Eating One’s Way Through the British Isles

When I turned to page one, I knew I was reading the right book. There’s a half page photo of Plantaneget, a terrific seafood restaurant that hugs the hillside in the old Welsh fishing town of Tenby–the one with my very favorite cluttered bookstore just across the way. How can you not love a bookstore that looks like this one?

Bookstore in Tenby

I digress.

PloughmansLunchCover9781558324138-300x266But I do love wandering around the UK. And when I’m not wandering, on say, a cold winter’s day here in the US, it’s fun to find a book that causes me to think about my next trip. This morning, I enjoyed a wonderful book about British, Welsh, Irish and Scottish food entitled The Ploughman’s Lunch and the Miser’s Feast. It comes with the inconveniently long subtitle, Authentic Pub Food, Restaurant Fare, and Home Cooking from Small Towns, Big Cities and Country Villages Across the British Isles. The title accurately describes the book’s contents, but fails to mention that there are lavish (and luscious) photographs, and lots of recipes, too.

Of course, the names are fun. Let’s begin with breakfast. Scotch Woodcock contains no game; it’s a seasoned approach to scrambled eggs. Jugged Kippers is a herring dish, popular in the north, full of sea-driven flavor, strong for breakfast in a place where the extra nutritional kick in the morning is a good thing.

There’s tea throughout the day, and a nice article about why and how it has become so important to the day.

And there’s a thorough explanation of the ploughman’s lunch, perfectly served with artisanal cheddar cheese, a good thick slice of rare roast beef (often, from last night’s dinner), mixed greens, chutney, and a mini-baguette. Pickled onions are nice, too.

I never acquired a taste for the go-anywhere, anytime Scotch Eggs, a hard-boiled egg coated in sausage and crumbs, and often, carried for lunch away from home.

Author Brian Yarvin and I share something in common: we will travel for food. He, to Stoke-on-Trent in the county of Staffordshire for freshly made oatcakes. These are made on the grill, often purchased by the dozen for use at home, or enjoyed one-at-a-time, filled with, say, cheese and mushroom (Yarvin’s favorite). There’s a distinctly local specialty, but you’ll find various small “cakes” throughout the islands.

Scottish Oatcakes from Brian's  book, "The Ploughman's Lunch and the Miser's Feast"  (Use allowed for book promotions and reviews only.)Author Brian Yarvin is also a superior food photographer. Here's a look at a Curried Mutton Turnover. There's lots more to see--mostly Asian--by clicking on the image.

Scottish Oatcakes from Brian’s book, “The Ploughman’s Lunch and the Miser’s Feast” (Use allowed for book promotions and reviews only.)
Author Brian Yarvin is also a superior food photographer. Here’s a look at a Curried Mutton Turnover. There’s lots more to see–mostly Asian–by clicking on the image.

Cock-a-leekie is another of those wonderful Scottish names, this time assigned to a soup that contains, rather obviously, chicken and leek, and not very obviously, prune, too. The prune recalls a history when dried fruits were quite the delicacy, exotic and expressive of a higher station. Cullen Skink is another great name: it’s potato soup with smoked haddock… spectacular!

Beef Wellington suggests a dish that we made up here, like Chow Mein, but it is, in fact, quite British, and every bit as delicious as it was two decades ago (the last time I had one). Basically, it’s a good piece of beef wrapped in mushrooms and then in puff pastry. Old-school, but terrific.

There’s a nice bit about how to choose the best of fish-n-chips shops, or, in the local lingo, a chip shop. If you see a sign for “fish tea,” that’s a good thing–the term resonates with the locals (who, presumably, know both their fish and their tea). If the menu lists only fish, chips, peas, and tea, that’s a good, thing, too–it suggests focus. It’s not good if the same place lists burgers or kabobs. Anything suggesting “Best in Britain” without appropriate documentation posted in the window. Nix on pre-fried fish in the window, and pre-battered fish, too. Extra points for using local fish (nothing in Britain is very far from the sea).

Also, a useful note regarding bacon. What we call bacon, they call streaked bacon. What they call bacon is a boneless pork chop, sliced thin and fried.

What’s a faggot? It’s a meatball, heavy on the liver. Just so you know. One the next page: Lamb’s Tongue (with Raisin Sauce).

Brian Yarvin

Mr. Yarvin

What’s the most popular food in Britain? Probably Chicken Korma, the lead player in an extensive Indian cuisine that’s found just about everywhere. Nice coverage of various Indian dishes here, resplendent in their bright colours.

When in Britian, I like my pies. Set me in front of a menu with, say, Chicken, Ham and Mushroom Pie, and a local ale, and I’m a happy traveler. Leek Pie, Shepherd’s Pie, Fish Pie with Mashed Potato Crust, all good with me. Not so much for the Steak and Kidney Pie, which is made not with Kidney Beans, but instead, with the kidney of a lamb (tubes removed). No thank you. Yes to Cornish Pasties, essentially a local take on an empañada. And a definite yes to Yorkshire Pudding, which is a pudding in the British sense, which means, well, I’m not sure how the British use the term because it seems to apply to most desserts, of which Yorkshire is not one.

The term Flapjacks was a surprise to me; I picked up a pair at a train station for a quick snack. Turns out, they’re similar to granola bars.

At a tea shop in Cardiff, I tried my first (and probably, my freshest) Clotted Cream. It sounds a bit unappealing, but it is, in fact, it’s a bit sweet, a bit thick, and a perfect accompaniment to, say, a scone.

Other terms I learned… Perry is a pear cider (excellent at the small stand in the local market just next to the West Canterbury train station)… Fairy Cake is, more or less, our cupcake… Bap is something like a cross between a hamburger roll and sandwich roll… and Chocolate Vermicelli is our Chocolate Sprinkles.

What fun! Get the book. Then, go!

Food, Wales, Delicious!

Sure, I knew about Welsh Rarebit, and sure, I knew about cockles. Kinda sure, anyway, so let’s begin there.

My choice of good local ales at the Mochyn Du, I chose CWRW.

The term “rarebit” is not a corruption of rabbit, but is, instead, a kind of open faced grilled cheese sandwich. Its ingredients include toasted bread (rye, or any other substantial loaf), melted cheddar (preferably thick strands, not slices, with good ale, salt, fresh pepper, a bit of mustard, Worcestershire, and more bits of good Welsh bacon (more like a cross between American grilled ham and Canadian bacon). Cockles may be associated with mussels (but then, that would be in Dublin’s fair city, not in Wales). Here, as there, cockles are small clams, found throughout the world in saltwater. In Wales, they may be served in combination with well-buttered toast, and bits of Welsh ham, and they may be quite tiny. Both Welsh Rarebit and cockles are best enjoyed with a good pub ale; I did just that in Cardiff, just before the 9PM kitchen closing time, at Y Mochyn Du (The Black Pig), and then enjoyed some fresh sea bass, while my compadre, Paul Harris (local guide and expert on Wales; owns See Wales) enjoyed Honey Roasted Ham with a pair of free-range (we would call then sunny side up) eggs.

The laver cake anchors a good Welsh breakfast consisting of wonderful smoked salmon and my gigantic fluffy omelette.

I will now recall Cardiff as the site of the fluffiest omelette I’ve ever eaten–and I could eat only about half of it. The place: Lincoln House Hotel, just a few blocks from the center of town, on a beautiful old (and probably, once, quite wealthy) Cathedral Avenue. The next morning, I opted for the perfect smoked salmon as my main dish. Both mornings, my favorite tastings were small, round, and local to Wales. The Welsh Tea Cake, about 3 inches round, a cakey cookie similar to a fruit scone (raisins or currants inside) dusted with granulated sugar, but only about half an inch thick (like a cookie). Laver is a seaweed and oatmeal cake, meaty enough for a meal, slightly salty and sea-tasty, I loved it from my very first taste.

My big breakfast turned out to be a problem because I had intended to visit the Pettigrew Tea Rooms located in Cardiff Castle’s old gatehouse. Fortunately, the Castle tour was long enough for me to work up a bit of an appetite, so I enjoyed a perfect peppermint tea (with full leaves, not flakes) and another Welsh speciality, a cake called Bara Brith, loaded with tea-soaked raisins.

Bara Brith cake at the Pettigrew Tea Rooms, just beside Cardiff Castle

With a consistency similar to carrot cake, the taste is pleasantly spicy and fruity, and, apparently, this is quite traditional. Time limitations kept me away from St. Fagan’s, another Cardiff location where the baked goods are made fresh, and with love, so I missed out on the revival of Shearing Cake. That’ll wait until next time.

On the other side of southern Wales, the far western side, I spent a day walking around Skomer Island, and saw the (fabulous!) puffins. And I spent about two days in the seaside towns Saundersfoot and Tenby. Before a day of coastal hiking, a hearty breakfast can be just the thing; it’s part of the package at Saundersfoot’s Claremont House (and Sue is terrific at home cooking!). I tried my first serious version of fish and chips at a charming old restaurant, down some medieval stairs (not far from an equally charming bookstore). Among the many very good fish restaurants in seaside Tenby, I’m confident that you will enjoy Plantagenet as much as I did (be sure to ask your server to see the very tall Flemish chimney, large enough, at its base, to fit two large dining tables).

Fish, chips and mashed peas at Plantagenet in Tenby, Wales.and chips at a Tenby restaurant well-known for its fresh fish: Plantagenet. And I’ve learned that fish and chips comes with fresh and yummy mashed green English peas. Lunch at Mulberry’s, with its Dutch chef, provided my introduction to whitebait, a two-inch fish that’s served in bunches, battered and fried, and also, a snapping fresh shrimp dish involving butter, garlic, parsley, a scampi of sorts.

My high-class respite on the inevitable rainy afternoon was St. Bride’s, a spa hotel with a wonderful restaurant located just across a windy street from the Claremont in Saundersfoot. I sat for hours, watching day become night, harbor lights below, big sea and sky view with tiny sailboats in the mid-ground and larger, industrial vessels further out at sea. I started with tea–after a rainy afternoon outdoors, British tea tastes so right–then warmed my still-chilled innards with a nice squash soup (ingredients from a nearby farm). Then, the perfect Welsh lamb, crispy and properly spiced on the outside, red enough to be slightly lukewarm at the center, again from a source just down the road. St. Bride’s turned out to be a special part of my Saundersfoot experience. I so enjoyed the view, the table, and the relaxed ambience, I returned for a second night, hoping to enjoy Gressingham Duck, or Dover Sole, or free-range chicken from not-far-away Fishguard, perhaps topping off with a Sticky Toffee Pudding or a Warm Treacle Tart with Clotted Cream, but I had to admit the truth.  I was still quite full from my fish and chips lunch, so I went for smoked salmon and a cooling Iced Apple Parfait with Bramble Sauce (a red and purple berry sauce).

Big disappointment: I was hoping to visit the well-regarded ffresh, located in the spectacular Cardiff Millennium Center (a performing arts center), but I was there on a Monday, and it was closed. Sigh.

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