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Seriously buttered.

I’ve been considering it for quite a long time, starting from when I read the chapter on tea-time in one of my favorite cookbooks, The Cooking of the British Isles (1969, Time-Life Books). Great Britain has a reputation for producing dreck,* I know. But I’ve made over a dozen classic dishes so far, in and out of the cookbook, with nothing but great results.** To my (increasingly educated) mind, this is a simple cooking tradition that has put centuries of practice into fighting against the rain, and has figured it out. It warms the belly and fortifies the soul. I’ll believe the reputation only if my winning streak runs out.

In the tea-time chapter, the author tells of a conversation he once overheard between two elderly Englishmen. One loves crumpets, crackled and steaming on a platter. He always went for the bottom crumpet, knowing it would be utterly saturated with butter.

I’d never made crumpets before, let alone eaten them; New Jersey doesn’t really know from British food.*** But that visual was enough to sell me. Here’s what I did.

  1. The recipe calls for short, round tins, top and bottom lids removed, as you are to butter them and set them right in the pan as molds for the frying crumpets. Flan rings or large, round cookie cutters are recommended. I have neither, but it also suggests tuna cans with the tops and bottoms removed. Three cans of Bumble Bee Chunk Light later, I learned that tuna cans aren’t made with identical tops and bottoms anymore, as presumably they were in 1969****, and the modern rounded bottoms are virtually impossible to remove with a can opener.
  2. But! I had individual tarts with removable bottoms. That sounds very saucy, I know, but the truth is, they worked.
  3. The recipe is very easy to put together; it’s basically yeasted pancakes with a pinch of sugar, just enough for the yeast to snack on. What was a half-plastered Cirque du Soleil act was cooking the crumpets one by one, since I (also) don’t own a flame spreader (is that that term?). I have a huge skillet I could have used but only an average-sized burner. The butter in the pan kept wanting to burn, so I switched off between two average-sized pans. By the time I finished drips, splats, and assorted smears decorated much of the stove top and the big bowl. Dried, the batter is much like Gorilla Glue. Same color, no less.
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You just sit there and think about what you’ve done.

4. You’re also supposed to remove the molds once the crumpets set, but they’re scalding. The recipe just says to remove them, but offers zero clue as to how to do it. It’s worth noting that this cookbook was written for an American audience. I’m picturing the English author and staff giggling as they thought of the panicked antics we’d use remove those hot molds, trying not to burn our fingertips. ‘Make fun of our cuisine, will you? Yank wankers!’

This wanker used a set of tongs, which kept slipping and dropping the mold back into the gooey raw crumpet.

Most did turn out lovely, though, those I didn’t drop or dent, and I buttered them all. Look at the pretty scalloped edges; that’s the fancy tart pans. As far as taste and texture, I don’t agree with what I’ve read about crumpets, that they’re similar to an English muffin. These are very light, crisply browned on the outside and fluffy and tender inside, with a pleasantly sour taste. But I must agree with the Englishman who always went to the buttery crumpet on the bottom. He’s right on.

*Points for working a Yiddish word into a post about British food? Anyone?

**Okay, once, but it’s because the recipe wasn’t explicit enough. I’m trying it again.

***Our claim to fame is the three Ss: Sinatra, Springsteen, and summer traffic.

****I was in utero for all but 2.5 months of that year, but should have had the foresight to have taken notes. Curses.

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Agatha Christie’s Detective Poirot famously said, ‘The English do not have a cuisine; they have food. Overcooked meat, boiled vegetables, inedible cheese. And the day they invent English wine, I am retreating to the Continent.’ *

I should emphasize I’ve only been to Scotland, sadly missing England, Ireland, and Wales, not that it’s forever. I’m going. But despite one meal in Scotland, strictly average fajitas eaten at the sole restaurant at the edge of Rannoch Moor, everything we ate was incredible.** The trick, always and forever, is to eat where the locals eat, and to eat what’s locally sourced. In the space of one week we put 800 miles on our little rental car, driving across the central part of the country. Coast to coast, from Oban to St. Andrews, we feasted.

From a remote farm we bought bags of wonderful homemade granola with bright orange marigold petals in it. At the Gateway to the Isles at the western coast we ate tiny succulent mussels, harvested at a nearby island, and no bigger than the tip of your finger. At the opposite coast in Anstruther (pronounced ‘Enster’), at the recommendation of a portly policeman, we had crisp, tender fish and chips with malt vinegar. All week we ate a proper English breakfast with eggs, rashers, and bangers prepared by the house manager, a small, wiry English expat (our host called him Wee Jim). And of course we tried haggis, although made unconventionally: tater tot-sized, fried, and served with a creamy garlic dipping sauce. Conventional or not, it was rich and satisfying. And everywhere there were local brews of beer and whisky.

But travel aside, I’ve loved the British dishes I’ve prepared at home, and there have been quite a few. This year I’m going to tackle more of them. The poor reputation is getting pushed aside. I want to try out classic dishes; I want to learn about this region’s great tradition of simple, comforting foods; and I want to talk about it.

My Cooking of the British Isles (Time-Life, 1969) will be my chief guide. I’ve already made Scotch Woodcock, Traditional English Christmas Cake, and Irish Christmas Cake. I tried Spiced Beef in Christmas 2014 and failed because the recipe didn’t emphasize that I needed to season every inch of the meat. But that’s on the editors of the book, not on the whole of the British Empire. I’ll try it again sometime.

For now, I started with Eve’s Pudding, a recipe from James Dunlinson, an Englishman who was the design director for Martha Stewart Living. Yesterday I was cooped up inside for most of the day while the outside was blizzarding. Today I put butter in a bowl to soften, shoveled out my car for an hour and a half, then came back inside and made this lovely thing.

It’s basically a cobbler, full of cinnamon and apples (would Eve have it any other way?). Warm out of the oven, with my extremities still red from cold, it was was a profoundly comforting experience. The British know from cold and raw; they built up a tradition of cooking to counter it. And it’s worked for a few years.

Poirot can stay a little smug; I always giggle at his statement. But not too smug.

*For best effect, say ‘food’ with a nasal French accent, the way he did. And it’s worth noting that Christie herself was an Englishwoman. Whether the statement was a sly personal editorial on the food of her homeland or her best guess of a Belgian’s opinion of it, we don’t know.

**Who in the name of all that is holy eats fajitas in the West Highlands? Well…I hadn’t had a vegetable in a week. It’s hard to find them in pubs in Scotland. When you see ‘salad’ on the menu chalkboard, they mean tuna salad or ham salad. Nothing green. As we were eating, an elderly Englishman approached our table gingerly about what he called ‘the fajitas,’ pronouncing the ‘j’. ‘Are they nice?’ he asked. If you need vegetables, and you probably do, then yeah.

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