recently Britain was portrayed as a culinary wasteland, home to
overcooked, boring food and an abundance of uninspired bland chefs.
There were only a few tasty exceptions to their miserable repertoire-namely,
fish 'n' chips, tea, beer and dessert. In this decade, respected
food critics have reversed the hype, citing a virtual renaissance
in the London food scene-- raving about the hot new London chefs,
touting its incredibly diverse restaurants, in fact anointing
London as the Crown Jewel of European cuisine
The real question is
what happens when you
leave the city? Are you back in a world of sub par dining? Is
the rest of the country still an abyss of mushy vegetables and
lumps of gray indistinguishable meat?
Well the answer is a resounding NO! Today the
English countryside offers some of the most consistently appetizing,
delightfully satisfying FRESH fare a traveler could hope for.
The vast majority of local pubs, inns and bed & breakfasts
scattered across Britain boast menus of substantial variety and
Pub fare at the Lamb Inn, Ripe
Photo by Megan Koro.
It may sound simplistic, but increasingly, fresh
ingredients are a rarity in restaurant food, especially for us
nomads on the road. Perhaps because Britain is an island, still
largely agricultural outside of London proper, many products are
locally grown. Whether or not that's the reason, the fact is that
the base ingredients used by English locals have a farmer's market
level of quality and no long-standing relationship with plastic
containers, chemicals or freezers to interfere with natural taste.
Fruits and greens are crisp and just picked from the garden, home
baked breads and pastries are noticeably textured, fish tastes
barely plucked from the sea, cheeses creamy, nutty or tangy, but
bursting with flavor-the offerings vary, but the sum total of
these parts is nothing short of sublime.
Although I've had occasion to visit the U.K. many
times over the years, this past summer I traipsed across the island
with a twenty-something city crowd visiting for the very first
time. Our route initially curved south through the small villages
of Sussex and Kent, amidst cascading bouquets of flowering vines,
hollyhocks, 7-foot wide roads and ancient castles. Then on west
to Cornwall with its uniquely quaint fishing villages dotting
the shoreline and its famously breathtaking coastal scenery.
Along the way we happily ate and drank to excess,
routinely asking to partake of the warm and friendly specialties
of the house. We sampled all the peasant staples: crispy fish
'n chips, steak & mushroom and cheese & onion pies, dip-in
egg cups, cock-a-leekie soup, Cornish pasties, bangers and mash,
toad in the hole, shepherd's pie, the ubiquitous ploughman's lunch,
fish cakes, bubble and squeak, Welsh rarebit, cheese straws, John
Dory, and roast lamb with mint chutney, to name a few, followed
by a never ending selection of desserts, such as shortbread, fruit
trifle, spicy gingerbread, sticky toffee and bread & butter
pudding, cream cakes, pies and custards galore. Of course most
establishments offered many less traditional options as well,
reflecting ethnic trends that are not restricted to the city.
And oh, the English beer
we mustn't forget
the libations! An incredible array of our favorite ale styles-mild,
bitter, best bitter, porter, stout, barley wine-not to mention
hard ciders, lagers and lime and shandies. All luscious and at
the proper temperature, of course
We seriously almost lost
some of our party permanently to the small village of Ripe in
East Sussex after sampling the finest, creamiest hand pumped Real
Ale imaginable in the (only) local pub. "I could retire here
based on the beer alone
" was the thrust of that afternoon's
conversation, and these were young folks!
Inevitably, in the course of our sampling, we
made friends of all ages. A gentle couple in Lewes who found my
oh-so-youthful companions most entertaining invited us into their
home to share a traditional tea. They had a lovely manor estate
complete with a croquet lawn, a wishing well and a glorious tended
garden too pretty for words. The fellow next door owned homing
pigeons and about 60 of them dotted his roof.
Hills overlooking Polperro Harbour
Photo by Megan Koro.
M'lady Barbara treated us to her homemade flapjacks
with fresh strawberries and cream. Soft, dense and chewy, these
porridge oat bars were totally addictive and surprisingly decadent
for just three ingredients: 6 oz. Demerarer sugar, 6 oz. soft
tub margarine (or butter), melted together with just 8 oz. of
oatmeal (!) then baked for 30 minutes @350 till golden. Cut them
while warm, says Barbara, and "leave to cool in the tin."
M'Lord John, seeing us sated on treats, decided
a stroll was in order, and we set off spontaneously with his energetic
Airedale Wolfhound across the brookland of the River Ouse. We
saw bluebells and primrose, herons, swans, comorants, even an
old military firing shack probably built sometime in the 1940s
by the loyal British Resistance when a German invasion seemed
imminent. Turned out our host is an active local conservationist
and knowledgeable nurseryman, so our guided walk was not just
beautiful but a wealth of information.
The next full day we crisscrossed by rail all the way over to
Cornwall, the most southwesterly tip of England. My traveling
buddies were feeling sorely in need of more exercise, having by
now lost any semblance of a disciplined routine. This is a perfect
goal to have in the West Country, known for its beautiful Heritage
Trail walks and rugged coastline. So with the promise of a good
workout in the morning, we began a single track scenic 9-mile
rail ride from Liskeard through heavy woods to the little fishing
village of Looe. The line follows the descent of the East Looe
River which opens out to become a tidal bay at journey's end,
which we were lucky to make at high tide when the river views
Once in Looe, we enjoyed an incredibly picturesque
180 degree view of the harbor from our bedroom window at the Deganwy
Hotel perched on the hill overlooking the harbor, only a hundred
yards or so walk from the station. Our luck held out even at the
beach, which was sandy, sunlit and full of mostly British tourists.
After sunning, we consumed a host of Cornish pasties, mostly sold
as take-out. Each shop seemed to have their own slant on construction
and fillings, offering us no choice but to sample them all. We
ate potato and lamb and mushroom and onion and cheddar and beef
and olive and chicken
A few were hefty with dough similar
to a calzone; the majority were rich and flaky with a lot of shortening
in the crust. Thirsty after all that eating, we 'checked out the
ambiance' of three of the high street pubs--unaware that our hosts
Duncan & Kathy had a full bar in their comfy guest drawing
room, and a nice selection of wine to boot.
Looe Harbour at low tide. Photo
by Megan Koro.
Looe itself proved to be a quaint, quiet fishing
village with lovely pubs and lots of souvenir shops, bustling
but not overrun with curious visitors. By far it's best attribute
though, and the draw for our stay, was its starting point for
the 5-mile mostly cliff-side Looe to Polperro Walk, finishing
at the next pretty fishing village up the coast. Full of incredible
vistas, hauntingly beautiful rolling hills, a vivid assortment
of flora and fauna and the constant sights, smells and sounds
of the sea below you, it is an unforgettable sensory experience.
While much of the hike was leisurely, some of the final uphill
stretches were fairly aerobic, a good thing considering the delectable
Cornish Clotted Ice Creams available in the teeny Talland bay
shortly before its Polperro end. Without a doubt, this coastal
walk was the stunning highlight of our trip. (There are thousands;
see additional information on finding the right one for you in
the tips section at the end.)
Our hike ended on a winding street which brought
us quietly down into the picturesque fishing village of Polperro.
As in Looe, clusters of cottages perch on steep slopes overlooking
the boats in the harbor. Narrow cobblestone streets abound in
between tightly spaced homes, gurgling waterways and footbridges,
garden window boxes and brightly colored flowers. The high street
is tiny, so a bit crowded, but charming. Working our way slowly
up the main street incline to the bus stop, we were stopped by
some friendly ladies at a church yard sale. Comically, there we
purchased all sorts of unique treasures, new and old, to bring
back to the States
and a few homemade flapjacks for the ride
you haven't yet toured the British countryside, here are my tips
for sights and flavors you will want to sample along the way,
and several ways to accomplish your travel.
usually noon to 3 p.m., is the
time of day to enjoy your large meal of the day throughout Britain.
Prices are generally less, portions are generous-you will save
a considerable amount of your travel budget by eating more at
mid-day and enjoying a light meal, say soup and sandwich or salad
TIP: You can generally tell if you are drinking
Real Ale if it is served using a hand pump.
TIP: Some B&Bs will help arrange for car and/or
car and driver hire for day trips about the area. B&B owners
are also a wealth of information on local sights, tours and best
meal options. Through photos and email, you can oft-times narrow
down your choices and book the best establishment for your needs
well in advance. This gives you time to establish a relationship
and along with it, maximum planning ability and control over your
Flowers cascading over a Polperro waterway.
Photo by Megan Koro.
TIP: One aspect of traveling the British countryside
that truly cannot be missed is the walking tour. Whether initially
you get where you're going by train, car or bus, the most wonderful
way to truly capture the essence of England up close and personal
is on foot. There are a mind-boggling 630 miles of superb walks
promising "the ever present sense of the sea" just on
the southwest coast alone
and that comprises only one of
fifteen National Trails in England and Wales.
All of the travel arrangements for our group
were made independently utilizing websites on our Travel Tips
column as the primary source of information. You can do it too
traveling, happy eating!