One of the things I love most about England is the food. Yep, I am THAT committed of an Anglophile. But English food gets a bad rap. It may not be thought of as dazzlingly innovative or exotic (or flavorful), but people who think the English don’t know how to eat haven’t been looking in the right places. There are things the English do better than ANYONE.
First, breakfast. There are few pleasures on earth as sublime as a full English breakfast. I got my fix at a pub called The Sanctuary, right around the corner from Westminster Abbey. (It’s a perfect location if you’re sightseeing near the houses of Parliament). The pub itself is lovely–think Georgian rather than Tudorish with high ceilings and light paint and mirrors instead of low beams–and the full English on a Sunday morning is a thing of beauty. Eggs, toast, beans, mushrooms, tomatoes, bacon, and Cumberland sausages. (My inability to get good Cumberland sausages in this country is a source of continuing sadness.) I asked them to leave off the blood pudding–because even my Anglophilia doesn’t stretch that far–but fans of Cajun blood sausage will feel right at home. It was beautifully cooked and utterly delicious and I need to stop writing about it this instant because I’m actually drooling on the keyboard.
Next, tea nibblies. No one surpasses the English at yummy things to eat with tea. Whether you want a plain scone, a cream tea, sandwiches, the English have you covered. For the record, high tea is not a fancy tea. High tea is what laboring folk used to eat after work and it consisted of more substantial food than we usually associate with teatime. In some places it’s even called “meat tea” because the food might be a chop. American hotels and restaurants persist in using the phrase “high tea” but what they really mean is “full tea”–sweets, sandwiches, and savories like tiny quiches. While I appreciate a cucumber sandwich as much as the next girl, a nice cream tea is my favorite. The sweet pastries served with a full tea are usually too sweet for me, but a scone with jam and double cream is just the thing. There’s a wee bit of sweetness from the fruit in the scone and the jam, while the double cream–also called clotted cream, Devon cream, Cornish cream–supplies the indulgence factor. I can never eat more than one loaded scone, and a good cream tea will keep you going for HOURS.
Often with tea comes a cake called a Victoria sponge, a light vanilla sponge cake split and slathered in jam and custard. While it’s perfectly yummy, it falls into the category of “too sweet” for me. For afternoon tea at the Cellarium at Westminster Abbey, they pop a tiny fairy cake version onto the tray, and that’s the perfect amount of Victoria sponge for me. Otherwise it usually arrives in a substantial slab that is best shared between two people.
The English are also inordinately talented at fish and chips, a dish I’m told they stole from the Portuguese. I never had a bad plate the entire time I was there, although the inevitable accompaniment of mushy peas takes a little getting used to. Good fish and chips is crisp and hot, NOT greasy, and it’s immensely comforting, like nursery food for grown-ups. I had a surprisingly good plate at the Tower of London cafe during a torrential downpour that politely lasted only as long as I was eating my lunch and stopped just as I stepped back outside.
The other meal the English do to perfection is the Sunday roast lunch. Our last meal in England was in a pub called the Duchess of Cambridge. It’s nestled at the foot of Windsor Castle, and the pub itself is bright and modern–a perfect spot to grab a drink after you’ve done the obligatory sight-seeing. But if you can possibly arrange it, go on a Sunday and order the roast lunch. I opted for the beef–naturally–and it was one of the most delectable meals of my entire life. The vegetables tasted as if the chef had just plucked them out of the ground, the beef was tender, the Yorkshire pudding crisp, and the gravy was so unspeakably delicious, I almost had to stab my tablemates with my fork to get them to stop eating it. (They also do roasted chicken or pork loin for their Sunday lunch complete with trimmings, and the fish and chips which showed up at our table was also superb.) If I lived in Windsor, I wouldn’t ever cook; I’d just turn up at their doorstep every day and beg them to feed me.
But even the most delicious English food can leave you longing for a little something from home, and any time I travel for more than a week, I find myself craving a good burger or a pizza. Even there, London has you covered. Near Piccadilly and the gorgeous shops on Regent Street, the enclave of Kingly Court is a must-do for the hungry traveler. There are loads of restaurants and bars catering to every taste–even Peruvian! We opted for Pizza Pilgrims for pizzas straight from the wood-burning oven, and they were so good we went back another night, happily sitting on the drizzly patio just to get a second helping of the smoky, yeasty, tomatoey goodness. The pizzas are beyond fresh, and the arancini–fried balls of rice and tomato–are a splendid appetizer.
Another evening, we had cocktails in Kingly Court at Cahoots, a theme bar straight from WWII London’s Underground. It was fun and colorful with divine cocktails, and totally worth the effort to get in. (There’s no sign. You have to KNOW about Cahoots and make reservations in advance to get directions and a password. The same company runs Mr. Fogg’s, a Victorian steampunk bar in Mayfair we were dying to try, but they have a strict over-21 policy and one of our party was juuuuust underage.) I ordered something called a Gypsy’s Kiss, and it completely changed my mind about gin. Desperate to soak up the liquor, we asked our waiter for recommendations and he pointed us to Byron Burger, a small chain of burger joints dotted about the city. I ordered a Chilli Queen burger, and now I cry on a regular basis because I can’t get it here in the States. IT’S THAT GOOD. Not only are the burgers spectacular, but where else can you get a spiked milkshake? (I strongly recommend the chocolate with a shot of bourbon.)
Finally, if you’re at Harrod’s–and honestly, who isn’t at some point?–speed past the bustling bartop restaurants in the Food Hall and make straight for Galvin Demoiselle instead. It’s perched up a short flight of stairs, hovering over the teeming masses of shoppers, a quiet oasis where you can sip a glass of cold Prosecco and nibble some marcona almost while you admire the flowers across the way at Moyses Stevens.