I Tried and Nearly Failed to Understand British Food

My first experiences with British food weren't spectacular, so I visited Myers of Keswick, a Manhattan grocer specializing in UK imports, to help me come to terms with pork pies, Branston pickle, and sticky toffee pudding from a tin.

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Jul 25 2014, 3:15pm

Welcome back to Ashok Kondabolu's (a.k.a. Dapwell) column, Aisle Check, where he focuses on the concept of "ethnic" grocery stores. Aren't all grocery stores "ethnic" in the scope of the world? And aren't they all just grocery stores?

The first time I went to England, or Europe for that matter, was in the fall of 2011 during my erstwhile rapping group's first European tour. I wasn't eating meat at the time, so I ate a lot of fries and watched a lot of drunk people eat doner kebabs.

I was expecting the worst, food-wise. (And maybe tooth- and complexion-wise. Sorry!) And it didn't disappoint, in that it disappointed me greatly. Mushy peas were just flavorless, boiled peas mashed together. Jacket potatoes were giant, bland baked potatoes with thick, inedible skin. One saving grace was the chicken tikka masala that everybody kept ordering after our first foray into English fare. It was fairly standard, not dissimilar to any old Indian restaurant's chicken tikka masala, but compared to the mushy peas it was heavenly. Or so I was told.

It was with these experiences that I approached Manhattan's British grocer Myers of Keswick (pronounced "kessick") hoping to be delightfully surprised.

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On the day I decided to roll through, a new shipment of food had just arrived and the entire front of the store was surrounded by hundreds of boxes of food, some of which was not yet approved for sale by the FDA (and would presumably be stored until it was, or maybe given away to the store owner's British friends). Among them were my favorite candies of all time: Maynards Wine Gums, incredibly flavored morsels similar in texture to Jujubes but infinitely more delightful. The store was experiencing a flurry of activity, but the owner, Irene, was kind enough to show me around.

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"Heinz baked beans is probably one of our most popular items. A lot sweeter than American baked beans. They go nicely with sausages. They're a big seller, very popular. These are the beans people eat with English breakfast."

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"Branston Pickle is like a chutney. People use that as a condiment with savory pies, or sausages maybe."

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"HP is very popular. I would describe it as something similar to American barbecue sauce, often used in soups and stews.

"The digestives are popular biscuits. They come plain, as is, with dark or milk chocolate. My grandmother loved the milk chocolate. The plain are the least popular.

"The pudding is eaten out of the can as dessert. You can put it on a plate and microwave. You can also boil it in the tin. Strawberry, sticky toffee, and of course, the ever-popular spotted dick. I don't know where the 'dick' part came from. There was a move to change it to 'spotted Richard' to make it more politically correct, but the popular vote won and it stayed the same."

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"Gooseberries in syrup are used for making gooseberry pies. You can use it in a fruit salad with cream or in pastry. We also have gravy granules for making gravy. Ask any Brit, they'll tell you that they don't think American gravy is that good."

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"Teas: Basically the two most popular are the PG Tips and the Typhoo. You'll find either one of these are the most popular household brands. Yorkshire Gold tends to be quite a strong leaf tea. Barry's is an Irish tea. We do do a few fruit selections."

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"Everything is made in our kitchen, fresh daily. The bangers are classic. We import all the seasonings form abroad. The skins and pork meat are obviously purchased here.

"Cumberland is a regional sausage to the county of Cumbria, where our namesake Keswick is located. They're made with fresh parsley, sage, and white pepper, and have more of a kick to them."

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"Chipolata is similar to an Irish breakfast sausage. The seasonings are also imported. Shepherd's pie, the classic—ours is a true shepherd's pie, made with ground lamb. If it's made with beef it's actually a cottage pie. Chicken and leek is one of my favorite pies—roasted chicken, sliced leek, in a creamy white wine sauce."

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"The classic, and most famous, is the pork pie. Most of these pies can be found in a typical butcher shop in England. My dad likes to think that his is world-famous. Him and my uncle had a competition going on between them—he owned a butcher shop in Keswick.

"[It's made with] ground pork, rusk, bread crumb, and white pepper. Gravy is added afterwards, which forms a gelatin. It can be eaten as is, it doesn't have to be heated. It's our most popular item, along with the sausage roll, made with the Cumberland sausage."

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"The four most popular candies are these. Here is Flake. A 99 Flake is vanilla ice cream with a bit of chocolate Flake in it. My husband jokes it does not cost 99 pence anymore.

"Crunchie is honeycomb covered in chocolate. Mars is the same as here. Maltesers are malted balls covered in chocolate.

"Maynard's Wine Gums are very popular here, although they are not allowed to be imported due to the colorings that are used for the green candy. They're insanely popular. The number of people who say if only they knew! Before we stopped importing them ourselves, they were one of our top five popular products."

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"Shandy Bass is lemonade and beer. Very popular. Half and half."

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"Strongbow is cider, very popular as well. Iron Brew is a Scottish drink. They call it a good hangover cure. I think it tastes like bubblegum. Not my favorite.

"Ginger beers and Lucozade—an energy sport drink, not anything like Gatorade. It's fizzy. I wouldn't describe it as a sports drink, but I guess it is."

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"Ribena is a blackcurrant drink. We also sell the cordial, which you add water to. Blackcurrants are similar to grapes, maybe something like blackberries. Dandelion and burdock, a soft drink. Not really one of my favorites, they're very sweet."

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I thanked Iren and we said our goodbyes, and I headed out into the cold to take pictures with the many boxes outside.

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To be honest, I still haven't changed my mind regarding British food, even though I wanted to tear open a bunch of the boxes and cans I found in the shelves at Myers of Keswick. The forms, flavors, and especially the names of the food I encountered seemed utterly foreign to me: savory pies, canned puddings, salad creams.

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The ingredients were within my grasp, but what they were whipped, baked, powdered, and packaged into were not. Maybe one of these days I'll get around to enjoying a few traditional English meals, but I can't imagine when that will happen. Till then, winegums.

And maybe some Shandy. That stuff sounds crazy.