Friday, November 11, 2011

English Food: The Good, The Bland, and The Delicious Dairy

I'm spending my junior year studying abroad at Oxford. There have been many adjustments to be made: to different academics, different currency and different cell phones, and very importantly, at least in my case, a different perspective on food.

I love scones, and I came to England already adoring tea, which is a good thing because they take tea very seriously here. I’ve so far had tea at several cafes in Oxford (by tea, I don’t just mean the drink, I mean the whole meal: scones, cute triangular sandwiches, sometimes chocolates, pastries or cake, all piled on a tiered platter; otherwise called a “cream tea” or “Devonshire tea”). At home, I take my tea with honey. That’s considered weird: usually, it’s served with a little milk pitcher and a bowl of brown and white sugar cubes. The scones vary: some are wedges, some are circular, some doughy, some dry and crumbly, some dusted with powdered sugar, and always accompanied by strawberry jam and clotted cream.

I love the formality of tea: you place a sugar lump in your cup, pour the tea over it, add the milk, stir with a tiny silver spoon, drink carefully, and replace the cup on its saucer. Repeat.

Clotted cream, like many British dairy products, tastes fresher and richer than American versions (the chocolate is better, too!). I’m not sure if this is because their food is more likely to be locally sourced, but the difference is palpable. Clotted cream has a butter-like consistency but is not salted. As for the dainty sandwiches, there are the standards, with rare deviations: salmon and cream cheese, watercress and cucumber, egg salad, all crustless and angled.

One of the best things about being in England is the abundance of food items that I’m not familiar with. While getting a gingerbread latte at a chain coffee stand on Cornmarket street, I saw a package labeled “toffee waffle.” Of course I had to find out what a toffee waffle was, if only for the sake of the very-fun-to-say moniker. Toffee waffles are wafer-like sandwich cookies with sticky toffee in the middle; the label helpfully suggests you balance the cookie on top of your coffee to warm it up before eating. Another recent discovery is the Cornish Pasty, sold by the West Cornwall Pasty Company on Oxford’s main street. Pasties are the national dish of Cornwall (according to Wikipedia): a pastry sealed with a crimped edge that is filled with meat, vegetables and spices. I’ve eaten the traditional one, which includes beef, onion and potato; and also an onion and cheese variation that was very yummy. For about £3, it makes for a good deal on lunch, and you don’t have to wait for your food as they’re kept hot and ready under lamps.

British food is notoriously bland, but I’ve only found that to be true of the dining hall food, and really, I think that has more to do with the fact that dining hall food is always bad than with national culinary character. The dining hall gives us fried fish at least twice a week. We have "formal hall" on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Students must wear their gowns (kind of like a black cape but with awkward shoulder flaps); Latin grace is said, and there are three courses served. I have a hard time with this: it is always in need of salt, always mushy, and always starchy. But I’m a big fan of the Full English Breakfast, available at any self-respecting pub: sausage, British bacon, poached eggs, tomato, mushrooms, blood pudding, some form of potatoes, although British bacon (I call it fakin’) is not as good as its American cousin. It’s thinner and leaner and tougher, and it arrives in deep red ribbony bits, not greasy strips.

When I’m stressed, I head over to G & D’s, the neighborhood ice cream cafe, conveniently (or not so conveniently, depending on your views on massive amounts of ice cream consumption) located right up the street. The “cookie monster” sundae is delicious. The best desserts, however, are farther away in the Covered Market. The Covered Market is sort of like Reading Terminal, but with serious historical cred. As in, it was founded before the United States existed. Nutella milkshakes from Moo Moo’s and hot cookies from Ben’s Cookies are the best treats I’ve had so far.

If you want to read more about Oxford, I'm keeping a blog about my experiences. This is a list of places where you can try the Full English Breakfast in Philly; and here is a list of British pubs in the area. One of my favorite places (a bit further away from Penn; it's about a 30 minute train ride) is A Taste of Britain in Wayne, which offers an authentic British tea service, complete with adorable teapots, warm scones and clotted cream, and a selection of British candies imported from the motherland.



  1. I love food that has that cultural feel to it.


  2. I think these toffee waffles might be Dutch in origin! When I was in the Netherlands one summer, I saw them sold everywhere under the name Stroopwafeln - either as street food or packaged in grocery stores. Great gift to bring home!

  3. great post! always wanted to try an english breakfast. that toffee waffle looks good too.



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