Thursday, June 26, 2008

London: Not a Wasteland

Even though the rest of us have long recognized that England is not a culinary wasteland, the French seem to hold on rather desperately to outmoded stereotypes.  “In London, in England, what do they have?  They have nothing.  I mean, a gastronomic heritage.  No, but anyway, apart from pudding, biscuits, there’s not much, you know?” said Gilles Ajuelos, chef of Paris’s acclaimed La Bastide Odéon, told me late last year without a trace of irony.

With all due respect to Chef Ajuelos, there is actually quite a bit apart from pudding and biscuits in London.  I hopped on the Eurostar this past weekend, and, in addition to excellent Spanish, Swedish, and German food (London’s international restaurant scene is far better than Paris’s), I enjoyed a couple of excellent traditional English meals. 

The first was at Chimes, an English restaurant, pub and (unexpectedly) wine bar in Pimlico.  The weather was behaving decidedly non-Englishly on Sunday afternoon, so my companion and I avoided the slightly glum interior and enjoyed the sunlight at a table on the sidewalk.  We skipped the wine and instead started with a pitcher one of Chimes’s five tap ciders, which proved dangerously drinkable.  For lunch, we ordered a stew of cod and haddock that appeared, on first glance, gray and gluey. A few cheerless croutons strewn on top did not raise my hopes.  However, the stew, whose broth had been enlivened by the addition of cider and cheddar, was rich and flavorful, and the steamed potatoes, zucchini and red cabbage served alongside provided a nice light counterpoint.

My second English meal, in a much more downscale setting, was at the Covent Garden location of a U.K. chain called The West Cornwall Pasty Company (and please do click on that link; their overwrought pirate-themed website is worth seeing).  My Londoner friend Ralf, a pasty enthusiast and veritable fount of trivia, told me that pasties were first created for tin miners, who, to avoid inadvertently consuming arsenic on their lunch break, ate the meat-and-potato interior of the pasty and threw away the crust.  Not the most propitious recipe origin, perhaps, but The West Cornwall Pasty Company has done its best to outstrip its working-class heritage.  Though the upstairs seating area has a fittingly dark and gloomy ambiance, the pasty menu includes such untraditional fillings as curried chicken and cheese-tomato-basil.  I went for a steak and stilton “oggy,” as they’re sometimes called, and was discouraged by its Hot Pocket-esque appearance.  But the pastry was flaky, the beef tender, the cheese savory but not too strong.  Its solidity was perfect after an afternoon of overindulging in cider, but I still wasn’t able to finish the whole thing. (Ralf happily took over the job for me.)

English cuisine is modest and homely, not sexy or showy like its French counterpart.  But behind its humble exterior lie character and comfortableness.  In short, English food isn’t pretty, but it’s got a pleasant personality, especially after a couple of beers.

And no, I’m not going to draw the obvious parallel between English food and English people.  There's no need to hold on to outmoded stereotypes.

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