September 23, 2007

Tarting to like English Bakeries

Friday we made a trip to Salisbury, which is a little less hectic than London. In Salisbury, we made a trip to a bakery, which smells much better than London. In the bakery, my mouth made a visit to heaven while it enjoyed a delectable apple tart.

Not that the tart was necessarily better than London food – it was just cheaper and, for the most part, fresher. It was also the first time I’ve really “popped in” to a traditional English bakery, and I can now say it probably won’t be the last.

For 85 pence I got a miniature apple pie. Don’t think apple pie like American apple pie, think apple pie with a richer, more buttery crust that makes your mouth drip with passion. It was just about perfect.

In fact, the only real problem with the whole bakery experience was choosing what I wanted. It was one of those problems that you like to have: having too many cheap and yummy looking options.

All of the pastries were on display in a giant window that wrapped around half of the bakery, and the list of goodies reads like a Harry Potter book. Treacle tarts, cheese and leak pasties, chocolate buns, you name it, you could buy it. For a single treat, you could pay between 50p and 85p, making it very tempting to get more than one thing.

I knew I wanted a tart. I’m not sure why, mind you, but I was sure I wanted a tart. I guess they just seem English to me. Even eliminating eccles and cookies didn’t help much, because I still had lots of choices ahead of me. In the end, I narrowed it down to a lemon tart, a custard tart, an apple tart and a treacle tart.

The treacle tart was my first choice, but they only had those in larger form. It actually was a great deal, because the amount of treacle tart they were selling for £1.65 would have lasted me a week. Still, I didn’t want to gain too many extra chins, so I stayed true to my intention of buying one portion, and one portion only.

Next I eliminated the lemon tart on the simple basis that I wasn’t in the mood for lemon. That left me with apple and custard.

In the end, I wimped out. There was a lot of custard in the custard tart, and I was afraid I might not like it. In a move that was a little reprehensible, I decided that my immediate enjoyment was a little more important than my duties sampling different foods for this blog, which I should consider of paramount importance.

I would apologize, but that apple tart was so good that my apology wouldn’t be anywhere near heartfelt. Why risk my now-fond feelings toward English bakeries by trying something semi-new and slightly dangerous when I could solidify my love for them?

That means I have to give the whole bakery experience a full five sporks. Good smells, good selection, good taste… There isn’t much to say on the “bad” side of things.

Well, there isn’t much bad to say unless you want to talk about health. I already want to go back to the bakery. I want to try everything they had, because I bet I’ll enjoy almost all of it. But things that taste that good don’t come without a price, and that price is surely cholesterol.

Well, cholesterol and the insane amount of time I spent trying to decide what to buy. When you’re standing in front of one of these bakeries, healthy eating isn’t an option, it’s a fallacy.

September 19, 2007

Fish free-for-all

Now that I’ve had some time to sample a few kinds of fish & chips here in London, it’s time to report on the true state of the meal in England and compare it to my experience at Arthur Treacher’s last spring.

First, it’s important to lay down my sampling of fish & chips both in the UK and in the states. In the states, I’ve eaten the meal from Arthur Treacher’s of course, and from a delicious Irish pub in Syracuse called Kitty Hoynes. Here in London, I’ve had it on three occasions: once sitting down at a restaurant that advertised it and cooked it to order, once as take-away from a walk-in restaurant that scooped up a piece of fried fish and some chips from under a heat lamp, and once from a stand beside the Tower of London.

You probably know the prices to expect to pay in the US: About four or 5 bucks at Arthur Treacher’s or $8-9 at a pub. Here in London, you might as well replace the dollar sign with a pound symbol. That would all be fair and well, except for the fact that the dollar is currently worth a little less than half a pound. For those of you who aren’t too good with money (and judging from the current credit-crisis in the US, there are a lot of you) that can mean paying close to 18 bucks for one meal!

In fact, that’s almost what I paid in the sit-down restaurant. Fish, chips and mushy peas were something like £8.95. In the first shop I ate them at, my fish & chips came rolled in a piece of brown paper and cost about £5. In a strange twist, the stand next to the tourist trap Tower of London was a bargain of £2.50. That is the lowest I have seen fish & chips, and is actually cheaper than eating out nearly anywhere I’ve found in London. Even stranger, that price included a can of soda! Go figure.

Here in London, the presentation of your fish & chips will vary depending on where you eat. That’s a little disappointing, given the traditional image of a fried piece of cod and greasy fries nestled in a roll of newsprint is unfulfilled. In fact, you really can’t get fish & chips in newspaper anymore. The closest I came was a brownish paper that was probably a lot cleaner than newsprint, but definitely lacked in character. But if your chips aren’t rolled in paper, which happens more often than it should, they will be on a plate if you order in a pub or sit-down restaurant, or can be in a Styrofoam container, as were mine from beside the Tower of London.

The actual quality of the food will obviously also vary. When I ate sitting down, the fish was very good but could not have been eaten while walking. It simply would have fallen apart because it was too flakey. The other two times I ate the meal, I got a nice solid piece of fish that was fried together in a very solid way. Those suckers weren’t going to fall apart if I dropped it back into the ocean.

Oddly enough, the best overall fish & chips I had were the cheapest, and not just because of their bargain price. The fish, while it wasn’t as good as at the sit-down restaurant, was still very good, and the chips were piping hot. That price didn’t hurt, either. That basically goes to show that getting food fish & chips here is hit-or-miss. The second place I got them from, which is also the middle price range, was not of high quality. It couldn’t beat Arthur Treacher’s.

So the conclusion is that depending on where you go, you can get either great fish & chips or you can get mediocre fish & chips here in London – just like you can get either great fish & chips or mediocre fish & chips in the states, depending on where you go.

The real difference lies in the price, and in the condiments, which I have previously not mentioned. The British eat a lot of mayonnaise and vinegar. That isn’t a stereotype, and it isn’t over exaggerated in American’s minds. They eat the stuff on everything. It is also delicious on fish & chips. I’ve even found a new love for fries with mayonnaise on them.

In the end, your actual food will probably be more expensive than it would be in the US, and it might not even be as good. Despite all the evidence that shows fish & chips in London isn’t significantly better than fish & chips in the US, I have to say I enjoy fish & chips here a little more. There is some feeling to eating the meal while walking down a windy street in central London that you just don’t get from eating it in the United States.

It really doesn’t boil down to price, and it really doesn’t boil down to quality. I suppose it just fries down to tradition. Just like a cheese steak at a Phillies game seems better because it is renowned in the region, fish & chips in London just seem better.

Next post, I’ll try to address the strange issue of mushy peas. We won’t talk history or anything like that – even I’m not crazy enough to look up the history of mushy peas. Still, there’s something to be said about this odd British companion to fish & chips. As soon as I figure out what it is, I’ll type it up and let you know.