the teapot yielding a richer, more aromatic brew. It’s like a spa for your senses, a libation for your soul. Hold on, let me go get myself a cuppa right now…
3. Haggis is delicious.
Haters gonna hate, but while they do, I’ll just be in that corner over there, gorging myself on animal stomach stuffed with organ meat, onion, oatmeal, and spices. I may even (read absolutely will) do what my college at Oxford did on Burns Night (a Scottish celebration of the life and works of the poet Robert Burns) and turn that sucker into a bacon-wrapped roulade—because when was bacon a bad idea? P.S. if you want to know what haggis tastes like, think of the most brazenly meaty, savory, and toothsomely chucky sausage you can think of, then add a glug of good ol’ Braveheart-era testosterone.
4. Why eat salad when you can have the same thing on bread??
A more sage question was never posed. Now that I have experienced the joy of dirt-cheap bistro-quality sandwiches, I find my old cravings for $12 perfectly composed, superfood-packed, Gweneth Paltrow-approved salads fading fast. Kale what? Quinoa who? Have fun finding microgreens, Buddha bowls, and goji berries at the café down the lane, my friend. I will tell you now that they are not there (or, if they are, they hiding DEEP in the shadow of that foxy-looking meat-cheese-shortcrust thing calling your name).
5. Fries are Chips, Chips are Crisps
Yes, I have gotten a bit tripped up by British food lingo of late (some days, I just point and chew to avoid embarrassment). Some British food terms are quaint, others humorous, and the rest seem specifically designed to confound Americans tourists. Here’s a smattering of the words I’ve come across:
Spring onion: green onion
Veg: all the things I just described and other green stuff
Pudding (pud): dessert
Crisps: potato chips
Chips: French fries (why, England why??)
Popsicle: ice lolly (isn’t that just precious)
Bap: hamburger bun
Brown bread: white bread
Fairy cake: cupcake
Jacket potato: baked potato
Mince: ground beef
Yorkshire pudding: pop-overs
And so, my mission to sniff out all things scrumptious on British soil is in full swing. I have had scones on scones and tea on tea and shortbread and puddings and crumpets and, most recently, yummy green curry from a stodgy little pub specializing in Thai food. I have joined the gym so I can calorically afford to speak fondly of all this British food from personal experience (my quest to burn 500 calories by sleeping/blinking/breathing heavily is still a work in progress). Anywho, I hope you’re as excited to go on this British foodie adventure as I am—until we meet again, cheerio! ☺