The Farm

Growing plants on our porch is basically an act of cruelty but we’ve been doing it for the past 3 years. “Porch” may be the wrong term, as its more like “the top of the downstairs neighbor’s roof”. Our space is railings and a black tar cover, no roof of our own to ward off the sun in what essentially becomes a killing field for tiny veg and flowers. Half a sunny day without water and the poor things shrivel up to nothing but W. has been working on a system to counteract this.

“Green” Black Seaman tomato

The first year something came and bit the tops off all the small tomato plants one night. All of them. It was a tough year in many ways and we never identified the culprit but the act served both as a warning and a metaphor. Do not leave your fragile side exposed or the hardened beings of the city will come and chomp it down. It was probably squirrels or possibly birds – something unchallenged by the lack of stairs – or maybe aliens.

This year we have 2 types of tomatoes, jalapenos, sage, and another type of pepper that will never bear fruit but which we cannot bear to throw away. There are chives which will last through anything and have been there for years, a thyme plant, basil, several types of orange flowers and geraniums. There are also 2 ceramic worms from England (highly cute), plastic luminescent mushrooms and butterflies, and a tiny stuffed-animal cat under a glass bowl.

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This morning we harvested the first “fruits” of our labor (the labor consisting of manic watering, plus some early pawing at the dirt to plant the things). We made a tomato, jalapeno, and basil salad and had it for breakfast. And I realized that one of the things about having a garden outside your door is that you can be completely impulsive: if you suddenly have an idea you can make it, as long as you have the ingredients. One day I will get a fig tree.

Tomato, jalapeno, and basil salad with olive oil and salt.

Our jalapenos.

Black Seaman tomato. Absolutely wonderful taste once we got rid of the bit of rot.

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English Food – part 2 (sweets)

Rabbit Jojo pastries at Selfridges

The English do a good job with sweets, and this includes desserts, jams, marmalades, and chocolates. The only (non-chocolatey) English candy I’ve had since I was about 10 are Licorice Allsorts, which are quite good as long as they haven’t been sitting on a ghost ship for the past 15 years waiting for just that perfect moment to round the Horn of Africa or passing the time while they put the finishing touches on the Suez canal. Of course the colors will never fade but your teeth will be in danger and the packaging will contain images of by-now immensely unpopular cartoon characters from five years ago, etc.

Don’t buy expensive chocolates at the duty free shops in Heathrow! I did that last summer and then found them to be pale and chalky when I brought them home. Too far a trip to return them, and they actually tasted ok. By all means purchase some of the huge Cadbury’s bars. If you run out of recipients you can store them for the armageddon or play a practical joke on your neighbors and put some on their roof.

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There’s a knowing conspiratorial air to the way English people pronounce “banoffee pie”: a sort of breathless evocation of awe and surprise, as if the object in question might also be a species of hedgehog or a famed 14th century illustrated psalter from the British Library. This is in part due to the fact that the object in question is very yummy. And because it sounds as if a Teletubby had named it. It is made from bananas and condensed milk toffee, and I’m sure bears would go crazy for it. Do not bring slices with you to the zoo.

Raspberry choux, also from Selfridges

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You won’t find banoffee pie at tea. Much too heavy. You will find an assortment of sweets and tiny sandwiches (depending on the level of “Tea” you have purchased, or the amount of prep time you have afforded your friends/relatives). Some of the sweets will be English, others English in emulation of foreign (see English food – part 1). With sweets, as with all else foodie, “English in emulation” (as well as “foreign”) is a positive thing. You can have pain au raisin for breakfast (not the dry kind we so often have in the US), macaroons for tea, Australian rose and almond coconut delight for a snack, or gelato whenever the fancy strikes you. Or you can stay true to your English roots and eat Jojo the rabbit (see image at top) after you’ve finished your Scotch egg and meat pie.

Ricotta, black pepper, and chocolate gelato from Geluppo

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If you fail to tile your neighbor’s roof with giant Cadbury bars you can spruce up their living room with some high-end chocolate boxes. This might actually be a kind gesture as most of the packaging is beautiful; I am particularly fond of Prestat’s vibrant solid colors stamped with gold. The flavors are celebratory and fruity: a bit like a culinary version of Laura Ashley or Cath Kidson, differing, thereby from their American cousins – hard edged complex bars from the Mast Brothers, for instance, wrapped in masculine browns and olives and flavored with salts and chillies. Prestat has a rose and violet creme box, and Rococo chocolates make a marvelous white chocolate and rasperry slabs: Bianco Fragole; its a bit like the difference between Glamping and going on a barebones hike through the Alaskan tundra. English chocolates are meant to be enjoyed, not toughed out, in a relationship to food and pleasure that is less defiant and apologetic. When it comes to sweets few apologies are needed.

English picnics

You can’t* actually have a picnic in England unless you have a gigantic custom-made plastic sphere (with air holes) fabricated to ward off the rain. A flame thrower may do in a pinch – aim it overhead so that it evaporates the moisture.

While you are waiting for the rain to cease you can spend lots of time online looking at picnic related merchandise**. Or you can take the train to France.

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* This does not stop most English people as hope springs eternal and they erupt like prairie dogs the second the sun peaks from behind the clouds. Blankets are spread, Marks and Spencer sandwiches unpacked, bags of Coronation Chicken crisps opened, and probably some of those nice (?) M&S cans of Gin and Tonic consumed.

** This for instance.

English Food – part 1

Just as I was preparing to take a surreptitious picture if it, someone bought the Ostrich egg.

The egg was at Selfridges Food Hall: the lone giant in a pink box, next to its smaller Clarence Court fellows: quail, turkey, goose, and Legbar Cotswold chicken eggs. Clarence Court is unassociated with Clarence House and yet it seems part of a new British food royalty composed of ambitious chefs and ancient bloodlines. Jamie Oliver’s image even leers from the Clarence Court homepage to endorse the rarified breeds, like a revised, PR inflected brand of Royal Warrant. The eggs come imprinted with a tiny inked crown, which reassuringly washes off in the boiling.

As with the class system, so in England there are roughly 3 types of food, with attendant nuanced variances within each strata. * The types are English, English in emulation of another culture, and foreign. The last 2 are at least always passable and the first will probably kill you only slowly, rather than speedily (always look on the bright side). Some English food is actually pretty good.

At La Fromagerie they have a cheese jail. Someone guards the door and they slam it shut after you. The little cheeses sit in state like Kobe cattle waiting for the slaughter, and this is all I can tell you as I was far too intimidated and a little repulsed to enter the sanctum. I bought a French yogurt in a glass jar and fled. The items on offer are a mix of foreign, English in emulation, and (new) English. No mushy peas. In all fairness, the yogurt was excellent. I’ve never before been so aware that I was eating a particular type of fruit with my yogurt (blueberry, in this case), in a mixture that was neither too sweet nor too challenging. Ah les français. The yogurt is from La Ferme de Treillebois.

On the other end of the spectrum (actually I’m sure it is possible to go far further) is the cafeteria at Bletchley Park. Nice people but horrible food. Remember what they did to Alan Turing, however, and consider yourself lucky. The pan of vegetable lasagna appeared to date from his time and seemed similarly tortured, despite any hints of (culinary) genius. W. had the all-ochre sausage roll, chips, and root veg meal, and I had a rather stale cheese and tomato sandwich. Definitely English (and old style, not by some revisionist celebrity chef), but you don’t go to Bletchley for the food.

A nice combination of English and foreign is to be found at the Euston Tap. English people actually make very good beer, as do the non-English, so it’s a win, win situation as some speakers of the English language might say. W. had a glass of  Weihenstephan from the world’s oldest brewery, I drank a super rich and boozy imperial stout (Nøgne ø, 9%), and we then shared glasses of raspberry and cherry flavored beer (Kirkstall I believe, but I forgot to write it down). Awesome flavor and color. The Euston tap building is beautiful and a perfect use of urban space. They have about 25 beers on tap at once, with constant and heavy rotation. Super yummy and no attitude. With the beer we ate pork scratchings in a bag, which were actually quite good.

* Discounting evaluations like good, bad, deplorable, disaster of massive proportions etc.