England – or in the land of fish and chips

It is time to publish another piece of my travel writing course from the University of New Orleans. Enjoy and join me on a culinary journey through England….

Phew! I had great expectations. Fish and chips: it sounded delicious and just by the words my mouth watered instantly. Everyone got his package, a folded newspaper from the day before, a little fatty by its contents. The smell of the breading reminded me of home – homemade German Schnitzel with potato salad. It was mixed up with the smell of the fish, a little bit salty with a hint of algae, fresh from the ocean. The crispy chip  added a delicate note to it and made my expectations even bigger. It was served with tartar sauce, which gave an aromatic flavor.

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When the host family of my student exchange in East Grinstead asked me to try fish and chips, The English national dish, I could not say “No”. So, I was sitting in my guest family’s living room, surrounded by the family of my exchange student and my German and British friends and we were all holding our packages of fish and chips. Some of the Germans were cautious and afraid about what was going to happen next, but the most of us were just as hungry as hunters and wanted to check out the foreign food and taste the country we were visiting.

Every bit by bit, we unfolded the wrapped newspaper and when we all accomplished it, the food looked as delicious as it smelled before. The breaded fish was at the bottom of the package, surrounded by chips. The tartar sauce was all over it. Taking the first bite of chips, the crispy outside burst and cleared the way for the soft inside, a kind of potato mash. In combination with the sauce, it tasted fabulous and as they were much bigger and thicker than French fries in Germany, the taste was more overarching. I was nestling the newspaper around the fish, to get closer to it, and held it perfectly to achieve the fullest bite of the cod filet. My teeth cracked the breading and, …wait …what was that?!? It was slimy and greasy and slipped into my mouth. As I opened my eyes, I recognized it. The fish was fully breaded with its skin. You can eat fish with skin, sure, crispy grilled or roasted. But holding it in my hand, flabby and slippery, my hunger was totally gone. By taking a look around, no one had noticed it. Everyone else was eating their dinner, chatting and wiping their mouths, which oozed with fat, with table napkins. The fish skin stuck in the newspapers and found its way to their mouths. “Lisa, are you enjoying your meal?”, my guest mother asked and filled my glass with lemonade. I was just nodding and tried to dissemble my disgust. Not saying a word, I finished my fish as fast as I could, not thinking about what I was eating. To guild the greasy texture, every bite was filled with tons of tartar sauce. At this moment, for me everyone was right: the English do not have a sense for cooking. All stereotypes were fulfilled instantly and the Queen would not be amused by my disgust for one of her national dishes. For the rest of my exchange, I tried to avoid further introductions to English food and was fine with simple meals, where I do not have to take any risks.

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This experience, my first with fish and chips, was in 8th grade. It was eight years in the past, when I travelled to London for my third time in April 2010. A friend and I flew to London to visit one of our best friends, while she was spending her year abroad at King´s College. Since we have been to London before and visited the most famous sights, such as Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge, and the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, we did not want to do the typical tourist stuff again. But our friend decided to go on a royal city tour with us. Our first doubts of a boring walk through the city were abandoned as we saw the tour guide, a good-looking English guy, who turned out to play in a band. A rock star! He guided the whole group through royal London and explained all landmarks in detail with their historical and royal backgrounds. We watched the Changing of the Guard in front of Buckingham Palace, experienced where William and Harry live, and visited Horse Guards Parade, the parade ground behind Westminster Abbey, where the Queen celebrates her birthday and where in 2012 the beach volleyball court of the Olympic summer games was built.  After the tour, our tour guide invited the entire group to join him for lunch. As my friend had a little crush on him, we decided to go and maybe he would have some insider tips for London.

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We took the Piccadilly line and one of the several underground station exits spit us out onto crowded and loud Leicester Square. Royal London was over and we were back in reality. People weaved by and yelled at each other; some listened to music on their iPods; others were talking on their phones. Yet again, others spread the smell of grilled or breaded food. Oh no, not again! I looked up and saw where the smell was coming from: the place was framed with little pubs and restaurants; people were sitting outside with a beer or cider, and holding packages of wrapped newspaper in their hands, packages full of fish and chips. And at this point, I remembered what our tour guide said: “Hey guys, you want to join me for the best English national dish? You will definitely never forget it.” Yah, never forget it, I had this experience before. I said yes, blinded by the imagination of a wannabe rock star. What was the outcome? Me standing in front of a restaurant, trying to get a table to “enjoy” fish and chips. Again. Okay, so I maybe can order something else, there are for sure other enjoyable meals in there.

The restaurant looked pretty nice. Dark wooden benches were cushioned with red velvet pillows. Above the thick wooden tables, crystalline chandeliers filled the room with shimmering light. The long bar, dominated the room and hid a wall full of liquor bottles. The scenery reminded me of pictures I saw of the Roaring Twenties, waiting every second for Hemingway or Fitzgerald making an appearance and sip their gin at the bar.

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We settled snuggly at a corner table and in the moment I grabbed the menu to choose my lunch, I was thrown back into 2010. Our tour guide ordered fish and chips for every one of us. Damn it! Until our plates arrived, I ran through every excuse for not eating my dish, but I did not found an acceptable one. The fish and chips arrived, and my friends encouraged me to give England another culinary chance and try it once more. The plates were bright white and no newspaper could be found, instead baking paper printed in newspaper-style imitated the genuine. The fish looked nearly the same as eight years ago, but more golden and crispier. However, in my mind, a monstrous and creepy version of breaded British fish with its skin was created throughout the years and with every retelling of the story the fish got slimier and the skin flakier. Nevertheless, on this plate it was nestling between good-looking, golden brown French fries and the famous tartar sauce. What a déjà-vu!

As expected the chips were delicious, crusty with soft potato mash inside. The sauce was homemade and much better than the industrially produced one I had back in East Grinstead. By the end, my most feared opponent: breaded English fish. My knife burst the breading and glided towards the cod filet. I could not look at it, but just put the fork into my mouth. Waiting for the disgusting and sliming piece of fish skin, I push the fish from side to side, but nothing happened. Just the taste of fresh breading, combined with a dash of lemon, vinegar and pepper, and the overwhelming taste of the cod filet spread into my mouth. I tried another bite and it was still the same feeling. I opened my eyes and examined the fish on my plate, but the dreaded fish skin was not there. Nowhere.

I completely ate everything on my plate, and I dipped the fries or the final pieces of the breading in the tiniest rest of sauce. Fish and chips had me utterly back and I had to adjust my prejudices. From now on, I believed that the English are not the worst cooks in the world; they actually can cook really well … okay delicately. I realized that the only thing I built my prejudices and disgust on went back to the evening in East Grinstead in 2002. In fact, the other British dishes, like baked beans or crumble were pretty good. So, can I please have some more?

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One thought on “England – or in the land of fish and chips

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