Taste of England

Jellied eels. Toad in the hole. Bangers and mash. The Full English. An Eton mess. Trifle. Crumble. Yorkshire pudding. Scotch eggs. A menu of oddly named and sometimes oddly tasting traditional British dishes awaits adventurous diners visiting London for the Olympic Games this summer.

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To an American like me, the names of English foods take some getting used to. Take the term “pudding”. In the States, a pudding is specifically a runny, milk-based desert. In England it refers to anything sweet served after the main course– unless it is from Yorkshire, and then it is savory, resembles a popover, and is served with roast beef. The closest thing the English have to American pudding is custard — a luminous yellow sweet sauce which they insist on drowning their deserts in. They consider it a comfort food but I find it revolting, even when my English husband tries to pass it off under the exotic French title of “crème anglais”.

I discovered my favorite English desert after I had been touring the country on a bus for four days. My taste buds had been numbed by a steady diet of egg salad sandwiches and salt and vinegar crisps (or chips, as we Americans call them) so the first time I tried an Eton mess, I swooned. The simple combination of crumbled meringue, vanilla ice cream, strawberries and whipped cream was heavenly. The name of the desert refers to Eton college, a posh school in Queen Elizabeth’s hometown. I imagine mess comes from the appearance of the dish. Recently I made one with my three-year-old daughter and she now shares my passion and nightly begs me to “make the mess again”. I admit, my taste buds might not be the most sophisticated.

Moving away from puddings, the dishes don’t get any less confusing.

I’m happy to report that no amphibians die in the making of toad in the hole — a bizarre combination of sausages entombed in Yorkshire pudding batter. This isn’t as bad as it sounds and toad in the hole recipes using quality sausages and fancy seasonings by celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay can be quite tasty. Done cheaply, as a ready meal from grocery store, it’s as grim as you’d expect.

The “full English” is a mountain of greasy breakfast foods that I imagine must be aimed at the hardworking construction worker with an appetite — or hangover — the size of a skyscraper. The ideal full English includes varying amounts of eggs, bacon, sausages, baked beans, fried mushrooms, grilled tomatoes, chips (by which I mean french fries) and toast. There’s also the option of black pudding — a terrifying slice of blood sausage.

I ordered a full English at a London café which, for reasons I would soon appreciate, goes by the name of “Enough to Feed and Elephant”. The waitress warned me that it was a lot of food and I might want to opt for something lighter, like a bowl of porridge. I persevered, and the chef brought out a plate of food that could have easily fed the four American women at the table next to me whose eyes widened at its arrival. “You going to eat that all by yourself?” asked one of the women, just as the chef scurried back to serve me the mushrooms, the toast, and a sausage that he had forgotten to add to the plate.

I always imagined that jellied eels might be a lot nicer than they sound and perhaps just needed rebranding. So for £5, I purchased a large Styrofoam cup filled with this traditional London delicacy from “Tubby Issacs”, a market stall in the Aldgate area of the city that operates under the admirably optimistic claim of being “world famous”. To make this dish, eels are chopped, spiced, boiled and then cooled, thus rendering them in a thick, gelatinous coating. They can be eaten on their own or with a chilli vinegar. I also recommend eating them with a bucket — just in case nausea strikes. I did try to enjoy them but the smell was off-putting and my colleagues kept making retching sounds as I arranged them for a photograph. I had the tiniest of bites and found them incredibly salty with a strong fishy flavor. They were mushy, slimy and wretched.

I’m mildly ashamed to report that, though I have sampled England’s eels and toads, I have not yet tasted its Scotch eggs. Although this popular snack has impeccable credentials — upscale London department store Fortnum and Mason claims to have invented it — there’s no getting away from the fact it is a hard-boiled egg, wrapped in sausage meat, covered in breadcrumbs and then deep fried. My husband implores me to try them, but I have managed to fob him off for the past seven years, convinced that only an Englishman born and bred could possibly enjoy eating something that resembles an eyeball rattling loose in its socket.

I did come close. After I photographed the scotch eggs for my project looking at English foods, I wrapped them up, planning to try them ceremoniously with a very large beer chaser when I returned from work. To my delight, before I returned home, my husband had found them so irresistible that they had disappeared.

Another omission is the unfortunately-named spotted dick. I’m told it’s a sponge-based desert, inevitably served with custard. Despite once being a staple of English dining, it has strangely vanished from most modern menus. For me, and perhaps for other visitors nervously exploring London’s culinary delights this summer, this is for the best.