Analyzing the Culinary Offerings of Our Former Colonial Overlords (with the Aid of My Comrade in Arms, Celebrity Chef Jamie Oliver)
Brit, you might not want to read this…..
When I was gallivanting about last month, one of my main priorities (apart from saving humanity and all that) was to understand the cuisine of an obscure little country located on the island of Great Britain—a nation that once struck fear in the hearts of even the most stalwart champions of freedom: England.
This tiny little swath of land, located in the Northern Atlantic, shares land borders with better known Scotland and Wales. Apparently, the citizens of this country “England” were some of the first immigrants to our great nation. Yeah, who knew! Having sampled some of the traditional English fare, I understand why these Englishmen put off the massacre of the indigenous Americans until after they learned some culinary skills from America’s first people.
I found all of this out over a gruesomely disgusting meal of black and white pudding with famous English celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. That’s a picture of him pondering the quirks of the English palate above. More on that and some complimentary analysis of the cuisine of our former colonial overlords after the jump.
Okay so I lied.
I didn’t meet Jamie Oliver, but I did dine at his very first restaurant “Jamie’s Italian,” located on George Street in central Oxford. The picture above was one of the many softly-backlit shots of the celebrity chef that decorate the wall in Jamie’s Italian. I liked the food at the restaurant overall, although I wasn’t BLOWN AWAY per se.
That’s the storefront of Jamie’s Italian in Oxford. I think Jamie made a smart choice, choosing to play with solid Italian fare, rather than trying to dress up the fish and chips and blood puddings and such that characterize traditional English cuisine.
I guess I should start by saying that Oxford may indeed be its own culinary animal in England. In my limited experience, the food in London is as diverse and vibrant as the food in New York City….The food in Oxford on the other hand trends toward the blah. Pub food in particular can get grievously monotonous.
That is not to say that all of the food in Oxford was bland; far from it. I had some really exceptional Indian food, Lebanese food, Korean food, and some damned good Malaysian and Thai food in Oxford.
But back to Jamie’s Italian first to give my compliments and critiques to the chef.
We had a spot right next to the kitchen, truly thrilling for me. I got to watch the kitchen staff make the food and scramble about. The waitstaff used smart phones to send the customer’s orders straight from the table to a computer screen in the kitchen. Pretty cool way of ensuring that your exact order goes to the kitchen, huh? I have to say, the service was excellent, and the prices weren’t too bad for a Celebrity Chef’s joint.
Mmmm… A wonderful choice for an appetizer: Olives on Ice. The olives were a surprisingly bright green. They were fleshy, sweet and salty at once – really maybe the best olives I’ve ever tasted. The tapenade in the middle, served with some flat bread that was only so-so. Other sides that received rave reviews around the table: flash cooked seasonal greens (not a vegetarian dish, the greens were cooked in some kind of meaty broth); and the slow-cooked balsamic chickpeas.
This ginormous burger was beautiful enough in its presentation for even a vegetarian to appreciate. The guy who ordered it loved the burger meat and the fixings but complained that the bread on top was a bit too thick and crispy for him to properly enjoy the burger. Upon removal of the top piece of bread he was eminently happy with the burger. While he was struggling with the bread, I snagged sampled his french fries (adorably confused Brits call them “chips”) and they were delicious. Topped with salt, garlic and parsley, they were not as plain jane as most Brits might expect their chips to be … and they were all the better for it.
Another friend ordered the grilled fish special of the day. He couldn’t keep his mouth shut about how good it was but unfortunately, non-fish eater I, I did not catch the name of the fishy goodness.
I ordered the Curly Penne Arrabbiata for my main course. I have to say I was a little disappointed. The sauce was only okay (if the sauce is supposed to be Arrabbiata, I want to feel the hint of fire, I want a nice touch of garlic.) The sauce basically tasted like a nice marinara. The pasta was good and fresh and the curly penne added an extra dash of creativity to a generally blah dish. I’ll forgive Jamie for the miss though, I understand his restaurant caters to a blander palate than mine, and the English palate seems more sensitive to spice than the average American palate. Thank goodness that a vibrant immigrant community is mixing up the cuisine a bit in the U.K… On to the rest of Oxford!
One of the better English pubs in Oxford with three spacious outdoor patios is Turf Tavern. It stands on a secluded ally between Hollywell and High streets and the food is generally good if not amazing. It’s a nice place to get a pint of scrumpy and a cheap meal of, what else, chips and a salad or fish (for the carnivorous). I spent many an evening with my companions at the Turf. One feature of the pub that is not to be missed, the placard above: The Turf claims to be the hang out of former President Bill Clinton while he was a Rhodes scholar at University College in Oxford, and the locale where he … ahem … did not inhale.
One of my favorite places to eat was a restaurant that specialized in fusing the flavors of the European Continent, the Middle East, Thai cuisine, other Eastern and Subcontinental fare, and ….um…really good English food! This prize of a restaurant, called Michael’s Old School, is located just off Gloucester Green, and by jove (!) I never ate a less than sumptuous bite during my various visits.
Every day, the chef, award-winning Michael von Hruschka, creates a robustly creative special menu to complement an equally delectable staple menu. My favorites were the hummus and the mezze plate, and the fresh spring rolls. A nice feature of the restaurant were the herbs (basil, thyme, rosemary) left at the table so that diners can flavor the dish to their taste. My companions raved about the soft-shell crab, the lamb, and the french onion soup. Michael’s Old School is not to be missed!
Did I mention how damned frackin fairy-tale beautiful Oxford is?
On one especially memorable Saturday, my colleagues and I went to the Oxford Covered Market, just off of the main touristy drag, Cornmarket Street. We bought all sorts of farm fresh goodies, tapenades, marinated artichokes, artisan’s bread, cheese (smelled so good), produce, fish and wine. We then walked across the street to the Botanic Gardens (which were built on top of an ancient Jewish cemetery after the Jews were expelled from England in 1290.) We proceeded to picnic on this amazing spread while watching hapless tourists punt along the river and crash into one another’s boats.
Lessons Learned from Oxford/Broad (and Slightly Offensive) Generalizations:
- Do avoid pubs that smell like piss
- Don’t expect spicy food – even in proper Indian restaurants when you practically beg for it
- Do visit the Oxford Covered Market
- Do drink plenty of cider
- Do realize that with the influx of immigrant communities and the advent of the EU, Oxfordian English cuisine can no longer be stereotyped as a merely fish and chips and blood pudding diet – go for the global cuisine! The English are in the midst of a culinary revolution in which they are enthusiastically embracing the ancestral fare of these new Englishmen and women and while you won’t find chilies prominently featured in any of this “ethnic” cuisine, you can find delicious and fulfilling meals… even in Oxford.
Anyway, hope I didn’t offend the Oxfordians and the Brit ESers too terribly much…. Just having a little fun at the expense of our former colonial overlords!
This blog post was in no way endorsed by Jamie Oliver….
Photo of Michael’s Kitchen Old school: Headington Oxford
Agree on the surprising lack of spiciness! when I was in London and went to an Indian restaurant it was not as spicy as I would have liked it to be.
Also, I am not impressed with the Jaime Oliver pasta you ordered – I would expect waaaay more. Pasta isn’t THAT hard to make look pretty and taste good!
I’ve lived here long enough to realize that my American friends will grab any opportunity at bashing English culinary fare- despite them only visiting London, Oxford, Bath… Did I miss anywhere?
I’ve heard Jamie’s “Fifteen” restaurant in London serves up a mean breakfast.
Oh, and I agree with you on the pub food, unless it’s non-chain then don’t bother.
I wonder…wouldn’t some spicy heat help our colonial cousins have an easier time surviving cold Atlantic winters? Nothing says a cold winter evening more than a big helping of Vindaloo (the firey kind.) Though, I would agree that shepherd’s pie is also lovely.
NPR did a piece last spring on how the recession affected American tourism to Europe. They interviewed a restaurateur in Italy who said he was missing Americans’ adventuresome palates, as compared to his Northern European tourists. When I heard that, I puffed up my chest, thanked Obama for spreading good-will abroad, and shouted in agreement that we Yanks do have palates to be proud of.
@Brittania – I know I threw down the gauntlet with my post, but I wonder at your critique. If London, Bath and Oxford do not offer us Yanks a complete panorama of the English palate, what cities/regions do you suggest we visit on a culinary tour of your homeland? Are there culinary gems in England that are too often overlooked by touring Yanks? what is the food capital of England (the equivalent of Lyon in France)?
The British are one of the few groups that it’s totally okay to make fun of in America — we are afterall such anglophiles in general. I think you have the right of it: In the ways of food the English are infrerior to almost every place they colonized. Ahhh what justice!
p.s. you should have made fun of Oliver just a little for decorating his restaurant with “softly backlit pictures” of himself. I guess it really does take a ridiculous ego to be a top chef?