For those of you who don’t already know it, James and I recently took a break from our jobs as innkeepers at the Carolina Bed & Breakfast in Asheville, North Carolina, and traveled to the UK to hike across the width of England on Wainwright’s Coast to Coast trail. More than 200 miles took us from the west coast of Northern England to the east coast, staying overnight in small B&B’s in often tiny villages. And along the way, paradoxically enough, we discovered some of the Best of British Cooking.
Fine food is often searched for in high end restaurants in big cities, and certainly England has plenty of these. But this was not the world of Ottolenghi and Gordon Ramsey. Nor is it the England of Happy Eater Road stops and McDonald’s in fake Tudor houses. Many of the villages we passed through were no more than a small collection of houses, some doubling as bed and breakfasts, a small shop and a pub. They are surrounded by fields and farms, sheep and cattle, and hedges heavy with sun-ripened sweet blackberries. Supermarkets are a distant drive away and we often passed small stands loaded with eggs and produce which could be taken and the money deposited in an “honesty box”.
James and I ate three meals a day, breakfast, lunch and dinner, the same way the people around us were eating. Breakfast was cooked to order for us at the bed and breakfast. When we left we received a packed lunch, also made by the innkeeper. And dinner was, most nights, at the local pub. A few times, when no pub was to be had, the innkeeper also made us dinner. It was plain fare but it was fresh. Pastries were homemade, meats and gravies stewed in the kitchen and very little processed food crossed our plates. Recipes and dishes were time honored and classic. It was an intimate view of the diets and cooking of Northern England.
So what did we eat?
Breakfast always included the option of a Full English Breakfast. This consisted two eggs (fried, poached or scrambled), bacon and sausage, grilled tomato and grilled mushrooms, toast, and baked beans and/or blood pudding. Now mind, you didn’t have to have all of that. You could pick and choose the items you liked. I would often pare it right down to a poached egg on toast. One observation: these people know how to cook eggs. In 26 days there was only one instance of a less than perfectly fried or poached egg. But as you can imagine, eggs every day can get a little much after a while so there was also the option of the classic British sandwich, the Bacon Butty. This is a fried back bacon sandwich served on buttered toast. Sounds hearty and it was but it was also delicious. Sausage sandwiches were also available. We were always asked if we wanted a “sauce” to go with our breakfast. Much as I was tempted to ask for hollandaise sauce, I know they meant ketchup or HP Brown sauce (a cross between a more vinegary ketchup and A-1 Steak Sauce). Nothing sweet like french toast or pancakes was ever offered.
I was delighted when given the choices for our first packed lunch. Having lived in England for 7 years I already had a fondness for the Cheese and Pickle Sandwich. The cheese should be a good English cheddar and the pickle will be Branston Pickle.This is not an American style dill or sweet pickle. It is almost a relish or chutney made of a variety of diced vegetables in a thick and vinegary tomato based sauce. The Ploughman’s Lunch served at many pubs consists of a chunk of cheese, a piece of good bread and Branston Pickle. This sandwich is the to-go version. Other sandwich options included ham (on bread with butter) and “salad” which was lettuce, tomato and cucumber on buttered bread. One of the more interesting options we were given was a cheese and carrot sandwich.
Best of all was when we got meat pies!
A meat pie is just what it sounds like, meat in one form or other encased in pastry to form a small hand-held pie. Our pies ranged from elegant to home-made. The homemade pie consisted of minced lamb, boiled potatoes and carrots and gravy. The elegant pie was bought from a pie shop and was a small tart fill with a type of pork country-style pate and topped with cranberries.
Along with the sandwich (or pie) we would be given a bag of chips, an apple and if we were lucky a piece of cake. The cake was, as you would expect, British style not American. Sometimes it was fruitcake, sometimes treacle or ginger cake and on occasion we would receive a slice of flapjack (a sweet oat bar made from oats, butter, brown sugar and golden syrup). We loved it when we got real cake and liked to eat it when we stopped to share a thermos of hot tea in mid-morning.
The pubs where we ate dinner were often the only dining option in town. Here we would usually run into a few other hikers as well as a assortment of local townspeople. Even the smallest town had a pub and on weekends this could be quite busy. The choices never changed much but a few things were really excellent. Steak and Ale pie would be counted on to be a good choice with a thick rich gravy and tender meat in a flaky crust. Lamb shank, if available, would usually be local lamb slow-cooked to fall off the bone, Gammon Steak (ham) was never something I wanted but was popular with the locals, as were sausages and mashed potatoes and, of course, fried fish. James claims that the British have perfected the fried onion ring and would often order them along with his chips (french fries). About the only thing it was hard to get was fresh vegetables or salad. Side vegetables, when offered, were always over cooked carrots, boiled cauliflower and sometimes broccoli. A memorable meal was at the local “Chippie” (Fish and Chip Shop) where we had fried cod, fried halloumi cheese, fried onion rings and, of course, fried potatoes. Our side veg was ketchup!
And finally dessert (or pudding). I never realized that James had not experienced Sticky Toffee Pudding before. This soft cake served hot with caramel sauce and custard (or ice cream) was his new favorite and he tried it everywhere from the best restaurant in London to the lunch on Virgin Air. I believe the final count was eleven different versions. When that was not available, Eton Mess was on offer: crumbled meringue tossed with whipped cream and strawberry jam. They tried to sell this to me as a British version of the Australian Pavlova but I’ve had Pavlova made by Aussies and this is not the same!
It all sounds very English and sometimes heavy but in actuality it was often just what was needed after a long day walking up to the moors in all kinds of weather.
But my all time favorite treat was a sweet, ripe, sun-warmed blackberry picked off the bramble as we walked by. And of all the things I would like try out here at the Carolina Bed & Breakfast it is to create an apple and blackberry topping for our sweet popovers in celebration of the best British pudding of all: Apple and Blackberry Crumble. Yum.