England will have to cope with its steaming heat without me, now that I’m settled back in sunny Colorado where the nights are cool and the fresh mountain air breezes through my home (Sorry, Brits!)
But the memories I’ve returned with… memories of food, food shopping, foraging and eating, linger in my mind somewhat tainted by a sense of loss; I really wish that food in the US had the intensity of flavors that its UK counterparts seem to have!
For instance, if you sat an American strawberry next to its English cousin, your eye would doubtless gravitate towards the bigger, brighter US variety. But you’d be fooled. The perfumed juicy sweetness of a good British strawberry is beyond compare and may require a napkin under the chin to catch the squirt of juice. British blueberries taste better as well.
English summer river picnics are fabulous, particularly when it’s not raining. Waitrose is a high-class national supermarket chain and shopping there happens to be this particular foodie’s dream when planning a picnic.
Happiness for me is eyeballing a mind-boggling selection of British and European cheeses, proper chocolate, Scottish smoked salmon (superior to any other), good British ham, bite-sized Melton Mowbray pork pies (another traditional treat), strawberries with champagne-laced dunking cream; all washed down with a crisp, chilled rosé wine from Cotes de Provence (France) or, wait for it…Rose Lemonade!
My eyes almost flew out of my head when I spotted their display of ‘Fentiman’s Botanically Brewed Traditional Rose Lemonade; fermented with ginger and pure Bulgarian rose oil’; a pretty, pink non-alcoholic sparkler.
Needless to say I bought several bottles for our picnic and downed almost a whole bottle of it myself. Why can’t we get stuff like this in the US? Why do I have to schlep almost 200 miles to IKEA to buy Elderflower cordial? Flowers happen to flavor drinks and desserts wonderfully well and we don’t always want the alcoholic versions (St. Germain, etc). With that in mind and with the elderberry trees in full bloom around the country estate where I was a lucky guest for a few days, I grabbed scissors and a large bag and wandered around the perimeter of a freshly mowed hayfield early one morning, snipping off the whitest, freshest clusters.
Elderflower cordial is a cinch to make; that is if you’re in Europe because elderberry trees don’t grow in the US.
Never mind; I’m going to tell you how to make it anyway, just in case you visit Europe next June/July.
Feel free to skip this next bit and read on.
We planned to freeze most of the resulting concentrate in ice cube trays and drink the rest right away, so we didn’t bother adding citric acid. Less is more I think.
Add the zest of 4 medium-sized lemons (washed) to the cooled sugar syrup. Slice the lemons and add them as well.
If you’re making it to store in sterilized bottles, add 2 oz /55g of citric acid and stir well.
Gently dip approx 30 large heads of freshly gathered elderflower blossoms into a large bowl of cold water to remove any dust or small insects, shake off the excess water and add them to the lemon syrup water. Give everything a good stir and press it down with a weighted plate for 24-48 hrs at room temp. The intensity of the perfume it gives off will tell you when it’s done. Ours was good to go after one day.
Strain everything through a very fine mesh sieve or muslin and decant into bottles or ice cube trays for freezing. For our picnic, we added some to a large plastic bottle of sparkling water and relabeled it ‘Elderflower Pressé’.
Dining out was equally memorable in more ways than one.
Lunch at the Crabmill, a quaintly historic ‘gastro-pub’ on the fringes of Stratford-upon-Avon, had me tucking into a wonderfully unexpected ‘Assiette du Porc’ , consisting of pork done 3 ways; a tender chunk of braised pork cheek reclining on a bed of polenta, a slice of roasted pork belly with sautéed apple and a perfectly crisp stick of crackling, and my favorite of the three – fork-tender pork filet, perched atop a ‘cake’ of new potatoes, laced with black pudding (aka Boudin Noir, which I understand is a delicacy over here in the South and is also made from le porc; to call it blood sausage sounds unappetizing but you get the idea).
I don’t eat meat often but in this instance I was happy that my dining companions were mostly vegetarian as I’d have been loathed to share. My only regret was that I was so overwhelmed by the mouthwatering aroma, I dived in before remembering to take a pic – hence the minor disarray on the plate. It looked really impressive before I’d dug in.
Lunch in Central London on two consecutive days had me in one instance eating a wonderfully fresh salad nicoise, topped with silvery slivers of fresh anchovy; quite removed from its salty, oily, canned cousin. All washed down with another crisp rosé from Cotes de Provence. Café Rouge is a French bistro-style chain that’s consistently good.
I’d like to point out here that I was on holiday and I gave myself permission to drink wine at lunchtime. Ordinarily it would send me straight to sleep but I had very lively company.
Day two saw us at the top of Harvey Nichol’s overlooking Knightsbridge, ordering lunch in their champagne bar. Once again I opted for the salad nicoise, mainly because it’s my favorite salad and it’s never this good in Colorado. It was utter perfection but the (excellent) glass of Perrier Jouet Rosé that I washed it down with cost almost enough to feed an entire family for 4 days in the US.
Another highlight was discovering that my favorite local Fish n’ Chip shop in West Hampstead, The Nautilus, was still very much there. It was deserted that evening along with most of the streets, thanks to the Wimbledon men’s semi-finals and, because everyone was at home glued to their TV sets, we were well fussed over and enjoyed reminiscing about the good old days.
Happily, standards at The Nautilus have been totally upheld. Despite us being the only one’s there and because everything is made to order, we had to wait a bit for their home made pickles, minted mushy peas, perfect hot hand-cut chips as thick as your thumb and the crispy matzo-meal-battered, juicy fat-flaked fillet of fresh haddock. All sprinkled with a good dousing of malt vinegar, I was in haddock-heaven!
On the topic of fish – lunch at the trendy, bustling Villa Marina in Henley-On-Thames is consistently good, despite one small argument over why our order of halibut was in fact swordfish. I dislike swordfish and eat halibut frequently so when the owner argues that what I had on my plate was indeed halibut (when clearly it wasn’t), I put it down to the pressures of being overbooked and crammed with annual Regatta patrons sporting little sundresses and fascinators (don’t get me started. Google ‘Fascinator’) and men in stripey blazers. Once I’d traded my not-halibut for shrimp, all was well.
The only real gastro-blight took place at a small local eatery in West Hampstead (I forget the name) where my order of spaghetti alla puttanesca was interpreted as meaning I wanted slightly undercooked pasta, tossed with the entire contents of a jar of un-rinsed capers and two crumpled cherry tomatoes. Apparently it was “chef’s night off”. Anyway, they paid for everyone’s entrees which was nice for those tucking into veal filet, sautéed calves liver, etc… but as I was still reeling from a caper overload, all I could manage was a dish of Eton Mess – i.e. English strawberries folded together with crushed meringue and whipped cream; fortunately it was really good.
It’s probably just as well that I no longer live in the UK because I always return with a tighter-than-usual waistband. I don’t agree with dieting and always revert back to my normal size within 3 weeks.
On the other hand if I did live there, perhaps I’d eat more salads (although eating a kale salad is an alien concept in the UK) – and perhaps I’d only eat Fish and Chips once or twice a year and perhaps I’d steer clear of sticky toffee pudding, along with all those great British and French cheeses.
So perhaps until this time next year, it’ll be a return to “Pass the salad bowl please”.
Oh, and one last parting note; English roses are infinitely more fragrant!