Bubble and Squeak: England’s Comeback Cuisine Makes Its Mark
I hear gunshots, followed by yips from spaniels as they dash to retrieve the downed pheasants. I am ankle-deep in the mud-slicked farmstead nestled in the rustic Somerset Mendip Hills-a far cry from Buckingham Palace, Savile Row or the National Gallery. I am in the "real" England and it's not for the faint of heart.
"Hope you don't mind," chirps Neil Worley, proprietor and chief doer at Worley's Cider, as we slop through the muck to the cider house abutting the hunter-dotted field across the stream. "We open the property to local hunters a few times a year, and today's the pheasant hunt."
This is England, where Normans conquered, Shakespeare scribed and country people hunt.
While previously we Americans (OK, maybe just me) might have been jealous of the British for their dry sense of humor, their gin, their literary past, their sense of pageantry and history and their sartorial splendor, we were always confident in one thing: Our food was better.
No more. From Michelin-starred delights in both town and country to homey pies and gourmet pasties; with upstart home breweries, vineyards gaining international acclaim for sparkling wine and a hotly brewing coffeehouse culture, the British culinary scene is not on its way -- it has arrived.
Cider House Rules
When I duck shivering into Worley’s cider house, surrounding by gurgling vats of sour-smelling fermenting apple juice, I appreciate how quintessentially British this eating and drinking evolution is. They’re not tackling new culinary cultures. They’re re-visiting and refining their own into something truly special.
Hard (alcoholic) cider is a longstanding UK tradition --Brits, Welshmen and Scots consume more than 150 million gallons per year, the most in the world. The West Country, the southwestern counties including Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Somerset, is best known for the stuff.
Neil Worley started his eponymous cider operations from his Somerset barn (two-and-a-half hours west of London) after he and his wife, Helen, left their publishing careers for the country life with their children. With a thriving distribution network in England, he’s currently seeking U.S. distributors for his traditional West Country cider.
The small-batch cider is quite dry, lightly fizzy and crystal clear. Worley produces several variations, all with moderate alcohol content between approximately 5.4 and 6.3 percent and with a delicate and well-balanced blend of sweet-tart and sour apple flavors.
Huddled in the cozy kitchen of the Worley’s 16th-century farmhouse, complete with a brace of colorful but dead pheasants hanging by the gate (a parting gift from the visiting hunters), the ciders pair perfectly with an award-winning Cheddar from the local Gould’s Batch Farm Cheesemakers.
Despite the chill and dampness of a typical winter English day, the cider manages to be both refreshing and warming, a perfect analogy for the resurgence of Britain’s bespoke culinary scene.
Your Very Own English Country House
While the mud-between-my-toes reality of Somerset was delightful, I have to say I was looking forward to a proper "English country house," hot toddies and bubbly. The approach to the Dorcester Collection’s Coworth Park-its creamy white exterior and pitch-perfect mansard roof and gables rising graciously from the surrounding greens-is an eyeful.
Just up the road from Windsor Castle and nearby Ascot (of the race course, darling), Coworth Park may not match the baronial footprint of Downton Abbey, but this Georgian manse boasts not one but two private polo fields. Of course. To say Coworth is a five-star retreat puts it mildly. From its on-site spa to its elegant rooms with heated floors and standing tubs or the stylishly converted stables-cum-cottages, the Coworth House precisely fits the bill of a British oasis in the country.
Gracious yet unobtrusive staff mesh seamlessly with the sumptuous yet tasteful furnishings. The grounds of Coworth Park looks quite traditional, but inside it’s a lovingly eccentric combination of stylish country and elegant funky. The accents in orange are striking, down to the leather-lined elevators and staircase railings.
As for food, Coworth Park brings it. The main Restaurant Coworth Park delivered meal after meal that features a "Best of Britain" theme. The extensive tasting dinner menu kicked off with a glass of the 2009 Gusbourne Estate Blanc de Blancs. Well-balanced with beautifully integrated oak and made in the traditional French method, this sparkler from Kent could easily hold its own with a proper Champagne. (If you can find a Gusbourne or another British bubbly in the United States, it’s definitely worth a try.)
The Hand & Flowers
Nearby in tony Marlow lies one of England’s most vaunted restaurants: The Hand & Flowers, a gastropub that was the first in Britain to earn two Michelin stars.
Opened in 2005 by Chef Tom Kerridge and his wife, Beth, The Hand & Flowers has garnered a devoted following and launched Kerridge into celebrity chef territory. He was a standout on Britain’s foodie reality TV show, "Great British Menu," and has gone on to judge and guest-star on various programs and recently host his own show.
A big fella, Kerridge is an affable West Country chef with a ready grin and an enthusiastic handshake. After a career in upscale restaurants, he and his wife decided they wanted to open their own place, but they were set on opening a casual pub with a focus on high-quality British ingredients and dishes.
"Just because it’s a pub doesn’t mean the food has to be rubbish," Kerridge says in his characteristic unpretentious style. Despite near-impossible to snag reservations and a wait for every service, Kerridge is "still terrified every day that no one is going to show up."
It’s that commitment to excellence that drives The Hand & Flowers to deliver truly British cuisine, updated and upgraded and paired with attentive service. The Scotch Egg (a hard-cooked egg wrapped in sausage, dredged in breadcrumbs and cooked to a crispy shell) was lovely, and the duck-fat fries really hit the spot. Be warned, though: This is definitely still a country pub, with low ceilings, crowded tables and hard wooden chairs that belie the price tag.
A Royal Warrant
A visit to Britain doesn’t come cheap these days. The pound remains strong versus the dollar, and it’s even more keenly felt when I trade the country life for the bright (yet still tasteful) lights of London.
That restaurants in London are good should surprise no one anymore. That they were ever bad in the first place is a mystery, though.
For hundreds of years, some of London’s most eminent food purveyors have earned royal warrants, the gilded badges of honor indicating that the establishment has provided goods or services to the leading royals such as the queen or the Prince of Wales.
Nothing proclaims English quality so loudly as a warrant and a visit to the establishments that have earned them. A quick "Royal Warrant Walk" is akin to shopping on New York’s Madison Avenue, with boldface-named shops and brands heralding themselves in a uniquely British combination of subtle ostentation.
A visit to London simply isn’t complete without a stop at the formidable Fortnum & Mason, the grande dame department store/grocery established in 1707 in Piccadilly, with its first-floor food stalls groaning with delectables. Fortnum’s came of age during the Georgian era. The shop’s role in the growing global trade industry put it at the forefront of importing unique foods and wares found nowhere else. It’s still a beacon of British imperialism-Queen Elizabeth II, her daughter-in-law the Duchess of Cornwall and the Duchess of Cambridge celebrated the queen’s Diamond Jubilee there in 2012 with the opening of a tea salon.
Another royal warrant holder, though, won my vote as the best purveyor of rose and violet creme chocolates, one of the perhaps most British of British bon-bons: Prestat, the chocolatier located in the nearby Princes Arcade.
Though only officially established in 1902, Prestat has earned warrants from both the Queen and the former Queen Mum, who Director Nick Crean says was "especially fond" of their violet and rose cremes. With its flamboyant pink and blue boxes, Prestat is gaining a following in the United States at specialty retailers across the country.
One British brand we see more commonly in the U.S. is Twinings Tea. But when you walk into the original Twinings shop on London’s Strand, founded in 1706, it takes on an entirely different gravitas. Queen Victoria granted Twinings its initial royal warrant in 1837.
Tea Specialist Mark Nicholls expertly spoons, swirls and swishes various examples of the more than 200 permanent blends the company produces in 115 countries, but he’s not precious about it. When pressed, he rattles off the specifics of what he’s brewing-1 gram of tea to 100 grams of water, water at 199 degrees Fahrenheit for black tea, 185 degrees Fahrenheit for white teas-but he brings a brisk sense of business to his craft. "With every good tea, you can get multiple steepings of progressively larger times," he says, with a wink and a nod to the penny pinchers among us.
A Proper Cup of... Coffee?
While most people consider tea to be quintessentially English, the coffee scene in London is percolating out of control, and I’m not talking about Starbucks. The London Coffee Guide is akin to Zagat for independent coffee shops, with tasters rating hundreds of independent coffee cafs, carts and kiosks.
The laid-back tea ceremony at Twinings is a far cry from the coffee cupping primer conducted by Climpson & Sons, one of the top-ranked names in joe. The Climpson & Sons caf and roaster is based in East London, London’s answer to Brooklyn’s shabby-chic DUMBO neighborhood (the area comes complete with hip movie star-homeowners such as Michael Fassbender and Keira Knightly).
In addition to its packed caf, Climpson also provisions more than 200 of the country’s best restaurants, including London’s The Ivy, The Hawksmoor and Viajante.
Influenced by Australian roasters (Wait. They drink coffee in Australia, too?), the team at Climpson puts on a coffee-tasting that surpasses most wine-tastings I’ve done, and I’m a certified sommelier.
Tom Haigh, the head trainer who works with retailers and restaurants on getting their staffs up to snuff with brewing the dark stuff, is almost reverential when talking about the relationship between the farmers and the coffee in your cup.
"About 2,000 hours of work go into each cup of coffee," Haigh says, monk-like as he expertly manhandles an espresso machine. "We treat the coffee with respect to do the farmer justice."
This quiet fanaticism seemed to exemplify today’s British epicureans. Between the arrival of His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge, the Queen’s 60th jubilee and the 2012 Olympics, national pride is riding high. There’s an overwhelming sense of confidence and optimism among the foodies bringing new products and services to market, and it’s introducing an entirely new facet to appreciating all things British.
Eat. Drink. Go.
Worley’s Cider House
Gould’s Batch Farm Cheesemakers
Dorcester Collection’s Coworth Park
The Hand & Flowers
Fortnum & Mason
The London Coffee Guide
Climpson & Sons
Town Hall Hotel