Tuesday, January 29, 2008

British Food: A Survey

We decided to try a new format for today's blog post: a reader survey. We knew before we came to the UK that there were differences between British and American English (e.g, "garbage" vs. "rubbish"), but we didn't realize how many new food terms we would have to learn here. Partly this is because there are some entirely different foods here, but also some foods we have in common have different names (e.g., a "chip" in the US is a "crisp" in the UK). So, we thought it would be interesting to see how people do on a small British food quiz of sorts (totally anonymous, just 10 questions). You don't have to be American to complete this - in fact it would be great to see people of all origins answering the quiz. We need a good sample size to say anything (perhaps more than the 8 people that regularly read this blog), so get your friends and loved ones to answer too, and we'll keep this open until we get a decent sample:

The Mysteries of British Food: A Survey -- The survey is now finished - thanks!

What not to do with a rubbish bin

Thursday, January 24, 2008

A Bit of Local Flavor

The term “local delicacy” always seems to refer to something that is an acquired taste. In some cases the taste of the “local delicacy” is so objectively unpleasant that enjoying it requires some form of mass delusion on the part of the locals. The first time I went to French Polynesia, I was lucky enough to attend a traditional feast thrown by some locals on the island of Moorea where I got to sample several traditional Tahitian dishes. These included pit roasted pig, long-cooked taro greens, and the local delicacy fafaru. At the time, I had no idea that fafaru would later be featured on Survivor: Marquesas as a challenge food that contestants had to keep down to win the contest. What’s fafaru? Here is a sample recipe: (1) Place shrimp or fish in a jar and cover with sea water; (2) allow to sit for 3-5 days until fish is mostly decomposed and disintegrating; (3) strain fish bits out and retain the fermented fish water for making fafaru; (4) pour fermented fish water over beautiful fresh sushi-grade tuna and marinate for 10-15 minutes; (5) pull fish out of fermented fish water and serve immediately with a splash of fermented coconut milk. The only way I can describe the smell is “dumpstery” (or, for the British audience, “rubbish-binny”). The taste, well, if you can get it past your nose, isn’t as bad as you might expect. I didn’t have seconds. Why I ate fafaru but can’t bring myself to sample jellied eels is an open question. Perhaps I've learned my lesson.

The site of my fafaru experience. I liked the view better.

Most local delicacies aren’t nearly as hardcore as fafaru. Some of the truly smelly cheeses of the world get close, Limburger for example, which smells like pure ammonia with an overwhelming footy note. In the San Francisco Bay Area, we don’t have anything quite so bad, unless you count the Hangtown Fry (anyone for a bacon and oyster omelet?). San Francisco’s sourdough bread, a major source of local pride and something that makes my stomach rumble in appreciation just thinking about it, while not in the same league as rotting fish bits, is definitely an acquired taste. Maggie and I were once eating breakfast at a hotel in the California Gold Country next to a table with an Irish family at it. One of them exclaimed, “I think this bread is spoiled!” And another said, “Oh, that must be the sour dough!” in this charmingly exaggerated Irish accent. We giggled to ourselves, much as the Tahitians giggled at me as I tried to swallow fafaru, although without the pointing and knee slapping.

The funny thing, and something that most San Franciscans may not want to hear, is that sourdough is not a San Francisco invention. In fact, sourdough is one of the oldest forms of leavened bread. All it takes to make sourdough is grain flour, yeasts, and the ubiquitous Lactobacillus bacteria to convert sugars to acids to make the sour flavor. Archaeologists have examined loaves of bread found in Egyptian tombs and have found evidence that they were leavened using a fairly typical sourdough method with wild yeasts and emmer wheat. And yes, there are indeed archaeologists that study ancient bread; imagine explaining that one at cocktail parties. Before the rise in popularity (pardon the pun) of cultured yeasts in the early 1900s, which are more predictable to bake with and easily produced in large quantities, sourdough leavening made with local wild yeasts was essentially the only may to make yeast-leavened bread, the level of sourness varying according to how much Lactobacillus was naturally present or intentionally added to the leavening.

Further proof of the cultural importance of Egyptian sourdough

In San Francisco the folklore goes as such: sourdough can only be made in the Bay Area because of the presence of a particular local bacterium Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis, attempts to ship this bacterium to other parts of the world have ended in failure, and there is some mystical power to San Francisco fog that makes the bacterium especially happy and the bread especially sour. The first part is true: Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis is very real and clearly named after where it was first found. The second part is totally not true. The third bit about the fog I’ll leave alone because I like it. The truth is that San Francisco sourdough is often notably sourer than other sourdoughs around the world, but I’ve now had sourdough in Maine and, just this last week, here in London. It may not have quite the same tang as the super-sours of San Francisco, but it is close enough for me.

Real sourdough in London

Thursday, January 17, 2008


One of the things I’ve missed about home lately is the wonderful aquarium Andy and I used to have. Back in the Bay Area, I loved having fish and taking care of them in a little underwater world. For those of you who never saw it, here’s a picture of our old aquarium:

Our friend Doug was nice enough to take our aquarium when we moved last summer, as transporting it to London was not an option. So at least we know it’s in good hands. However, this still doesn’t satisfy my longing to see tropical fish swimming happily around a tank, playing in a sunken mini-treasure chest, and occasionally falling asleep (yes, fish do sleep!).

When we first arrived in London, we explored the idea of setting up an aquarium in our flat, but there were two major problems: water quality and transportation. The water here is full of minerals - treating it would take a lot of work and quite a few chemicals, and we both feel that generally the more chemicals you add to your aquarium, the worse off your fish will be. The second problem was our lack of car. Transporting aquarium supplies, especially the tank, is a huge hassle - everything is very heavy - and trying to hail a taxi and lug everything up to our third floor flat just didn’t seem feasible. If you have your own car it’s tough; if you don’t, it’s a near impossibility.

So recently I got excited about finding a place to visit some fish, since we can’t have any of our own. Our first thought was to go to the London Aquarium; however, its first floor is closed for renovation so we opted out - we didn’t want to miss out on half the exhibits. However, it turns out that the London Zoo has a small aquarium exhibit, so last weekend we took the underground over to Regents Park, walked through the park and over to the zoo.

It was a pretty cold day, with temperatures in the low forties, but we had a great time visiting all the exhibits. The aquarium had tanks with Tangs, Clown Fish, and lots of beautiful corals:

Whizzing Fish


Creepy Piranhas

Although a good number of the animals in the zoo were on vacation because it was so cold, we still got to see some awesome birds, including owls, pelicans, pink flamingos, and toucans:

Andy and Pelicans

Colorful Toucan

Hawk Owl

There were also giraffes, which were Andy’s favorites, and llamas too:

There were supposed to be meerkats but I think they’d gone somewhere warmer for the season, as had the zebras and lions. But we still had a wonderful time, and seeing the fish was extra special.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Ramsay's II

I'm a fan of food-based television, although I'm not sure I can really explain why. Even a shallow analysis reveals that watching someone else cook on TV isn't the best way to spend my time, and I don't even get to taste the result. I suppose there is an educational argument for watching cooking shows, and I'm sure I've picked up some techniques here and there, but then I never find myself writing down recipes. For me, much of the appeal of cooking shows comes from watching someone do something way better than I can (e.g., Jacques Pépin chopping onions at light speed, or Lidia Bastianich making something look impossibly tasty with minimal effort); however a lot of popular TV chefs today seem to lack a lot of the raw talent and rely more on personality, flashy production, and extreme tooth whitening.

The celebrity chef phenomenon is not endemic to the US. The recent popularity of the Food Network and the explosion of multiple Rachael Rays and Bobby Flays in the US was mirrored here in the UK by the popularity (with nearly equal amount of mockery) of Jamie OIiver, Nigella Lawson, and the notably foul-mouthed Gordon Ramsay.

Gordon Ramsay in one of his lighter moods

Gordon Ramsay is mostly known in the US for his "reality" show Hell's Kitchen, supposedly a cooking competition, but mostly a venue for his amusingly nasty personality. In the UK, he is remarkably over-exposed, with several concurrent TV programs, multiple books, and his big noggin plastered on billboards for Gordon's gin. All of this largely overshadows his real culinary achievements, which include 12 Michelin stars (tied for the most stars held by one chef) and a restaurant empire of around 14 restaurants in the UK and the US that range from casual pubs to absurdly high-end eateries.

While we celebrated Maggie's recent birthday on our visit to California, we wanted to go out to a nice dinner back in the UK when we returned, so we booked a reservation at a nearby Gordon Ramsay riverside pub The Narrow. By total coincidence, a friend from the US visited this last week and wanted to check out a Gordon Ramsay restaurant during his visit, so we also went to the more upscale Boxwood Café. Unfortunately, Gordon Ramsay doesn't do much cooking these days, and is so busy that he rarely sets foot in most of his restaurants, so my fantasy of him emerging from the kitchen and telling me that I'm rubbish was highly unlikely to come true.

The Narrow in Limehouse

We had a very fun dinner at The Narrow, which has amazing river views over the Thames and really nice versions of classic pub food at reasonable prices (for London). The real highlight of The Narrow turned out to be the desserts - if we had left pre-pudding, we would have had only a ho-hum impression of the food, but the desserts (a bread and butter pudding with vanilla custard, and a tangerine-cranberry crumble with vanilla ice cream) were so ridiculously good that we almost considered ordering seconds. Boxwood Café was a much fancier affair, and we had a truly memorable and mildly gluttonous meal (full menu-gloating details upon request), although we still left slight dismayed that we had passed up the amazing looking (but calorically over-the-top) British cheese course. It was great to see that Gordon Ramsay's TV bluster is backed up by some honestly great restaurants. In his defense, he doesn't have white enough teeth for me to have doubted him in the first place.

Lonely, unloved cheese

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Sam Clam's Disco*

For the last few weeks, during our blog-post silence, we have been in the San Francisco Bay Area visiting friends and relatives for the holiday season. Shortly after arriving, I sat down for some quality time with my parents (watching TV of course), and, alarmingly, Top Gear was on. To keep abreast of British culture, my parents have been watching BBC America, so they knew all about various British TV shows. We even got into detailed discussions of recent episodes of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. American culture is, of course, forced on the rest of the world in Borg-like fashion, so it's good to see at least a bit of foreign culture being imported into the US, even if that bit happens to include far too many episodes of EastEnders.

London doesn't have a monopoly on odd signs

It was great to visit the Bay Area during the winter, where the weather tends to be cool but clear and gorgeous -- a nice break from the grey and early dark of winter in London. Coming back to the Bay Area from some time away really highlighted the natural physical beauty of the area. London has many beautiful aspects including the amazing architecture, wonderful parks, and views along the Thames, but it can’t match the Bay Area for pure grandeur.

San Francisco from the East Bay hills

Sunrise over the El Sobrante hills

Maggie on the beach in Alameda

The San Francisco Bay Area is well known for its high quality food and its food-obsessed citizenry (including ourselves), and we had to hit a few of our favorite restaurants and eat some local treats while we were there. Mexican food was an obvious must-eat, and we managed to have a great variety of Mexican cuisine: holiday tamales (one of the best things about Christmas), top-notch burritos (the true San Francisco treat), the highly underrated taco truck experience, and some underwhelming chain restaurant food as well. We also got pizza from our favorite local haunt, and squeezed in a few super gourmet places. We had some great holiday meals with our families, and this time I made some real circular pies.

One of our many gourmet experiences in the Bay Area

While it is great to be back at home in our London flat, it was hard to say goodbye again to our old home and all of our friends and family. The weather on the last day was spectacular, and we were graced with one last beautiful sunset just before we boarded the plane.

*Where I left my harp