(Flickr is broken today, so I haven’t updated my photo set, and I’m uploading the photos directly into the post, which messes the formatting. Also, I’m very wordy. My apologies)
Quiet week over here. But it could have been quieter. The Borough of Royal Greenwich has not, as of this writing, seen fit to assign a school to my children. So I’ve actually resorted to downloading some home-schooling materials and getting the kids to do some exercises to get their brains back in gear, to give us some kind of daily routine, and, in case everything falls through and we somehow don’t get an assignment at all, so they’ll have kept up with the folks at home when we get back. We’re still pestering the council on a daily basis (side note: Dr. Thingo decided to call a school directly, to find out if there was anything they would suggest. The receptionist was very helpful and basically told him to stay on top of the council and continue to apply pressure. So we will.)
I’ve been blue and annoyed (and, consequently, annoying – sorry, Other Family Members!) all week, so I’m going to talk about a subject dear to my heart: food! The lovely (and far more assiduous at blogging) Tricia had a very similar post this week. We must both be hungry. Go check out her blog – she and her family are in England on sabbatical too. I’m jealous because her kids get to go to school, but she had her own saga, believe you me! Her blog is worth a read to get a different perspective, plus she’s far less grumpy than I am.
If you know me at all, you will know that I love to cook, and eat. One of my favourite thing to do when I’m traveling is to see how the residents of that particular place shop for food, and I’ll go visit food shops and farmers’ markets to see what’s on offer and how it is purchased (and generally regret the fact that I have no storage wherever I’m staying, so I can’t buy a whole lot of stuff). I’ve been doing a lot of that here too: there are 6 non-related large food store chains that I have identified here, and a dozen more smaller, convenience store type shops (to add to confusion, these convenience stores are generally called ‘supermarkets’ and the larger stores, which I would call supermarkets at home, are referred to as ‘superstores’).
Not surprisingly, since Canada has very strong British roots, the food is largely similar. Plus, London being a very multicultural city, there are a lot of offerings from different food cultures, especially India. There are some differences, though! I’ll talk about some of them here.
Weights and measures
Britain is largely metric, which is great. Two of the holdovers include distances and body weight. The posted speed limits are still in miles per hour, distance markers are in miles, and body weight is often, but not always, measured in stone (never pluralised). 1 stone = 14 lb. The bathroom scale in our house is in stone and kilograms.
Anyway, what this means is that food products are sold in kilograms or litres, which is a nice change from Canada, where many things are really still sold in pounds and liquid ounces, but with the metric measurements tacked on to the label as an afterthought. One of my favourite stores in Waterloo actually displays the price of their meat in pounds, but the scale and the machine that prints out the price tag work in kilos. When I pointed out that this was kind of silly, they said most people wanted to see the prices in pounds. Progress is a long, slow road.
Most recipes here are in metric, and more than that, they prefer the use of scales to measuring cups, providing the weights of dry ingredients rather than their volumes. I like this method a lot – no measuring cups to worry about. Just put your bowl on the scale, tare it, add the required amount of stuff, tare the scale again, and continue for the rest of the ingredients. More precise than volume, and fewer dirty dishes at the end.
Liquid products like milk and drinks are sold in millilitres. However (another holdover from the Imperial system), dairy items (and beer!) use pints as a divider. British pints (598 ml) are larger than American pints (an American pint is 2 cups, which is just about 475 ml). Cream comes in a quarter- or half-pint (150 or 300 ml). Milk is sold by the pint – the largest jug I’ve found is 6 pints (3600 ml), so over 3 litres. Most other drinks are sold by the litre or half-litre.
So this explains why pints of beer, even in Canada, always seemed larger than just 2 cups – in bars, a ‘pint’ is a British one. Now you know.
Since most Europeans do not live in large homes, they have less storage space, including pantry space. Consequently, package sizes tend to be fairly small, and compact. The aforementioned 6-pint milk jug easily fits in the door of my fridge (the shelf in the door is maybe 15 cm wide). Yoghurt containers are tall and narrow. All are designed to fit in the much smaller fridges.
I have not been able to locate a bag of flour of more than 1 kg. Also, it’s not sifted at all, which means it’s fairly compacted. Peanut butter (admittedly not a popular food item here) comes in adorably tiny containers. Most baking supplies also come in tiny packages. I have not been able to find chocolate chips in bags larger than 100 g. I actually laughed when I saw the bag the first time (I usually buy my chocolate chips 1 kg at a time. Oh, giant PC semisweet chocolate chip bag, I miss you). However, the quality of the chocolate inside is far superior to any of the ones I’ve had in Canada, so I’ll just keep buying tiny bags and not grumble.
The exceptions to this, I have found, are tea (which you can get at the supermarket in giant boxes) and sugar (which one presumably would put in one’s tea) which I found in 5 kg bags. Given that I generally walk or take the bus to and from the store, the smaller sizes are kind of nice – less weight to carry.
Cream and Milk
Cream here is GOOD. Really good. First off, by default (ie, you don’t have to go organic for this to be true), all cream is just that. Cream. No stabilizers, gums, thickeners or anything (read the label on non-organic cream cartons in Canada sometime – it’s depressing). And it’s delicious. I’ve taken to putting cream in my coffee, not because the coffee’s bad (though it took a while to find coffee I liked), but because the cream is so delicious. It generally comes in three varieties: single cream (18%) double cream (48%. What kind of math is this??) and whipping cream (35%).
And clotted cream. Oh, the clotted cream. So, so wonderful. Also, it’s 55% fat, which might have a lot to do with it. But it makes my weekend scones so magically delicious. Why can’t we get this stuff in Canada?? A schmear of that on the scone, topped with a small blob of jam is heaven. I should probably start running more.
Dairy is also fairly inexpensive. I think milk subsidies must be higher here, but I haven’t looked it up.
Eggs are mostly free-range, and sold unrefrigerated. And you can easily get duck and quail eggs, which are delicious.
Cheese here is also good. The selection of cheddar in most stores is staggering. It is, however, hard to find aged mozzarella in bricks – you can get it grated, and you can get fresh mozzarella packed in water. That’s fine – there are plenty of other British cheeses to choose from. Red Leicester is a the kids’ favourite. I like the stinky ones.
Produce, in supermarkets, is not cheap. Also, with very few exceptions, it all comes pre-packaged. Even tomatoes. I was already annoyed at the fact that it was becoming increasingly impossible to buy snow peas or bean sprouts loose in Canada. Here, everything is in clamshells and bags.
This is all unless one goes to the greengrocer. There’s one in my neighbourhood, but it’s got a fairly limited selection, and it’s not any fresher or more locally sourced than the supermarket (most supermarkets here pride themselves on getting produce from Britain as much as possible). You can get everything loose there. And at the farmers’ market, which is, no surprise, the best, least pricey option. But those only happen on the weekends in my neighbourhood. It’s my own fault for not planning ahead – if I can be more organized, I can buy all my produce on Sundays at the farmers’ market, and just get the rest of my groceries day-to-day during the rest of the week.
The one prepackaged thing I’ve discovered that I really like is vacuum-packed cooked beets (sorry, ‘beetroot’). One of my favourite cookbooks from home mentions these, and I’d seen them in French stores. They’re great – better than canned beets, and make a lot of recipes go a lot faster. They sell raw beets too, but these cooked ones can be pretty handy.
I’ve tried half a dozen small-scale British beers so far, all of them good. Of course, I can’t remember any of them. I have the same problem with wine. I try new ones, but never write down the ones I like, so I can never remember when I get back to the store. Wine, beer and hard liquor are all available in the supermarket. Someday, Canada (with the exception of Quebec) will be less puritanical about selling alcohol). I hope.
I have tried a few hard ciders. I just don’t like hard cider. They’re either too sweet, or taste resiny. I’ll stick to beer. And gin.
This will surprise no one, since I live on an island, but the fish here is excellent. I love the easy availability of fresh mackerel, which is one of my favourites.
Pies and mash
I’ve managed, in the month or so that we’ve been here, to have four or five different meat pies from different sources. All good. I love a good meat pie. Even the one in a can I got from the supermarket, out of nostalgia – I remember my dad buying these in Ottawa (and my mother thinking they were gross, which shows you how long ago that was: my parents split up when I was 9). You take off the top of the can and bake it in the oven. The surprisingly good pastry magically puffs up. This was passable, but the least good option.
I’ve had ham and leek, steak and kidney, boar, chicken, handmade from various purveyors. They’re good. Often served with mash and gravy. It’s not exactly light, but it’s delicious. Did I mention I should be running more?
And no consumption of any kind of meat pie is complete without singing songs from Sweeny Todd (with all due respect to Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, whom I usually love. But, please.)
I do not like mushy peas. But I very much like the fish and chips they generally come with.
I was told by more than a few people that the restaurant scene in the UK was pretty dismal. This has not proven to be true. I’ve been to a pub, lots of street vendors, a Vietnamese, a Nepalese, an Indian, a Mexican, and a just food (it was called Hand Made Food, and it was amazing – all kinds of good stuff) restaurant and they were all delicious. I really want to go to one of the Ottolenghi restaurants (the Jerusalem cookbook is one of my favourites), and St. John Restaurant at some point. For the latter, I’ll have to wait for my dad to come visit and go with him since my household are all weird about organ meats.
Coffee is the exception to the great restaurant scene. But it was to be expected since I’m in the land of tea. I just make it at home.
No post about British food can be complete without mentioning Marmite. People keep comparing it to peanut butter. I think the comparison can really only go as far as ‘something one puts on toast’, and, I guess, that they’re both brown, because they couldn’t be more different. Marmite is salty, punch-you-in-the-face flavour (It’s yeast extract. So, basically, it’s spreadable MSG. (yes, I know there are differences)). I haven’t decided if I love it or hate it. It’s definitely worth trying again.
I’ve seen it on sandwiches at the Starbucks here (cheddar and Marmite panini. I need to reproduce it at home to see what it’s like). I’ve seen it as offering in cafes (toast and Marmite). Though it’s clearly not universally loved, as this ad campaign will demonstrate.
I have decided it will be a hazing ritual for everybody who comes to visit. You have been warned.
There’s lots more to say (Chips everywhere! Weird crisp flavours! Black pudding! Bacon! Curry Take-Away!), but I’ll save it for later. Dinner tonight is fish curry, and I have to go get some ingredients.