>Back from the UK with visions of food dancing my head

>In past summers I’ve spent a lot of time in the UK, but this year I went there only for a week — totally personal, too, not professional — and I’m actually looking forward to a summer of reading, thinking, and writing in my own home. And in the next post, I’ll have a research-related query for you all. But first, an update.

Bullock and I are just now back from our trip to the north of England where, as many of my Facebook friends already know, I attended a good friend’s wedding in a borrowed dress and shoes (and no makeup, and unwashed hair!) because my luggage didn’t get there in time. The fact that there was an attendee who lived locally and who had an extra dress in roughly my size was nothing short of miraculous. Otherwise, I might have gone to the wedding in the t-shirt and chinos I’d been wearing for about 36 hours straight. And not just any chinos, but coffee-stained chinos, the result of the flight attendant having spilled coffee all over me on the flight there. But it all worked out, and I actually liked the borrowed dress better than my own. England has many more cute dress options that the States, even in the English cities that are more or less the equivalent of Rust Belt City.

Speaking of which, I don’t know why it took me so long to realize this, but much of the north of England — especially Lancashire and Yorkshire — have a lot in common with the upper Midwest. It’s full of former industrial cities that hit hard times in the last few decades but are experiencing some renaissance now in the creative and cultural classes (think Chicago or Cleveland or even Pittsburg; and then Manchester and Leeds); the people are friendly, unsnobby, and hospitable; there are large Muslim populations in Dearborn, MI, and Bradford and Leeds; there’s great Middle Eastern and Pakistani food to be had; and there is much beer drunk and much cheese eaten. No wonder I feel so much more at home in the north than in the south of England. Of course there are less savory similarities, too — Yorkshire just elected a member of the British Nationalist Party to the European Parliament and Michigan is also frequently known as Militia-gan.

But one thing every city (and sometimes the towns and villages) in the north of England has that is missing in Rust Belt City is a slew of restaurants doing interesting and inventive things or just doing traditional dishes exceptionally well. The fact that the UK is having a cuisine renaissance is now practically common knowledge, and I’ve been noticing it and commenting on it for at least the last 10 years. In the north, especially, I’ve had amazingly good traditional, local food, often at small hotel restaurants and local pubs off the beaten tourist path. This trip I had tender, slips-off-the-bone-with-a-fork lamb at The Peasehill House Hotel Restaurant in Rawdon (a suburban village near the Leeds/Bradford airport); rich, tender duck confit salad at The Malt in Burley-in-Wharfedale (at the wedding reception); sweet and creamy mussels at Delrio’s in York; mouth wateringly rich pork belly at the Hotel du Vin Bistro in York; and a lovely steak with a crunchy duck egg on top (the egg had been dropped into the fryer so that the whites fried up in the shape of wings, but the white stayed runny inside — you wouldn’t believe how good runny egg on steak is!) and a “trifle” of asparagus (a foam with crunchy peas in it) at J. Baker’s Bistro Moderne in York.

But the best of all dinners was one I booked us for our last night. We were staying at the Crowne Plaza Manchester Airport (NOT recommended — boo!) for our morning flight, so I did a bit of hunting on the internet to find an interesting and fine restaurant in the general vicinity. I finally decided on The Alderley at the the Alderley Edge Hotel in Cheshire, about 7 miles southeast of the airport, whose online menu suggested that they did interesting interpretations of traditional dishes, using mostly locally sourced ingredients. (If you’re ever inclined to do the same — though hopefully from one of the other airport hotels, NOT the icky Crowne Plaza — I recommend taking the train from the Manchester Airport to Alderley Edge and walking through the posh and charming village to the restaurant, then taking a taxi back, since the trains stop running back to the airport at about 10 — the taxi is about 15GBP and the restaurant will call it for you. We chickened out and taxied both ways, because we weren’t sure what the walk from the station looked like, which really was a waste of money.)

Anyway, we were not disappointed. First of all, it was simply a lovely dining *experience*, the kind we can’t get at all around here. Our coats were taken and we were first seated in the bar, where drink orders were taken and we were given a complimentary plate of amuse-bouche to go with the drinks. Then we were brought the menus, and the head waiter/maitre-d’ (it was a small wait staff of three who shared tasks, but it clear who the top guy was) let us take our time as we hemmed and hawed over whether to go with the three course prix fixe menu, or a la carte, or go for the 6 course tasting menu. (There was little overlap between the three and it all looked SO good.) In the end we went a la carte because those were the dishes that excited us the most. (And here, I should say, if you go there and order what we did — cocktails, inexpensive house bottle of wine, bottle of water, three courses each, plus coffee and petit fours — it will cost you about 150GBP. It will cost more if you go off the house wine list (which is still quite nice, btw) — that’s where we cut a little cost because we not as much oenophiles as we are foodies. We knew we were splurging, but given the level of service and the wonderful food — and given how much we like food — it was worth it for us.)

And then once we’d ordered and we seated at our table, we had a leisurely dinner, perfectly paced by the attentive but unobstrusive staff, who had the rhythms of their restaurant down perfectly. And the food! Oh. My. God. The food! I really should’ve taken pictures, because it was all so beautiful on the plate, and just as rapture-inducing in the mouth. (You can see what I mean if you go to the website; you can also see the whole current menu there.) Just to give you an idea, for our entrees, I had the “Saddle of Roe Deer, Venison Hash, Poached Cherries, Pickled Sloe Gin” and Bullock had “Cheshire Spring Lamb, Three Ways with ‘Shepherd’s Pie,’ Pickled Beetroot and Leeks.” The “Shepherd’s Pie” is in quotation marks for a reason — not because of random quotation mark abuse — because it was a miniature, almost bit-sized “pie” with a tiny little tart shell, a bite sized piece of lamb, and a dollop of mashed potato on top. (And then there were the other ways his lamb was prepared — a lovely variety of miniature traditional lamb dishes.) And the pickled stuff was in the form of artfully sliced jellies that added color as well as taste to the plate. My plate, with its accompanying spring carrots and green onions looked liked modernist art, like a Mondrian done in triangles instead of squares and rectangles, but topped by the perfectly bite-sized array of oval slices of roe deer and the little ovals of the venison hash. And oh, was it good. The flavors seem kind of busy in my description — so many things on a plate — but it was all laid out so you could have a bit of saddle of deer with a cherry, or the hash with a bite of the sloe gin and a carrot.

I know for some people this might seem all too fussy, but I really appreciated the care, the craft, the art, and the thought in it all. I like the way it appeals to the eye as well as the nose and the tongue. I like the fact that it reminds me of other arts while I’m enjoying it. In fact, I think that’s what characterizes this kind of cuisine — it’s food for thinking about as well as tasting. Or thinking about *while* tasting. And given the leisurely pace of the experience you have time to do that, to savor, to think, to discuss, to ruminate (well, hopefully not literally!). And I also like that with three courses, plus amuse-bouche and petit fours, I didn’t feel horribly stuffed. I like the fact that I get to try all sorts of different flavors (and the appetizers and desserts were equally abundant in tastes) without over-eating. And alas, I still haven’t found anything quite like this in and around Rust Belt City. There’s an award-winning regional restaurant in the city 2 hours away from here that we like very much, but it requires an overnight stay, since a 4 hour round-trip drive is too much for one night. But this academic year Bullock and I have been quite spoiled with our trip to Paris and our trip to England, and now I fear we’ll feel the lack of such restaurants even more. Sigh.

We also did all the touristy things one does in York and Leeds — the Minster, the Yorkshire Museum, the Jorvik Viking Center, the Royal Armouries, etc., etc. — and had a fun time at my friend E’s easy-going, relaxed wedding and reception (once the dress issue was sorted out, anyway!). I also recommend the Hotel du Vin in York, if you can get a good discout rate. It was by far the most comfortable and modern hotel we stayed in (fantastic hurricane shower head! wonderful bed! and everything smells so good!), and it’s only a 10 minute walk from the train station, as well as from Mickelgate Bar and the medieval part of the city.

Oh, and also, having learned about Eric Bloodaxe in all the York Viking-related museums, Bullock now wants to be known as Bloodaxe on the blog. But I thought that might be confusing for readers who pop in now and then. I suppose I could just attach the Viking nickname to the Western pseudonyn, like so: Bullock-Bloodaxe (with or without the hyphen). What do you think?

And yes, I will have some pictures, once I upload them from my memory card, and once Bullock gives me copies of his much better ones. I have a post brewing about one in particular. More later.

Advertisements

>Feasting fatigue

>Bullock and I have spent today lounging around the house, because we last night we finally had the medieval feast we were planning to have to celebrate my getting tenure, and we’re exhausted. Bullock spent all day in the kitchen yesterday (while I straightened and cleaned the house and occasionally helped in the kitchen) and still we weren’t quite ready for the party start time. The scene for the first hour and half of the party was like something out of Dinner Impossible or some other stress-filled cooking show, as we desperately tried to get everything ready *and* entertain guests — including introducing a lot of folks who’d never met each other.

But it all ended up a success, I think. Aside from the food — which I’ll get to in a moment — the social elements all came together. Three Western Canadians bonded with each other; the five kids of four different couples formed their own little society and pretty much spent the evening entertaining themselves; Pippi slept in her crate without a fuss and behaved herself when she was let out (and was much admired when she was); people drove from literally hours away to come, my friend the Big Teutonic Queer coming from the farthest (2 1/2 hours by car); a possible job opportunity was made; the people whom we know *don’t* get along managed to be civil and avoid each other; and the aforementioned BTQ fell madly in platonic love with a certain well-coiffed medievalist from a similar institution in a neighboring state (but then who *doesn’t* love her??) and my chair ooh’ed and ah’ed over said medievalist’s cool jewelry. Everyone, in short, seemed to have a great time. As one person remarked, “You have some *very* cool friends.” Yes I do!

I have to say, though, I always feel a little like a latter-day Mrs. Dalloway at these moments, because whenever I throw a party (not counting the smaller affairs Bullock and I have thrown together or where the guest list has consisted of our usual suspects, all mutual friends), I invite all my friends that I know from various circumstances, and it becomes clear to me — and in fact has been pointed out to me at various times in my life — that I know a lot of people and seem to get along with a lot of different kinds of people. Now, in this case, it was mostly academics, but there were, at least, people from different fields and institutions, and, as I mentioned, many who had never met before. And I enjoy watching them come together and get to know each other. But whenever it’s my own party, I always feel a little like I’m *merely* watching, and I never get to talk to any one person for very long because I’m always flitting from one to the next. I suppose, though, that’s the nature of being the hostess. Thank god it’s not a role I relish taking on frequently.

Bullock’s situation was even more distant from the festivities. With the madness of still rushing around to get the food going as guests arrived, the cooking duties fell even heavier on his shoulders and I don’t think he got to leave the kitchen much at all. But for all his work — and his ingenuity in overriding or adapting some of the directions in the recipe books — we were rewarded with a slew of fabulous dishes, most of which we’d never made or tasted before (a bold risk for any party hosts!). Here’s a picture of the spread and a close up of one of the pies; following that is a list of the dishes and our sources:


In the top picture, front row to back left to right, you see:

– Boiled shrimp with a cold citrus and herb sauce (sauce recipe adapted from the blood orange and sorrel sauce in Pleyn Delit)

– Saracen Stew (a Middle Eastern style beef stew from Pleyn Delit) — this was the biggest hit of the night, even with the kids

– Two Salmon Pies which really tested people’s limits for the more exotic elements of medieval cooking, because they featured the medieval taste combination of sweet and savory — along with the salmon, they were filled with dates, figs, currants, raisins, and pine nuts (from Fabulous Feasts). People either loved or hated this one.

– Regular old loaf of bread (we cheated – we bought it and its mate). There were no trenchers involved in this feast, btw. We served everything buffet style (obviously) with paper plates and plastic utensils, including forks.

– Two Pies of Parys (beef and veal meat pies — very tasty as cold leftovers, btw) — from Pleyn Delit.

– Another loaf of bread next to an earthenware jug that later contained the “Creme Bastard” (a cream sauce) for the dessert that’s in the back row

– Two Tarts de Bry (brie) — the only dish I’d had before — available in both Pleyn Delit and Fabulous Feasts, I think.

– Salat (green salad of a very herbaceous sort — lots of mint, parsley, fennel, thyme, garlic scapes, green onions and the like, as well as leafy green) – from Pleyn Delit.

[Non food items — sunflower given to my by my department chair and castle pop-up book given to me by the BTQ, which made an excellent table decoration!]

– Cherry Bread Pudding (read that as ‘cherry pudding with bread in it’ — not really bread pudding in the modern sense — this dish was the only real disappointment for Bullock and me) — this was served with the “Creme Bastard” — both from Pleyn Delit.

[Non food item – gorgeous roses given to me by a colleague and friend]

Not pictured: “Ravioles,” aka cheese ravioli, which are not only medieval, but also something we knew the kids would eat. We didn’t make them ourselves — although a recipe is in Pleyn Delit — but purchased them from Costco. Shhhh. We also served them bagel dogs — *not* part of the medieval theme, clearly.

People brought an assortment of drinks (including a gift of Chaucer’s Mead from my chair!), but we started everyone off with Belgian Trappist ales, Monty Python’s Holy Grail ale, chilled mead, white and red wine, and, best of all, a Spicy Pomegranate and Gin Cocktail that we concocted by adapting the mulled pomegranate juice recipe in Pleyn Delit. Yummy!

Oh, and as a post script: my friends Victoria and Milton gave me Beowulf the Game for Play Station (yes, we now have a Play Station). Hey, it can’t be worse than the movie, right?