'If I wanted my peas mushy I'd chew 'em': An American discovers the good, the bad and the ugly of British food
A summer in London was full of culinary surprises for American intern Kristen Herhold. Tea, Pimm's – and even our burgers – won her heart, but there are some things she won't miss
Thursday 15 August 2013
Born and raised in Colorado, I had never been to Europe until this summer. Spending three months interning and studying in London was the perfect summer and I will never forget much of my time here. Many of my lingering memories will be connected with food – both the delicious and the completely disgusting.
The first thing I noticed upon my arrival in London was how much fresher all the food is here than it is back home. There are fewer preservatives used here and everything just tastes so much more natural. It took me several weeks and much spoiled food, however, to realise I would have to go to the grocery story much more often than once every two or three weeks.
Surprisingly, since I hail from the country that has practically elevated the burger to a national emblem, the thing that has impressed me most in London is the quality of the burgers. I've tasted ones from various market stalls and from cool restaurants, and I have to concede that the burgers I've eaten in London are easily among the best I've had.
My favourite is from Patty & Bun, a small burger restaurant in St James's in central London. The hour-plus line is extremely aggravating, but one bite of the burger and all of that frustration is erased.
Another lovely thing I discovered in London is its surplus of amazing markets. I bought some unique trinkets from several, but the real reason to visit is the food, with exotic choices on offer from vans and stalls. Of course, the famous Borough Market can't go without a mention, with its winding passages full of fantastic fruit juices and cheeses, including the famous Kappacasein Dairy toasted cheese sandwich, made using cheese made locally in Bermondsey.
Also, having been living in Waterloo, five minutes' walk from the South Bank, I've been spoiled with the South Bank Real Food Market so close to me, and I now have an addiction to Love Me Tender's pork sandwich.
Perhaps because I grew up many miles from the sea, I'm not usually keen on seafood. Being in England, however, I knew I had to at least try the dish that the rest of the world regards as its signature: fish and chips. I now realise the fish and chips here are famous for a reason and confess I'm completely converted.
The British, I soon noticed, are fond of alcohol and the range of drinks on offer is another noticeable feature. Pimm's is my favourite – what a great invention! The Pimm's cocktail is a perfect summer drink and I wish I could single-handedly export the tradition across the ocean. Another thing I've appreciated is cider, which is a refreshing alternative to beer on a warm day and can be bought here in unusual fruity flavours – I've had flavours such as strawberry lime and raspberry mango.
I had never tasted a macaroon before coming to Britain, but be assured I've been making up for lost time. And it's been very nice to enjoy Cadbury's chocolate at my chosen time of year and not just at Creme Egg time.
On the plane on the way to London, an Englishwoman next to me ordered tea with milk, and I thought that was the strangest thing in the world.
Over the course of the summer, I eventually tried this combination and, reader, I fell in love. I now much prefer it to coffee. I know people will judge me going back home ordering a tea with milk, but see if I care.
In London it has been rare for me to get a quality meal for less than £10 to £15. Back home, however, I can order something of comparable quality that costs the equivalent of £5. The cost of alcohol, too, is much higher here.
I live in a typical American university town and the bars there have incredible specials. On Wednesday nights, one bar offers entire pitchers of beer for 1 penny. On Friday nights, another bar offers mixed drinks for $1, or about 66p.
I am a huge bacon fan. Or at least I was until I came here. I believe bacon should be crispy and that is usually the case in America. Here, however, a request for bacon produced alien slices that were soft, flimsy and just terrible.
Of course it should come as no surprise that in America, I can find much better Mexican food. But London is getting there, and luckily, with the likes of restaurants such as Wahaca and Lupita, I have been able to satiate my cravings for Mexican. Except for one thing: queso. Delectable melted white cheese that you dip with tortilla chips, it is a favourite Mexican appetiser in America, yet I didn't once come across it in London and I hated being deprived of it all summer.
In my opinion, customer service here is abysmal compared to that in the United States, but I think this is down to a cultural divide between our two nations.
I enjoy waiters coming to check on me and seeing if there is anything I need, but the British, it seems, prefer to be left alone and the most discreet service is considered the best.
I hate having to get the attention of the waiter if I need anything and I hate waiting so long to receive the check. I am so used to fast, efficient service, so this was one of the biggest culture shocks for me.
I also miss the free soda refills.
Even if my stay in London were permanent, I don't think I would ever get used to the name changes of various foods. Take fish and chips, for example. To me, that means fish and what you would call crisps. We call chips "fries" and crisps "chips". It can be very confusing at first.
Additionally, I always forget to say biscuits, rather than cookies. Elevenses is also not a word that exists in the States, and entrees for us are not appetisers, but rather the main meal.
Here, bangers are sausages and jacket potato is baked potato. At home, pudding is a single type of dessert, not the wide-reaching name for dessert, and getting pissed means getting angry. And by the way, baked beans are for barbecues. Having them for breakfast here is one of the weirdest encounters I've had in this country. I won't ever understand how baked beans could be thought to be a good combination with eggs, bacon and toast.
Though fish and chips are a perfect pairing, the smushed peas that come with this dish are absolutely disgusting and horribly unappetising. If I want my peas mushy, I will chew them. I don't need something like that on my plate.
I love peanut butter. More that that, it is a part of life for me, as it is for most Americans. But here, I've found that the peanut butter is very powdery, not the smooth perfection I am used to. It's so bad that many of my fellow American students abroad with me have had their parents ship a jar to them.
A summer without good peanut butter? It can't be done.
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