Friday, February 22, 2008

Dispensing With Valentine's Day

We got a taste of some miserable London weather in early January, but February has been surprisingly dry and pretty. This is normally where I would superstitiously knock on wood to prevent the good weather from fleeing, but in England you don't knock on wood, you touch wood. So there, I touched wood. Even the plants have noticed the nice weather - magnolias have started to bloom and crocuses are popping up in patches in the parks.

A crocus blooms in London

February is also the month of Valentine's Day. Most years we have avoided going out on Valentine's Day to avoid the craziness at restaurants, but we trend to go out to a nice dinner within the next week or so. Our first date was about a week after Valentine's day anyway, so we have usually opted to celebrate that instead. But this being our first Valentine's day in London, we decided to give it a shot on the 14th. We decided to go to The Dispensary, a gastropub that we regularly walk by but hadn't gotten around to trying.

The Dispensary

The Dispensary, as the name suggests, is housed in a beautifully restored 19th century dispensary that was built to provide medical treatment to the poor of East London. Now it provides beer and tasty treats in a gorgeous historic setting.

The dining area is on an open mezzanine that overlooks the main pub area, and you go up an amazing old wrought iron spiral staircase to get there. The atmosphere was suitably romantic for the occasion and it was amazingly mellow and peaceful for such a popular dinner night. English restaurants are not noted for amazing service, but the owners and staff here were really friendly and attentive. As nice as the restaurant was, the pub area looked really cozy and fun, so we'll definitely be back to try out the casual side too.

Tomorrow we hop on the train to Paris for a few nights. I still am amazed that you can get to Paris more quickly than you can get to Scotland - only two and a half hours from city center to city center. I have been brushing up on my French, which usually involves me flailing wildly and Maggie patiently repeating phrases until I give up. This process usually takes about 2 minutes. Or, wait, deux minutes. See, I'm really getting the hang of it.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Getting Back to Our Roots

Despite the fact that we cheated and ordered two cases of Barq’s Root Beer from a specialty importer, our hunt for root beer in the UK continues. We’re just now running low from our first order, so I got inspired to hunt around London for some possible replacements. In part I want to satisfy a simple craving for root beer, but mostly I want the thrill of walking into a random corner market and finding 2 dusty cans of Mug or even finding Sarsi in a cooler at a take-away Thai place. I have also heard a rumor that there might be an A&W fast food franchise in Scotland, which, if true, I must find. Coming across an A&W in Scotland would be about as surprising as the time I found a Dairy Queen in Thailand, but at least as welcome.

The DQ in Bangkok. Avoid the Durian Blizzard.

In lieu of actual root beer, I decided it was time to try some British sodas with a similar origin. Just as root beer and birch beer were a direct result of the temperance movement and Prohibition in the US, a counterpart temperance movement in the UK in the latter half of the 1800s resulted in a series of similar nonalcoholic beverages to replace people’s beer cravings. In the UK, “temperance bars” that offered low or nonalcoholic beverages became commonplace particularly in the northern parts of England in the late 1800s, and provided a place for people to socialize much like in a normal pub. There is only one of the original temperance bars left in operation today, Fitzpatrick’s 1890 in Lancashire. Temperance bars served a selection of drinks, some of which, like ginger beer and cream soda, are still popular today. Others sodas, such as dandelion and burdock soda, sarsaparilla, and vimto are quite a bit less popular and can be somewhat hard to find.

Stobbart's Temperance Bar from Gateshead

I felt brave recently and bought a bottle of Fentiman’s Dandelion and Burdock soda. This type of soda makes use of the roots of dandelion and burdock to flavor the soda, so technically it is a type of root beer. But anyone even remotely familiar with the flavors of either dandelion or burdock root knows that nothing resembling American root beer is likely to result from this flavor combination. In fact, in all likelihood, it should taste brown, bitter, and medicinal. However, there are multiple brands of dandelion and burdock soda to be found in London, including generic brands from the big markets like Sainsbury’s (which seems to only come in 2 liter bottles and in Diet only) so there have to be some redeeming traits. Fentiman’s is a somewhat gourmet brand, so there was more of a chance that something decent might come from them. To describe the flavor of the Fentiman’s Dandelion & Burdock soda is tricky. It is definitely a brown flavor. Horehound candy meets licorice, or perhaps Coke with a splash of ouzo. It’s sweet, fragrant, confoundingly unlike anything else I’ve ever tried, and actually rather tasty; it is definitely an acquired taste that I can’t imagine any child liking. And I have to admit that it does belong in the root beer family of flavors, although I have yet to add a scoop of vanilla ice cream to see how a float would taste.

Fentiman's Dandelion & Burdock soda

Inspired by the surprising tastiness of the Fentiman’s Dandelion & Burdock, I went on the hunt for some more unusual British sodas. At a little local British specialty foods store (A. Gold near Spitalfields Market) I found another dandelion and burdock variation by a Staffordshire brewing company called Septimus Spyder, as well as a sarsaparilla from the same brand (I see on their website that they also make a root beer, but I have yet to find it). The following day I found another sarsaparilla from a soda company called Free Natural in Sussex (spelled “sarsaperilla” on their bottles) as well as, the original object of our search, root beer. Yes, it is true - we have now verified the existence of an English root beer.

Septimus Spyder's waxed bottles

The Septimus Spyder sodas have great bottles, covered in wax - this may simply be a traditional way of adhering labels to a bottle, but it looks nice too. The Spyder Dandelion & Burdock was somewhat similar to the Fentiman’s in flavor, but was only faintly carbonated and a bit too medicinal for my taste, but still decent. The Spyder Sarsaparilla tasted astoundingly just like their Dandelion & Burdock - almost no flavor difference at all, and certainly didn’t taste like root beer. Both Spyder sodas tasted flat and unpolished, like something an eccentric home-brewing neighbor might force you to try, but not like something you would expect to ever find in a store.

Nice bottles, yum-yum.

A bottle of Free Natural soda has about as much shelf-appeal as a bottle of cod liver oil; it resembles a health food product from the 70s, but it completely lacks any ironic retro sensibility that might make that okay. In fact, these might actually be health food products from the 70s, come to think of it. Despite my glee at finding a true British root beer, I didn’t have much hope for these in terms of flavor, particularly since the sodas were sweetened with pear juice not sugar (plus they made me think of cod liver oil). The Free Natural Root Beer did have a decent root beer smell, but the flavor was medicinal, oddly fruity, and mostly unpleasant. The “Sarsaperilla” was sour, herby, and totally foul. I think the picture sums it up. We poured both bottles down the drain. Perhaps this is where we should end our search, but I still hold out hope.

Mmm, tastes like roots

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Capers: The Line Between Love and Hate

Today we reveal the results of our Mysteries of British Food Quiz. But first a small confession: the quiz was only partially about testing people's knowledge about British food terminology. Mostly, the quiz was our attempt to prove one simple thing: that most people don't like capers. In my mind, capers are objectively unpleasant and have no redeeming value apart from saltiness, but recent conversations with some friends have revealed that there are indeed some honest caper-lovers out there. Caper-lovers seem to think that capers are highly similar in flavor to olives (which is an insult to the deliciousness of olives) and that olive-lovers should also love capers. So, what does the survey say? Do people like capers at all, and is there a correlation between olive-love and caper-love?

Average rating score for each food

Of all of the foods surveyed, capers received the lowest average rating and the most overall negative votes. This is of course not surprising, as capers are quite gross. However, the average score of capers was precisely neutral. Apparently people have a wide range of opinions about capers, as votes were spread across the spectrum. Olives had the most "Passionate love, ooh baby" votes, but was just edged out for the overall top spot by mustard. My prediction was that olives would win, so mustard is a bit of a surprise. As for the correlation between olive-love and caper-love, there was no such correlation to be found in our data. I haven't data-mined for other possible correlations, but the general pattern is that people exhibited a diversity of very specific tastes. Other than capers, responders generally liked the other foods, despite the fact that they were purposely foods that tend to provoke strongly negative reactions in certain people.

On the specifically British food questions, we were hoping to find a difference between British and non-British responders. Unfortunately, we only got one British responder out of 28 overall, with everyone else being American (despite some falsely claiming to be from Inner Mongolia, and Bingen, Germany). While the British responder did answer nearly every question correctly, and Americans did much worse in general, you can't say much with a sample size of 1. The results to all of the questions are summarized below with the correct answers in orange and percentage response on the y-axis (click on the picture to expand, no need to squint).

A quick answer guide and commentary:
1. Gammon is essentially ham - some argue that it becomes ham once cooked, others that it is cured in a different fashion. It's ham. People did relatively well on this, with "A small chicken relative" coming in second.
2. Winkles, or Periwinkles, are in fact sea snails. They are not "Small pickled cucumbers" as most people believed, probably out of disbelief that anyone would eat sea snails.
3. A Victoria Sponge is a cake with a jam filling, as most responders knew. Thank you to the three people for indulging me by picking "A heavy beer drinker".
4. All British sausage must contain nutmeg. I have no explanation for this, and I wish it was not the case. I can't find good Italian fennel sausage anywhere. At our local supermarket, there is a large refrigerated case filled with 30+ types of sausage - most say they include nutmeg right on the front, a couple cagey ones list "spices" in the ingredients, but somehow I'm certain that nutmeg is one of those spices. I don't blame people for getting this one wrong.
5. Bubble and squeak is potatoes and cabbage (or any similar mix of potatoes and greens). It can be quite tasty.
6. Stargazy pie is a fish pie with protruding fish heads, supposedly gazing at the sky. I didn't make this up. Here is a nice post with some pictures and a recipe for the truly brave.
7. People were fairly unanimous on this one - a Ploughman's Lunch is the common pub meal composed of cheese, apple, bread, pickle, butter and a small salad, often consumed with beer. I don't think I'll be trying a Footman's Revenge any time soon.
8. While most people guessed that the Cornish pasty is now a regionally protected name, it is in fact the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie. Here is a useful link to the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association - keep in mind, an authentic Melton Mowbray Pork Pie is grey inside, not pink. Grey=good, pink=bad. In retrospect, I should have shown the results for this question as a pie chart.

I guess it isn't surprising that most Americans are a bit confused about British food terminology - we're only slowly figuring it out ourselves, and I regularly see people getting British food questions wrong on UK quiz shows such as Eggheads. It probably isn't that important if I don't know my sarnie from my kedgeree, as long as I'm sure that I'm not ordering something with capers in it.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Notes from the Underground

London is a city that is in many ways defined by its public transportation. London has, to my mind, one of the best (but quirkiest) public transportation systems in the world. Because the system is so old, constantly breaking, hamstrung by striking unions or oversensitive security measures, or delayed for numerous other reasons, it can be easy to forget just how good it is, especially when you’re stuck hundreds of yards below ground in stifling air with 500 irritable strangers. And it certainly isn’t cheap, come to think of it, nor particularly self-explanatory. And people can be downright pushy. Nonetheless, the system is truly remarkable in its coverage and integration, particularly for someone used to the much worse to nonexistent American systems. In London, there is always a way to get anywhere you want to go, be it by bus, train, or boat. Unless they happen to not be working that day.

A typical London scene complete with a new-style double-decker bus

The public transportation of London is also iconic, achieved through a mixture of historical precedence and clever marketing. If you ask anyone to picture a London scene, chances are the picture includes a red double-decker bus, a black cab, or an Underground sign. This imagery is also very much part of the local psyche as well, not just fodder for souvenir t-shirts and refrigerator magnets, and Londoners have fought to maintain the old Routemaster buses and the long tradition of excellent Underground art and station architecture. In a city that has a museum for nearly any random subject one might imagine, there is predictably a museum in central London devoted entirely to the history of London transport - the aptly named and just recently reopened London Transport Museum.

Inside the London Transport Museum

Unlike most major cities, there is a lot of history to cover on the subject since London was usually the first to do many things, e.g., the first underground train line (1863), the first underwater tunnel (1843), etc. In order to walk you through all of this history, you first have to enter a lift (elevator) that pretends to be a time machine: instead of counting up floors as you ascend, it counts down in years and plays some momentous sounding soundtrack. This was a bit silly. The time machine drops you off in the horse and buggy era, with several examples of period carriages pulled by model horses (complete with model horse droppings).

It's fake, honest.

It took a few minutes to realize that the time machine and the fake horse poo were symptoms of the museum being largely focused on kids, something we hadn’t anticipated. I was expecting some long-winded explanations of the engineering feat of the Thames Tunnel, poorly built braking systems, and other bits of arcana mostly appreciated by train and bus afficionados, and, to be fair, there was a good amount of this type of information that was well presented and organized. However, it was hard to not be distracted by the multitudes of creepy mannequin people dressed in period costumes, presumably there to “entertain” children. If I were a child, I think I might develop a chronic fear of mannequins from these exhibits (much like my own fear of clowns).

Just don't make eye contact

Two hip cats and a real square

We chose to go on a Saturday with nice weather, the museum is right on the busy Covent Garden plaza, and the museum is full of trains, buses, and carriages to climb on, so perhaps it shouldn’t have been surprising that the museum was a virtual playground. As much as I love kids, I do find it a bit hard to read long passages about the role of Underground stations as air raid shelters during WWII while screaming children dart through my legs.

The original Metropolitan Line train cars

Too bad this creepy guy was on board

Apart from getting to see real examples of a lot of the historic trains and buses and trolleys, many of which you could go into, I loved the poster art and the period photographs. The London Transport Museum has made a huge portion of its archive searchable online, and you can actually order reprints of any poster or photograph you want (we mined this resource heavily for Christmas presents this past year). We both love old poster art, and London has some of the best, so this is a dangerous thing for us to know about.

I wanted to play on the train, but they wouldn't let me

Some classic London Underground posters