There is no joke about British food that an American can tell that a British person hasn't heard.
Yes, everything is boiled to flavorlessness. No, we don't believe in vitamins. Yes, we think spices are weird and exotic. As the Chronicle's token Englishman, I've heard them all.
The sad truth is that, for a while, British food was among the best in Europe: It's just that the "while" was almost 500 years ago. Medieval England was rife with game birds, fresh fish, wild berries, and green leaves. Forget Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII, throwing half-chewed ham hocks to his dogs: The Middle Ages were a time of slow-stewed potage, griddle cakes, and poached meats sweetened with almonds and honey, then seasoned with elderflower, saffron, and cloves. Unfortunately, in the 19th century the Industrial Revolution happened, and the British relationship with food was ruined. Funnily enough, as America has also learned, moving the entire population into cities and having them work 16-hour days is not conducive to a healthy diet. But the international reputation of British food, assisted by the ubiquity on American TV of celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay, is improving. Bad imitations of hearty staples of the British dinner table are being replaced by high-quality re-creations that appeal to the American palate while still tasting authentic to expat Brits. So I set myself a simple quest: to find the best examples of British cooking in Austin.
The search began with the humble scone, and in Austin that means the fresh-baked scone set at the Steeping Room at the Domain (11410 Century Oaks Terrace, 977-8337). Rather than the triangular behemoth familiar from American bakeries, to a Brit a scone is circular and about the diameter of a teacup. The high butter content in the recipe means it stays moist but crumbly, which is the key to a good scone. Smeared liberally with locally produced preserves and imported Devonshire clotted cream and served with a fresh pot of tea, the classic British late afternoon snack has been re-created at the Steeping Room. Co-owner Emily Morrison explained, "I try to do my best to make a scone that Americans will recognize and British people won't think is a weird piece of cake." That's been a challenge because of the ingredients. Even though she uses high-quality local produce, it's the local part that causes issues. "Food in different countries tastes different," she said. "Dairy is processed differently; the minerals in the water are different."
The elegant little cafe has hints on its menu of all the great tea-drinking cultures, from Japan to the Middle East, but there's a personal element to the Anglicized authenticity for Morrison. "I lived in England for a while," she explained, "so it's important to me." When there, she said, "I had very bleached scones, but I've also had scones with a little more nuttiness and life to them." So in re-creating the best of the British she uses unbleached all-purpose flours with whole wheat pastry flour mixed in to give it "a fuller flavor. Yes, it's a little bit more healthy, but we're talking about a scone here."
While the scone is truly international, there are few pleasures as deeply and uniquely British as the pudding. While the word for Americans means mass-produced mousse in a cup, in the UK it's actually a whole school of cookery, covering everything from the batter-based roasted Yorkshire pudding to the chilled fruity pleasures of the summer pudding. The sweetest treat is the sponge pudding, traditionally slow-baked in a bain-marie or oven-baked, then served with either whipped cream or vanilla custard. Austin has become the nation's pudding capital, courtesy of UT grad and British expatriate Tracy Wilkinson-Claros and her firm, the Sticky Toffee Pudding Co. (stickytoffeepuddingcompany.com). She explained, "Everyone in England loves them so much, I just thought that perhaps people here in the States would too."
In six years, her little bakery has gone from a stall at the farmers' market to store shelves around the nation, including Whole Foods, with around 500,000 individual puddings sold a year. In 2007, her English Lemon Pudding won the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade's Specialty Outstanding Food Industry Award for Outstanding Baked Good, Baking Ingredient or Cereal. In a taste test around the Chronicle office, its delicious high tartness was a little much for those not raised on traditional English lemon curds, but her SOFI 2010-nominated sticky toffee pudding – highlighted with espresso and vanilla, drizzled with a toffee sauce – was demolished in moments. Like Morrison with her scones, it took Wilkinson-Claros some trial and error to get the recipes just right. "It's to do with the butter," she said. "It tends to have a higher water content and a lower fat content here, and it's hard to get good cream in big quantities." So did she have to alter the recipe to appease the famous American sweet tooth? "I've been asked that before," she said, "but it's plenty sweet enough. If anything, I've cut the sugar in the toffee sauce."
Tempting as the idea may be, man cannot live by dessert alone, and so the quest moved on to that other mainstay of British baked goods – the meat pie. This is often the British staple that Americans find most peculiar, but in the UK and much of the English-speaking world, it's the workers' lunchtime standard. Much like tacos in Texas, pies have traditionally been an effective way to stretch cheap ingredients a long way while cramming them into a self-contained crust – no plates here. As a UT graduate, I'd become well acquainted with Boomerang's Gourmet Veggie & Meat Pies (3110 Guadalupe, 380-0032, www.boomerangspies.com) on the Drag, whose gourmet re-creation of the Australian version of the English staple of steak and potato pie rings a culinary bell of familiarity – individually cooked, stuffed with slabs of beef, cubes of potato, just enough brown gravy to bind the filling together, and black pepper for the requisite warming kick. The real test, however, is texture. A proper meat pie should be dense underneath but topped with a flaky pastry level that leaves a trail of shardlike crumbs. After shaking out the bag I discovered that, yes, I looked like I needed sweeping down, so that test had been passed.
But a pie isn't enough for a full meal. In the U.S., British meals have become synonymous with pub grub, and pub grub has become synonymous with Irish bars. Actually, a lot of the food served in traditional Irish pubs would be a familiar sight on an English dinner table. No surprise, really, since the two nations are neighbors – swimming distance if you happen to be bold. The difference is in the name: In Ireland, leftover potatoes and cabbage fried in butter goes by the romantically Celtic name colcannon, but many Brits were weaned on it as bubble and squeak.
The newest addition to the English pub scene, the Lion & Rose British Restaurant & Pub (701 Capital of TX Hwy. S., 335-5466), is also one of those most authentic in its design, catching the wood-paneled charm of the traditional roadside inn. The San Antonio-based chain has also developed a reasonable reputation for a mixed menu of English and American bar food. There were, the waitress let on, a few concessions made to Texan taste buds. The thick traditional British potato chip had been replaced by crinkle-cut medallions, sweet potatoes don't grow in Sherwood Forest, and Hackney doesn't have hot wings, no matter what the menu says. But it was worth overlooking those little moments of descriptive license for what it got right. The shepherd's pie may have come with beef instead of lamb (which would technically make it a cottage pie), but the furrowed mashed potato topping was creamy and light, while the minced meat and carrot filling was hearty and filling. As for the crispy cod fillets, a quick splash of vinegar and a shake of salt and they'd pass muster in any good chip shop.
Yet real British pubs remain primarily drinking dens, with food being something you do either before you get there (to line the stomach) or after you've left (to absorb some beer). The big competition for the diner's pound is the post-pub curry. Emigrants from the nations of the Indian subcontinent – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal – make up the biggest ethnic group in the UK after the indigenous population, but their food has become the leading cuisine. How popular? Chicken tikka masala has overtaken fish and chips as the national dish. So if a Brit were looking for some homely comfort in Austin, he'd likely head to a curry house, of which Austin has plenty. Behind the unimposing strip mall frontage of the Taj Palace Indian Restaurant (6700 Middle Fiskville, 452-9959), proprietors Ajay and Kiran Behl serve arguably the best buffet in town and some of the lightest, fluffiest naan breads on this continent. The chefs at Star of India (2900 W. Anderson, 452-8199) know the way to a curry lover's heart is through the sweet tooth, so they serve excellently crafted desserts both heavy (gulab jamun, a dense milk-based pastry ball in a honey syrup) and light (the classic kulfi, ice cream flavored with cardamom and pistachio). But for the classic tikka masala as an Englishman expects it, it's hard to beat Sarovar Indian Cuisine (8440 Burnet Rd., 454-8636). Its version – marinated chicken, slow-cooked and served in a richly seasoned sauce of tomato and yogurt – would be as at home in Calcutta as it would on a table on London's famous Curry Row.
With a multiplicity of pubs and curry houses, what Austin is missing is a good old-fashioned greasy spoon. That's the delightful name for the British equivalent of blue-plate-special-style diners, and Shadrach Smith and his British-born wife, Alice, plan to bring that experience to town later this month when they open the Full English Cafe (www.fullenglishfood.com) on Manchaca Road. "Our tag line is 'British food, South Austin attitude," Smith said. "South Austin attitude is about tolerance, and British culture is about the four nations of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales coming together. So we're all about different kinds of people getting along and being creative about their differences."
The couple started cooking professionally two years ago after a particularly good English-style Christmas dinner. Shadrach explained, "We made sausage rolls and all kind of stuff, and [Alice] said, 'We should really start selling this.'" That following March, they started selling an array of homemade baked goods like pasties and pies, as well as English-style chutneys and preserves, at the Sunset Valley Farmers Market. As with the other Anglophile gastronomes, finding the right ingredients has been a challenge. Fortunately for them, Central Market carries salted butter ("You can't use unsalted. That was a big revelation," he said), East Austin's Kocurek Family Artisanal Charcuterie supplies them with traditional British-style lean back bacon, and they'll be going to their fellow farmers' market vendors for as many locally produced ingredients as possible. But even with quality ingredients, there's a catch. Smith said, "British recipes are by weight, not by measuring cups. You look at someone like Martha Stewart and you're supposed to know the consistency of the bread. But in British cooking, if you've got a pound of flour, then you've got a pound of flour."
So what about the cliché of tasteless British catering? "Every nation has their boring, bland, unhealthy food," Smith said. "What we say is that we've got the best of British."
The truth is, the best of British isn't an oxymoron. Sometimes it may be borrowed from other cultures, and sometimes it may be hidden under an Irish name or sold under an Australian sign, and sometimes what's available in Austin may be a good approximation, made with the closest possible ingredients. As for the bland and unhealthy part, truthfully, can the nation that invented the hot dog of unknown provenance ever sneer at the island that gave the world haggis? Of course not. So next time you tuck into fish and chips or sample a scone, raise a pint of a good imported beer to the little neighbor over the ocean.
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