Thursday, May 31, 2012

British groceries

The Brits have a bad reputation, food-wise: Americans either imagine that English food is blander than bland, or they think of the ubiquitous celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey and his aggressive snobbery.

For sure, the first time I visited the UK in 1987, the food lived up to stereotype: there were potatoes at virtually every meal, and when I got home I couldn't get enough spicy food. When Tom and I made our first trip to England together ten years later, in 1997, "Cool Brittania" under the recently elected Tony Blair was experiencing a food renaissance: the BBC seemed like it was airing nothing but cookery shows, and the bookshops were full of recipe books for all kinds of ethnic cuisines.

Things have only come further since then, and now it can be hard to find "traditional" British food, though the full English breakfast is still de rigeur. The last several times we've visited, we've opted for "self-catering flat" accommodation, and have cooked for ourselves. This includes the odd pleasures of British grocery shopping.

Here in Cambridge, we tend to split our shopping between the local market and one of the chain supermarkets like Sainsburys, Tesco, or Waitrose. Tonight's dinner is the result of such a mashup: leek and potato soup and salad made with things from the market square, a roast chicken from Sainsburys, heritage potatoes from Waitrose, and local asparagus from the town market, followed by local stawberries with single cream.

There are some groceries that are easily available at pretty much every shop that you'd have to go out of your way to find in the States, if you can find them at all. For example: Balsamic glaze in a squeeze bottle; single cream (thicker than whipping cream, less thick than double cream or clotted cream, all of which you'll find on the dairy shelf here); blackcurrant jam; multiple varieties of asparagus; fresh herbs, including lemongrass, that don't cost an arm and a leg.

Brits are heavily invested in local and organic food, and in a much more mainstream way than most places in the U. S. Organic products are readily available, and usually only at a slightly higher cost than the conventional product. I honestly don't know if a chain like Whole Foods would succeed here, because between the local market (which operates everyday in Cambridge) and the chain stores, there's no lack of organic and fresh food.

So, maybe it's time for us to abandon our stereotypes about English food and instead take a page from their cookbook.

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