high-minded drivel

high-minded (adjective) - refined; cultured; particularly civilized. drivel (noun) - senseless talk; nonsense.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Summer Vacation Part IV: Dining In Style Across The Pond (or, It's Difficult To Eat When You Have Your Shirt Over Your Nose)

The French are truly craftsmen when it comes to confections.
Yes, this toolbox is made of chocolate.
Despite being a first-time international traveler while on my trip to France and the UK, I expect that someone who has traveled internationally with some frequency still maintains the same enthusiasm I had for sampling the cuisine abroad.  Seeing art and the countryside and engaging in athletic endeavors is all well and good, but in the end, life is about the daily cycle of obtaining sustenance, replenishing your energy stores, and imparting to your body its nutritional needs.  And at least in Paris, that may or may not mean a foot-long hot dog on French bread, smothered in three kinds of cheese.

While the title of this post alludes to food that smells bad, or, as the case may be, reeks like rotting flesh, it could just as easily have been titled "Will It Float?"  If you aren't aware, the phrase/question "Will It Float" is the title of a recurring comedic segment on The Late Show with David Letterman during which Dave and his crew drop various objects into a pool of water, with great fanfare, to see if the objects will float.  And although the segment is absolutely absurd, which is the whole point, there is some anticipatory build-up for each object to see if it floats.  And just as there is this ongoing, amused curiosity among the audience members at the Late Show to see if various objects will float, there is a similar ongoing, amused curiosity when dining abroad.  Of course, the question being asked when dining abroad is not "Will if float," but "Will it taste good?"

With that question in mind, and applying the same anticipation that is exhibited in the "Will It Float?' segment on the Late Show (because you really aren't sure if something will float or not), let's take a look at a few of the culinary delights that Jen and I sampled as international travelers...

First, you start with a base of French bread.  Then you add
a hot dog.  Then you add cheese.  Then you serve it on a
fancy white dish, because you're in Paris.
French bread: Freshly baked bread, the staple of the French diet.  There really wasn't much question about whether or not this would taste good, and it really isn't an especially unique food item to write about, but a blog post about the food in France would simply not be complete without acknowledging French bread.  It's like every psychology class you've ever taken - no matter how many times you've heard about him, and no matter how uninteresting his theories may be at this point, the class would not be complete without an acknowledgment of Sigmund Freud.  But unlike Freud, French bread actually has some substance behind it.  In fact, it's totally legit.  When people try something and say "I could eat this every day for the rest of my life," they usually don't mean it.  But I think I really could eat French bread every day for the rest of my life.  It's exceedingly nice to get up in the morning, go across the street, buy your baguette for the day, and immediately tear off a warm hunk to masticate on it a bit.  I firmly believe that the human race would be 15-18% happier on average if everyone had French bread as part of their daily diet.  When you go out in the morning in Paris, businessmen walking down the street don't have a newspaper sticking out of their briefcases - they have baguettes.  Without a doubt, the rumors are true: French bread is an essential part of life in France.

We'll see your croissant, and raise you.....thiiiis
French pastries: Most of the places that bake and sell French bread in Paris also sell pastries.  And we're not just talking about some cookies and muffins.  These are fancy pastries, with multiple layers, expertly placed pieces of fruit, cream fillings, and flaky crusts that are eminently appealing to the eye.  And they all taste delicious.  But the thing is, although I view them as being fancy from my American point of view, they aren't really anything special in Paris.  The boulangeries are on every street in the city, and as far as I can tell, if you're going to be considered a legitimate shop owner, you need to have the fancy pastries.  In America, a shop that had pastries like these would be something special.  But not in Paris.  So, with all these buttery, sugary pastries in bountiful supply, how is it that the French are not all morbidly obese?  Well, for one thing, people walk to get to places.  But perhaps more significantly, people aren't getting a case of 12 Krispy Kremes to scarf down.  The pastries are small, and you really wouldn't want to eat more than one.  Something about the whole atmosphere makes moderation much more satisfying.  Maybe it's because the few things you are eating taste really good, so you aren't trying to make up for a lack of quality with an overly generous quantity.  Hey, funny how that works!

This horse took one whiff of some French
cheese, which had the unfortunate consequence
of freezing the horse in place forever, with an expression
of revulsion permanently fixed on its face
Stinky French cheese: So, about that rotting flesh...... Certainly not all French cheeses are foul-smelling and vile, but make no mistake, there is such a thing as stinky French cheese.  And "stinky" is a cute, tame adjective to use.  We had a cheese with dinner one night that was simply wasted as part of the meal, because although technology has advanced through history, surely there is still some siege warfare being waged somewhere in the globe.  Enemies holing up in a castle?  Oh, no problem, just get a few hunks of French cheese, launch it over the walls, and they'll be making a swift exit in no time.  That is, if you can even bear the stench of it while loading it on the trebuchet.  This was the kind of cheese that prompts a reaction, rather involuntary, of "My god!!!"  Now, before going over to France I thought it would be prudent to read up a bit on French culture.  You know, get a few of the essential tidbits firmly in mind so that I didn't make a complete ass of myself.  One of the tidbits I read was that you have to be open-minded about the cheese, and that you can't judge a cheese on smell alone.  Rather, you should display some cultural moxie by at least trying the cheese, even when it smells horrible.  So, following this sage advice, I decided that I needed to man up and actually eat some of the stinky cheese that had literally made me step away from it due to the smell.  Problem was, after inserting the cheese in my mouth, things didn't get better.  In fact, the smell was just in my mouth at that point, having even better access to my nasal passages.  There are some things, like bad movies or bad books, or yes, even bad foods, that after trying them and finding them to be despicable, you want a friend to try them just so that they can support your assessment and share in the experience.  But this cheese was so bad that it surpasses even this social phenomenon, and I would probably tackle a friend who was about to sample it to prevent them from being subjected to the horror.

This poor man, as you might guess, smelled some French
cheese, careened over backward, and was instantly turned into
solid form for the rest of time
Microwave rabbit dinner: Not all of our dining experiences were at shops or cafes in France.  With Jen's apartment serving as a convenient home base, we also took great delight in purchasing some items at the store and taking them home to cook dinner for ourselves.  And in making our choices at the store, we of course gravitated toward items that seemed suitably French.  One such item we found was a microwave dinner (and remember, we're in France, so this isn't a Hungry Man dinner), but rather than containing chicken or beef or pork, it had rabbit.  Or, to be exact, lapin.  And wouldn't you know, it was quite good!  It floated!  Now, I wouldn't say that the standard American microwave dinner is really that bad, as it does hold a certain satisfy-the-hunger, heavy-on-the-sodium kind of appeal, resulting mostly from our attraction to extreme convenience.  But I also wouldn't say that it's some great marvel of the kitchen, and certainly not a "treat."  You wouldn't invite people over for dinner and then bring out some plastic trays fresh from the microwave to serve to your guests.  So, in finding the microwave rabbit dinner in France to be so enjoyable, I have to believe that my impression was influenced to some extent by the context and the fun of buying groceries and then making dinner in a foreign country.  However, I can't know this for sure without a repeat test, so all I can say for now is that the rabbit dinner gets positive marks.

Ale and pie.  Not bad England, not bad.
Moving from France to Britain, we entered into a realm that was much more reliant on gravy.  Truly, the cuisine of the United Kingdom pales in comparison to that of its comrade across the Channel, but that didn't stop us from indulging with great delight in all that England and Wales had to offer.  In fact, we developed a list of things that seemed distinctly British and set ourselves firmly to the task of tracking them down.  And what better to start such a list with than fish n' chips?!  Nothing, obviously, and so as we approached the conclusion of our time in London on the first day after coming over from Paris, we sought out a traditional English pub where we could find this old standby.

As previously noted, the title of this post could easily have been "Will It Float?", but the truth is that a third, equally viable alternative was available: "Difficulty Finding Things."  Yes, in downtown London of all places, we searched in vain for some time to find a proper pub that served fish n' chips.  In fact, our difficulty finding the items on our list became a bit of a theme for our time in the UK, for a variety of reasons.  It was like these supposedly common foods were rare treasures, discovered only after extensive searching and painstaking research.  Starting with our fish n' chips search, here is a list of some of the places we came across, only to be disappointed:

The Smuggler's Tavern - This place was most promising, and therefore the most disappointing.  Our disappointment was heightened by the fact that we had already searched for a bit, passing on one place in hopes of something better, and this place rose up before us like the holy grail.  The exterior was complete with a wooden statue of a smuggler over the door, the windows were block glass and smoky, and the tables inside were old and battered.  However, much to our surprise, as we pulled up some chairs and sat down to inspect the menu, we discovered that The Smuggler's Tavern, despite all appearances, was a Thai restaurant serving Lard Na, Pad Thai, and various other entrees incorporating noodles or rice.  That is, nothing even resembling fish n' chips.

Carrington's Ales - This placed looked like a good option, and with the disappointment count rising, would have been a most welcome find, since it looked to be not only a place that would serve fish n' chips, but also a proper pub.  We arrived at the door, looked inside, and saw.....office furniture.  It's not clear whether this was a former pub converted into an office space, or perhaps the corporate headquarters of Carrington's Ales, but it was clear that there was no food or ale (Carrington's or otherwise) to be had there.

The Lukin - This place seemed a little too fancy for our liking, judging from the patio furniture and framed menu outside, but our train departure was coming up fast, and the place at least seemed to be a pub-style establishment.  We never got to experience it though, because they were not serving food at the mid-afternoon hour when we were there.  Unlike in America, where eating establishments are open all hours, and serve food during all those hours they are open, the places in the UK have limited serving hours.  You can get a meal at breakfast time, lunch time, and dinner time, but not in-between.  Sure, you can drink to your heart's content all day long, and many pubs seem to be solely for drinking, not serving food at all, but the search for some sustenance can be more difficult than you would expect, depending on when you're looking.

The Prince of Wales Feathers - This was actually the first place we stopped, and it looked a bit suspect from the start, not because it was dimly lit, furnished with rickety chairs and tables, and marked with a wooden board hanging over the door (that's what we wanted), but because it was the opposite of those things.  It looked sophisticated.  And upon checking the menu outside, this suspicion was confirmed.  Rather than fish n' chips, this place had "beer battered haddock and minted mushy peas."

Finally we arrived at the Tower Tavern, where food was being served, the ambience was appropriate (they had a sign posted about not being too rowdy when leaving the pub at night, suggesting that people are frequently rowdy when leaving the pub at night), and they had regular, non-fancy fish n' chips on the menu.  With regular, non-minted mushy peas.  Which brings us to our next item on our tour du food...

Mushy peas: This was something we'd never heard of before, but given the name, it was pretty obvious that it's not the kind of thing you want to try to dress up too much, which is part of the reason we were turned off by the Prince of Wales Feathers.  Mushy peas are pretty much exactly what they sound like.  You could accurately describe them as mushy peas, and leave it at that, but I'll try to hold forth on them for a bit longer here.  Mushy peas are kind of like a side dish of mashed potatoes, only they're peas, and consequently, are green.  You can put some salt and butter on them, but not too much, because peas have more natural flavor than potatoes (in my opinion).  It's really a very pleasing side dish, and it makes a lot of sense for a place like London, where you can expect that on almost a daily basis you're going to get soaked with rain and want some warming comfort food for dinner to cheer you up.

Steak and kidney pie: Our day in Welshpool was highlighted by walking around the one-street downtown, where there are an amazing abundance of pubs, but as suggested in the last paragraph, none of them serve food, or at least they don't serve it in the mid-afternoon.  This turned out to be especially fortunate, because it led us to stop into a little fish n' chips take-out place.  But having satisfied our quest for fish n' chips earlier, we selected other options from the menu, and specifically some steak and kidney pie.  This was served in a little foil container, unceremoniously flipped upside down on a pile of chips fresh from the fryer and covered with salt and vinegar, then wrapped in butcher paper.  With a pint to wash it all down, we were set, and were quite simply transported to heights of rapture with this cheap and utterly satisfying meal.  To give you an idea of how enjoyable this meal turned out to be, please see the series of pictures below that were taken as we ate.  Only upon later examination did we realize our true level of obliviousness to our surroundings at the time.  I will add some captions to re-enact the scene as it may have occurred:

Jen: Hey, let's take a picture of lunch!
Me: Good idea!  Here, I'll flip the pie over first, then take the picture...
Me: Man, this is so freakin' good!
Jen: I know!  Let me take another picture...
(Background): Screeeeeeech THUD
Jen: That steak and kidney pie is surprisingly good! It really hits the spot!
Me: I know!  And these chips are just so...so delicious!
(Background): Is that woman okay?!  My god, that car just ran her over!
Jen: Okay, one more picture!  Say "salt and vinegar!"
Me: Nom nom nom
(Background): I think she's alright!  She's....she's getting up!  Amazing!
Crumpets: Between Welshpool and our destination for the bog snorkeling triathlon, we had to make a brief stop in Shrewsbury to transfer trains.  Not wanting to waste the 30 minutes we had in the town, we set off with the intent of finding some crumpets to take with us.  Crumpets, another traditional English food that surely they have in great supply anywhere you look, right?  Well, not really.  Our difficulties finding crumpets in Shrewsbury were two-fold.  First, it was once again one of those inconvenient times of the day, when places are either not serving or closed.  Second, places just didn't seem to be serving crumpets like you would expect.  Finally, with the time winding down to our departure (this was the first 'run to catch the train' moment, discussed in my previous post), we stopped in at a grocery store and found a package of the things.  Crumpets can probably best be compared to a sweet English muffin.  And now that I think of it, maybe an "English muffin" is really just our term for a crumpet, especially considering that we call it an "English" muffin.  Anyway, the crumpets were surprisingly satisfying, even plain, and would have been really tasty if toasted with some butter and jam. This belief was reinforced by the text on the package, which said "Great when toasted with butter and jam."

Laverbread: Contrary to what you might think, laverbread is not bread.  It's also not a pastry, or a pie, or anything that involves flour or baking.  Laverbread represented the epitome of the "Will it float" experience, being a real mystery food that we wanted to try.  And with laverbread, the answer to "Will it float" is an unequivocal "Yes," at least in a literal sense, because laverbread is seaweed.  Like the fish n' chips and crumpets that came before, our search for laverbread was extensive and difficult, despite promises made online that laverbread was popular and plentiful.  We finally found it at the Cardiff Central Market in downtown Cardiff, and had it in conjunction with a standard English breakfast, which we'll get to in a moment.  The laverbread was kind of like extra-cooked spinach, very gloppy.  It tasted okay, especially when taken with other food of more firm consistency, but it's probably not the kind of thing you would order regularly.  It stinks a bit, and despite the possible nutritional value it holds, nobody wants to have laverbreath! (pause for laughter)

The stuff in the upper right is laverbread.  The stuff in the
lower left is black pudding.  That sound you hear is your
stomach growling.
Black pudding: During our search for the laverbread, we came across black pudding, and were pleased to find that it was included as part of the laverbread breakfast we ordered.  Black pudding is like laverbread in that the name is fairly misleading.  You don't eat black pudding with a spoon, it isn't sweet, and you certainly wouldn't find it in the Jello aisle in your local grocery store.  Instead, you eat black pudding with a fork, it is very salty, and one of the main ingredients is blood.  Blood, and a conglomeration of ground up meat, shaped into patties.  Black pudding is okay, but again, probably not something you would order too frequently.  If you're concerned about leaving black pudding out of your breakfast because you want some kind of meat to go with your breakfast, fear not.  The traditional English breakfast, which we had in both Welshpool and Cardiff, includes multiple kinds of meat and protein.  First there is bacon, which is halfway between American bacon and ham.  Then there is sausage.  Then you have eggs.  To have black pudding with all of this is kind of like saying "Well, we took the parts to make the bacon and sausage already, so we may as well mash together the rest and put that on the plate too."  With toast, mushrooms, maybe some tomatoes, and perhaps some laverbread on top of it all, you've got yourself a pretty substantial tuck-in, and there won't be much need to eat again until late in the day.  Which is good, because you might not be able to find a place that's serving food in the middle of the day.

Guess what hobbitses - you won't be having
any elevensies here!  We don't serve until noon!
Welsh rarebit: The last item to mention is Welsh rarebit, a simple cheese-on-toast dish which we enjoyed at a fine pub called The Cottage in downtown Cardiff.  Cardiff is historically a gritty, industrial city that has made efforts in more recent years to become modern, so many of the places we saw downtown were more "hip" than olde timey, but The Cottage was a traditional pub, with friendly service, great beers, and food that was both tasty and timely, like rarebit.  I think it's fun to say "rarebit," and it seems that the term has evolved from the word rabbit, not because of any involvement of actual rabbit, but because in times past, poor Welsh people couldn't afford to have meat, and thus their "meat," or as it were, their rabbit, was actually cheese.  Some people think that the word rarebit is now used so that people don't get confused by the word rabbit and think they are getting actual rabbit, only to find themselves with cheese for dinner.  And indeed, rarebit is nothing more than cheese melted over toast, perhaps with some spices added.  The rarebit at The Cottage was very good, and I'd order it again.  Since it may be some time before I make a return trip to Wales, my next rarebit experience, should I have one, will likely be in the U.S. or another country.  But given that rarebit is just cheese over toast, it's probably a safe bet no matter where you order it.

That is, unless you're in France.

I felt compelled to include this picture somewhere, because it is one of my absolute favorite pictures from the trip.  It was taken at the place where we got the laverbread breakfast, so the obvious caption for under the dog's head is "This is what happens when you eat a laverbread breakfast."

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