Most people from foreign countries tend to know exactly two things about English food.
1. English food has hilarious names. Spotted dick, toasted soldiers, bangers and mash, bubble and squeak, butties, baps, even bubble baps. It all sounds rather off-putting. In the immortal words of Mrs. Featherbottom, “Who would like a banger in the mouth?”
2. English food is bad. It’s never seasoned, it’s always overcooked, and it’s amazingly boring. Why else would their national food be chicken tikka masala?
I’m here to tell you that, in certain circumstances, the second claim can be dead wrong. (“Bangers and mash” is still funny, though.) Even English people have a hard time believing this. After two sumptuous English meals in Canterbury, I returned to school and told a professor about them. “Really!” he said. “I didn’t knew such a thing as good food existed in Canterbury.”
Luckily, I’d just found it–as had my American friends, Michelle and Rory. They’ll back me up on this. We had a one o’clock reservation for Sunday at Deeson’s British Restaurant, just a few steps from Canterbury Cathedral, and indulged in a three-course feast. We shared our first course, which was chosen based purely on the fact that it contained rabbit.
The rabbit was perfectly good, and the black pudding either subtle or bland, but the sweet onion cream sauce was killer: light and a bit tangy, a great addition. Michelle and Rory started talking about plating, and how skillfully plated the dish was, and I realized that if I’m going to pretend to be a gourmet I’m going to really need to catch up on the terminology. Uh, it looks really nice?
Speaking of excellent plating, here was my main course:
Why yes, that’s a juicy pork loin served on a bed of jaw-droppingly melt-in-your-mouth potatoes, with a small regiment of broccoli, some pork cracklings (pork rinds) and a cup of apple butter. And yes, the food was so good I very nearly cleaned my plate. I even enjoyed the broccoli with a nice dollop of apple butter, though the highlight was probably the potatoes, so crisply breaded on the outside yet so rich…
Rory spent most of his fish dish (haddock) praising the virtues of the cream sauce, and complaining that in the USA, “cream sauce” means “extremely heavy rich thing which will make you feel like you ate a small hippopotamus,” while Deeson’s understood it needed to be merely a gentle accompaniment:
Michelle enjoyed her “Winchester pancake” (that is, a savory pancake with Winchester cheese) so much that she vacuumed it up without saying much of anything at all:
Deeson’s had just proved to us that English food’s key to success is just the same as any other nation’s: good, quality ingredients skillfully paired, and cooked with good sense. Here in the UK our local ingredients may not be as flashy as in some places–Texas beef, New Zealand lamb, Mediterranean olives, Indian spices–but quite a few restaurateurs retain their faith in local produce, meat and cheese, and at places like Deeson’s, that really pays off. I’m not sure anything we ate had traveled more than 200 miles to be there.
Deeson’s also has that extra element, creativity. We all ordered desserts, Rory a citrus berry tart and I a (scrumptious) sticky toffee pudding, but Michelle won the dessert game hands-down with an item so simple yet so brilliant it beggars belief:
There you have it, folks. The clearly-marked route by which English cooking can follow the path to greatness: simplicity, elegance in presentation, excellence of ingredients, and just plain getting things right. As Rory put it after we walked out of Deeson’s, slightly fatter and very much happier, “Great English food is like really high-quality comfort food.”
Of course, it’s not really comfort food unless something is deep-fried, so that night we stopped by the Dolphin, one of Canterbury’s more atmospheric old pubs. It serves up a large list of independent brews, has a warm environment with fireplace, and enjoys such a regular clientele that one older woman walked into the restaurant and was sat down at a table where a bottle of wine was already on ice. (An even older woman was there when we arrived at 6 and still there when we left at 10, and told me about how the owner had just got back from holiday, how the young guys had managed the place while he was gone, when the pub was busiest, and so forth.)
My quest for fried food was soon satisfied:
As you can imagine, (1) any pub that serves fried Brie is a good pub in my book, and (2) fried Brie with heaps of red onions is just fantastic. Rory and Michelle got some very handsome Brie-and-tomato sandwiches, served in baguettes, too.
The Canterbury trip nicely illustrated exactly what “food tourism” is all about: at the most basic level, you can learn a lot about a place from what it eats, and where. Maybe I’m lucky to have foodie friends, but mealtimes are the best social experiences we have, so eating can be an essential uniting of old companions and new settings, a bringing together of the friends and the traveling.
But the really valuable moments in food tourism are when a meal (or two) teach you something entirely new. On our day-trip to Canterbury, we travelers learned that yes, Virginia, there really is a good meal in Canterbury. Very good at that. But we also learned that, really, despite the bad reputation and the silly names, with a bit of imagination there’s nothing preventing “English” from being one of the most satisfying cuisines in the world. I can now very honestly say that I’ve had country English “comfort” food and felt as contentedly full as I’ve felt after any meal, anywhere.