Category Archives: Food

Tea, part 4

My tea cupboard

At long last we get to the subject of how to make and serve tea as the British do—bearing in mind that we’ve established that there are many variations and everyone thinks their way is best.  The authors of the blog and accompanying book “Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down” (see Featured Book and Featured Links) tell us the technical term for this is “projected tea enjoyment”: everybody thinks other people will like tea the way they like it, and if others don’t prefer it that way, they ought to.   

The following, therefore, is meant to entertain rather than to prescribe.   And it’s only part of the story;  there’ll be one more post after this one to finish the subject of tea—for now.

Making and Serving Tea

First, choose your tea.  At a formal tea guests usually have a choice of two; you may have seen this in costume dramas in which hostesses ask their guests “India or China?”, having a pot of each standing by.  Indian tea is the default; if offering a China tea (always “China tea”, not “Chinese tea” here) likely choices include gunpowder tea and lapsang souchong.  Or in a break with tradition the second option might be something like Earl Grey instead. 

My tea caddy, which belonged to my husband's grandmother

You keep your tea in a caddy—where else would you keep it?—which these days means a pretty, or at least a serviceable, tin.  In years past a tea caddy locked and the lady of the house kept the only key, because—as I learned on a visit to Jane Austen’s house—tea was expensive and it was thought that servants might be tempted to pilfer.  A lady of my acquaintance tells me that a proper tea caddy had compartments for different teas and a bowl for mixing them; the lady who kept the key blended the tea herself.  She prepared the cups herself, too, pouring each one and adding whatever each guest prefered, then handing them off to a parlourmaid who would take each cup to the guest for whom it had been made.  One good thing about this procedure was that no one said, as some British people do when having tea informally, “Shall I be mother?”  It’s a twee expression—to my ear, anyway—meaning “Shall I pour?” 

Indian tea is the default; it’s certainly the most widely chosen for breakfast, for afternoon tea, for friends who drop by, and for consoling victims in a crisis.  (I mentioned the restorative properties of tea in a previous post, but since then I’ve learned that the British considered tea crucial to morale during the second world war, so the Lyon’s chain of tea shops dispensed free tea from camouflaged caravans (US: campers) to bombed-out families and rescue workers.  Jumping forward to last month when my mother-in-law visited from the US and fell on uneven pavement in London, I can report that two Good Samaritans came to her rescue, each independently telling her she needed “a cup of tea, love”, one adding “that’ll settle you”.)

Have decided on the type of tea, will you choose tea bags or loose tea?  Loose tea requires either a tea ball (a little cage that lets water through but keeps the tea leaves in), a device to strain out the leaves as you pour, or a liking for damp vegetation at the end of your drink.  Of course, if you believe you have the gift of reading fortunes in tea leaves, you’ll want to be sure the leaves do get into the cup. 

A selection of the many free samples of tea I've been sent. The Red Cross sent me tea bags to encourage me to donate so that they would have money to help victims in emergencies, including providing said victims with tea, Britain's number 1 remedy for shock.

A fashion for tessomancy (reading tea leaves) in Victorian times has left us any number of lists of symbols and their meanings.  I have never encountered tea leaves in the shape of a dog (friendship) or a pirate (adventure), but perhaps I lack concentration—in which case my fault would be revealed when my tea leaves fell into the shape of a feather.  Victorian matrons must have had great powers of observation to be able to distinguish an tea-leaf eagle (strength) from a tea-leaf vulture (theft).  And if they did find such a bird—or a pirate, should he have a parrot—would they have counted that as finding feathers as well?  It must have been quite a skilled occupation.

If you don’t want leaves in your cup and you have no tea ball, you may find a tea strainer or a mote spoon useful.  A shallow mote spoon used to be a standard way of skimming errant leaves from the top of the tea after it was poured into the cup.  It could do double-duty as a caddy spoon, too, if you didn’t have one—a spoon for dipping tea out of the caddy and conveying it to the pot.  Note that either container or spoon could be called a caddy just to add to the confusio— fun.

Tetley's drawstring tea bag, with diagrammatic instructions. I've been gone from the US for so long I don't know whether this is old hat to American readers, or the latest in teatime technology.

Like most people, I’m happy for the tea leaves to stay in the tea bag.  While some here will tell you that the contents of tea bags are leftovers or “floor sweepings” that’s unlikely, if for no other reason that most tea is sold in tea bags and sweepings from the production of loose tea couldn’t possibly account for it all.  Tea bags are definitely the less elegant but are generally the more practical choice, whether you like yours rectangular, pyramidal (though these are really usually tetrahedral), round, or—the latest thing here—with a drawstring, so that you can squeeze the water out without having to touch the damp tea bag.  Until I encountered the drawstring version I’d never used tea bags that came with instruction diagrams. 

The first tea bags were made of silk by an American importer who sent them to customers as samples of his merchandise.  At least one British author says the importer intended the consumer to open the silk bag and pour the tea into the pot, but the “clueless Americans” didn’t know any better, and dunked the whole bag.  If so, then great credit must be given to clueless Americans. 

My unusual tea cosy

The staple tea at our house is Tesco’s Finest, a blend of Indian teas, but my cupboard (US: cabinet) is full of different tea bags: some bought, some received as gifts, some left behind by visitors, and lots and lots of free samples. Everybody seems to want me to buy their tea: Twinings, Tetley, Numi, or Yorkshire Tea.  That last one is made especially for hard water areas and, let me tell you, we may be hundreds of miles fromYorkshire, but if the water here were any harder we’d have to chip off chunks and suck them to get a drink. 

Britons generally concur that it’s best to use one tea bag or one teaspoon of loose tea per person plus one extra, often called “one for the pot”.  The correct temperature for the water is debated, however.  Some maintain it should be just shy of the boiling point, and others that keeping the temperature right up at boiling is so crucial that they warm the pot by rinsing it with boiling water before they fill it, lest the cooling effect of the ceramic result in a suboptimal cup of tea.  I can’t tell the difference, and I don’t bother warming the pot. 

The other side of my unique tea cosy

Nor do I generally use a tea cosy, a device to keep the tea warm while it steeps.  For everyday use, tea cosy-favouring households generally have something knitted or crocheted by a family member.  Except for the slits for handle and spout these look very much like woolly hats (presumably why Dobby the house elf wears one on his head in the Harry Potter books), often complete with pompoms on the tops.  Manufactured tea cosies are sewn using two pieces of quilted fabric (see photos), and you commonly find them in souvenir shops and museum shops.  My tea cosy is more of a curiousity piece, definitely one of a kind; a friend found it in a charity shop and gave it to me, apparently thinking I was the kind of person who really needed an  elaborately embroidered, appliqued, and quilted velvet creation with “M. C.  Aged 80″ worked into it.  I confess I’d love to know who M. C. was and who made her this extraordinary tea cosy.  Or did she make it herself, signing her initials and age the way girls do when making samplers?

Now that you’re all set with your tea, your teapot, and your tea cosy, I’m afraid I have to leave you to your own devices until the next post.  You certainly can’t pour the water now; by the time I upload my final post in this series the tea would be stone cold.

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Tea, part 3

The Tea Shop at Watts Gallery is my favorite place to go for tea in Surrey. See the bottom of this post or the Featured Link on the right for a link to their site.

The first thing that happens when you start reading about tea is that you find many people quoting Gladstone (one of the most famous British Prime Ministers, having held the office four times during the reign of Queen Victoria), who apparently said

If you are cold, tea will warm you –

If you are too heated, it will cool you –

If you are depressed, it will cheer you –

If you are excited, it will calm you.

I haven’t found the source of the quotation—maybe it wasn’t even Gladstone who said it—but it doesn’t really matter, because most of Britain would agree with him.

So how do you make and serve this panacea? This is not a simple question. It’s something like a religious war; there are many factions, each certain that it knows the one correct way to turn tea leaves into something you can drink. The single thing they have in common is that they all start by heating water.

Tea Shop staff bake their own cakes on the premises.

In fact, the country is so united in this that at times they put real strain on utilities. In the US, I boiled water by putting a closed kettle with a whistling cap over a flame on the stove (UK: on the hob) and so did most people I knew, but over here electric kettles are standard. Demand for electricity at the end of Wills and Kate’s carriage ride from Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace, as viewers got up from in front of their tellies and switched on their electric kettles, caused a sudden 2400 megawatt drain on the system.

The couples’ later appearance on the balcony for a wave and a kiss coincided with a 3000 megawatt drop in demand for electricity, making it clear that viewing figures for coverage of occasions of national interest can be measured in terms of kettles, whether you count those that were boiled or those that weren’t. The royal wedding procession was, by this measure, a one million kettle or one megakettle event, while the balcony appearance rated 1.25 megakettles. The surge at the end of Charles and Diana’s 1981 wedding rated merely 0.75 Mkettles (a figure not corrected to reflect lower density of electric kettles in the population at that time).

With so many people brewing up several times a day, a measurable portion of the country’s carbon footprint is created by boiling water for tea. Nobody would suggest the population cut back on tea consumption; the problem is that some people have a habit of filling the kettle to the top every time, even if they’re only making two or three cups. There are public service announcements on television every once in a while asking viewers to remember to boil only the water they need.

The Gallery and Tea Shop are right on the North Downs Way, a long-distance trail, and hikers (UK: ramblers) are welcome. There are lots more outdoor tables by the leafy lane on the other side of the shop.

They might do that anyway, if they were concerned about saving water, but our neighbors don’t seem to bother about that most of the time. Coming here after 20 years in drought-prone California, I was amazed that free water could fall right out of the sky so often, and further amazed at how a lot of people waste the water once it falls. One Christmas I put on a joint celebration with an English friend who used to be a chef; he would turn the water on to wash a parsnip, then cross the kitchen to some other task and leave the faucet running because sooner or later there’d be more vegetables to wash, and it was only water. I spent much of Christmas morning following him around and turning the faucet off.

They don’t say “faucet” here, either, by the way. Water comes from the tap. The builders who remodeled my kitchen were extremely amused at my American language, especially Lee: “Hey, Bob! Listen to what they call the tap!” (to me) “Go on, say it again!”

When I lived in Palo Alto, water officers patrolled the town by bicycle in drought years, writing tickets when they found people wasting water; here we don’t even have a water meter. Despite all the rain we do have droughts here, because the population isn’t equally spread around the nation and instead too many people live in the south of England, around London (er, I would be part of the problem, then). Per capita, there’s less water in the south of England than there is in Saudi Arabia, or so I’ve read. Government pamphlets urging us to save water suggest we voluntarily allow our water companies to install domestic water meters, prompting consumer radio programmes to issue dire warnings to think carefully before you choose to use a meter, because once it’s installed, you cannot ever remove it. The idea that you’d have to warn people that they couldn’t get rid of their water meters amuses me as much as the word “faucet” amused Lee (who is the Michaelangelo of house painting, and no, I won’t give you his phone number, nor will I give you Bob’s; I want them available when I need them).

The Gallery itself houses the paintings of Victorian artist G. F. Watts, including "Hope", a favorite of President Obama's and the inspiration, ultimately, for his phrase "The Audacity of Hope".

In drought years we have “hosepipe bans”. They don’t say you can’t water your plants, only that you can’t use your garden hose (except here, it’s a hosepipe). This is one of the strange-to-me ideas from which I conclude that the essence of foreignness is a difference in common sense. There isn’t enough water for people to drink and to shower, but I can use all the water I want to wash my car or keep my grass green as long as I carry it in buckets or watering cans? Go figure.

When a drought gets very bad we’re warned that we might have to “go to standpipes”. This means that the water companies will turn off the water and send water trucks to each neighborhood; residents will have to queue to get water because their taps-not-faucets will stop dispensing it. But…a standpipe is a pipe. That stands. It’s like a town pump: a permanent installation.  The Oxford English Dictionary confirms it. So if they’re sending water trucks, why don’t they call them water trucks? Okay, water lorries—why not? I’m told it’s historical; communities used to have standpipes. Communities also used to have village wells, too, but if a water truck hoves into sight I doubt the residents say “Quick! The village well is pulling up outside the vicarage! Fetch me bucket!”

Threats of “going to standpipes” notwithstanding, the fau—taps haven’t failed me yet. And from long habit, I’m frugal with water. Here again I come into conflict with British ideas. If I don’t use all the water in the kettle (for shame!), next time I use the kettle I just top it up and some of the water is re-boiled. Unthinkable!

My friends here generally pour the unused water from the previous boiling—water that was purified at some expense, piped to their kitchens, and profligately boiled to no purpose—down the drain. Tea must be made with “freshly drawn” water. I’m told it has to do with the oxygen content. I can’t tell the difference, so in my kitchen, I use the boiled (and still warm) water again. No one has ever told me that I make bad tea, but then nobody expects an American to make good tea—although one plumber did say “I see you’ve been here long enough to know how to make a good cuppa”. Made me oddly proud.

After refurbishment and under new management, it's fancier than it used to be, but it's still the closest thing here to the kind of laid-back cafe I used to go to in California.

Now, having gone into such detail about how the British boil water, I’ve run out of time to tell you about actually making tea.  What began as one blog postbecame two and then three, and now must now be at least four (Monty Python’s sketch about the Spanish Inquisition, anyone?). Perhaps by the time I post the next one I will have tracked down the source of that Gladstone quotation, but in the meantime if you are cold, overheated, depressed or over-excited, you know what to do.

This week’s post is brought to you by my favorite place to go for tea in Surrey, the Tea Shop at Watts Gallery  .  Many thanks to Gallery staff for permission to use photos from their web site.

Click here here to read a previous post on Obama and “Hope”.

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Tea, part 2

A classic British teapot for every day.


After my previous post about the British habit of drinking tea, a reader sent a link to a pleasant little song from 1935 called “Everything Stops for Tea”. It’s the kind of nonsense—one of the lines is actually “With a boom-a-lacka, zoom-a-lacka, wee”—that Hugh Laurie might sing when in character as Bertie Wooster. It’s a rhapsody on the sanctity of teatime, ending with these lines:

Now I know just why Franz Schubert
Didn’t finish his unfinished symphony—
He might have written more but the clock struck four
And everything stops for tea.

Reproduction of an antique teapot; a little pot of milk sits on top of the teapot where it stays warm, and the sugar bowl sits on top of the milk. Silver needs polishing though...

 Many things do stop for tea, including England’s national sport; cricket may be the only athletic contest that has time-outs for afternoon tea built into the rules. But stopping for afternoon tea is no longer universal; these days few business offices, for example, grind to a halt at teatime. Most factory workers nowadays take their tea breaks in shifts rather than letting all the machinery lie idle while they sip; stopping all the machines seems unlikely but I’m told it happens (or used to). Tea breaks, whether taken in shifts or all at once, are perks that union negotiators take seriously.

A Chinese rice-pattern teapot; little holes like rice grains are pierced through the clay leaving lacy gaps that light comes through, but the glaze makes it water-tight.

A pun on perk gives me license to drop in a word about coffee here: there is good coffee to be found in England, but sometimes you have to look long and hard. Issues of class and region complicate the situation, but I can safely say that at the lower end of the price scale Nescafé dominates the market. I’ve even seen restaurant and pub menus that offer filtered coffee or espresso and, separately and listed by brand name, Nescafé; to some people here, coffee means Nescafé, and if they’re served something fancier they don’t like it. A British friend of mine used to work for a coffee importer, convincing stores to carry his employer’s brand; as part of his sales pitch, he reminded potential buyers that coffee is an aphrodisiac. While he made a good living, and nowadays chains like Starbucks and Costa are thriving, coffee-drinkers are still in the minority. Most Britons prefer to have tea.

A teapot that is very much not my style, but I keep it for sentimental reasons: it's also a music box that plays 'Tea for Two', and my mother used to entertain us with it when we were little.

But tea can mean many things. That tea is a beverage is obvious, but afternoon tea is more or less a snack, and—again with regional and class considerations—some people call the evening meal “tea”. This can mean a meal for the whole household but is especially used to mean what the children eat in the evening, leading to a strange-to-American-ears phrase used by parents: “Sit down and eat your tea!” Finding that you can eat tea was new to me. “I’m giving them fish fingers for tea” (US: fish sticks) and “No, you’re not having that now, it’ll spoil your tea” sounded equally strange before I got used to them.

Afternoon tea (of the non-meal type) on an average day won’t be elaborate—a cup of tea by itself or with biscuits (US: cookies)—but you can make it a little more filling with bread and butter or a little fancier with cake. I understand it’s polite to eat bread and butter first, before going on to cake, so you fill up on the cheaper stuff. Older people who were children in the war years or the austerity years just afterwards remember having nothing but a cup of tea and a piece of bread and butter (or more likely margarine, and in some cases dripping, which is the fat from roast meat) for their evening meal. That had to hold them until breakfast.

If you go beyond biscuits and bread and keep adding things to eat, especially if you add savory as well as sweet things, you lift your tea out of the everyday category and find you’re serving a high tea, which is really more of a light meal. This is the British afternoon tea of American imagination (or stereotype), and is where the finger sandwiches come in—certainly cucumber sandwiches are the most usual, but you’ll also come across watercress or egg mayonnaise (US: egg salad), too. The next step up would be chicken, ham, or beef, in sandwiches or in pastry, and—if you’re really pushing the boat out, as they say here—smoked salmon.

Many thanks to my friend Jocelyn for contributing this photo of her elephant teapot.

But there is an even more delectable, if less substantial, option that you’ll rarely find except in these islands: a cream tea. No, the British don’t put cream in tea—that just makes it greasy. A cream tea consists of tea served with scones, cream, and jam—almost always clotted cream and most likely strawberry jam. Don’t be put off by the blunt Anglo-Saxon sound of the term clotted cream; this is a dairy product somewhere between cream and butter, with the best characteristics of both. You break off a piece of your scone (you would never spread the whole scone and then bite right into it, would you? Horrors!) and top it with a big blob of cream and then a dot of jam from the end of your spoon, and try to fit it all into your mouth without looking totally gluttonous. Occasionally cafes or tea shops offer whipped cream instead of clotted cream, but if you’ve ever tasted clotted cream, I’ll bet you’ll agree that whipped cream is an inferior substitute.

And this is Jocelyn's everyday teapot.

A cream tea is a traditional end to vigorous holiday/vacation activities such as long country walks; my public library’s catalogue lists eight titles such as “Tea Shop Walks in Surrey” so you can plan your route to end up at place guaranteed to offer the kind of tea you’ve earned with all that exercise. It’s a satisfying end to less strenuous activities, too, such as touring a stately home, particularly as most such establishments really depend for their running costs on the tea shop and the gift shop, that is, on people who buy tea to drink on the premises and then buy pretty tea towels with pictures of the house on them to take home.

And just as I said I find it hard to get really good coffee here (outside the big-name coffee chains), the British have been known to comment, often and loudly, that it’s impossible to get good tea in the US. In fact, there’s a tea company now running telly adverts (US:TV commercials) on that theme; they’ve got a mobile tea shop in a caravan (US: camper) going around the US providing good tea to Britons on holiday (US: vacation) there.  And who am I to question their assessment of US tea? But I will say that having had tea all over the British Isles, and granting that nobody can top a good British cream tea, one of the best high teas I’ve ever encountered was at the Huntingdon Gallery in southern California. Oh, and that song, the British hit “Everything Stops for Tea” made popular by British musical comedy star Jack Buchanan? It was written by Americans. For a British movie. Set in New York.

(Next time, in part 3 of this series, I’ll write about how the British make and serve tea.)

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Tea, Part 1

 

Teacup and saucer in the pattern Chinese Flowers from James Kent's Old Foley pottery. Gee--wonder why I'd be interested in collecting china from that line?

Drinking tea is so fundamental a part of Britishness that I can’t imagine why it’s taken me this long to get around to writing about it.

Americans may think that British people have tea in the afternoon as a break, a pick-me-up.  They do, but that’s only a part of it—they drink tea the live-long day.  For many, tea drinking starts as soon as the alarm goes off; it’s not unusual to find that somebody in the household brings hot milky tea to the others before they even get out of bed.  If you tour Britain staying in B&Bs, sooner or later one of your hostesses is going to say “Would you like to be knocked up with tea in the morning?”  (If that sounds strange, please click here to read a previous post that explains knocking up.)

Teacup and saucer in Garden Harvest by Mikasa. If you've read my previous posts about British food, you may recognize the dishes from previous illustrations.

Nowadays you hear that less often, it’s true; B&Bs have become more posh—and, alas, vastly more expensive—in order to compete with discount motel chains that only started really to blossom here about a decade ago.  You’re more likely to find a little electric kettle in your room, with teabags and packets of instant coffee.  Once you’ve check in, your hostess will bring you a little pitcher (UK: jug) of milk.

Tea-making in the bedroom itself has a long history. In the 1960s or 1970s the Teasmade was all the rage: a combination alarm clock, lamp, and teamaker, so that at the time you want to get up in the morning the light comes on and your tea is ready.  The first “teawakers” were patented in the late 19th century for, as it says in the patent application, the convenience of those who needed to get up and go to work—which couldn’t be done without tea—but who had no servant.  Ahem.  Many people now consider a Teasmade somewhat naff (US: tacky), but you can still buy them, so they must be filling some need.

Teacup and saucer with daisies, again from James Kent's Old Foley pottery, this piece bought on my first trip to England on which I made a point of finding the Foley Pottery, which took some doing. Eventually a nice guy at the Wedgwood pottery rang up a friend on my behalf--"Hey mate, where'd Jimmy Kent move to?"--and gave us directions.

There will also be tea with breakfast, of course, and you can have tea at the other two main meals if you like, though I’m not getting into the minefield of what these meals are called, as the answer varies with social class as well as region.  One thing that doesn’t vary, however, is temperature: tea is served hot.  Just as Americans don’t stop their iced tea consumption in the winter, so the British don’t stop their hot tea consumption in the summer, and contrary to what you may have heard, it does get hot here; a couple of years ago it broke 100F here for the first time since records began.  When I first moved to the UK I asked hopefully for iced tea in restaurants a few times and got horrified looks.  An English friend told me he’d never encountered iced tea until he went to the US and even then, said he was “still not sure it’s actually made from tea leaves; it tastes as if it’s from the root of some obscure vegetable, possibly South American”.    

 But if you want hot tea, you’re in luck, because anything at all can be turned into an excuse for a cup of tea.  If you’ve had a shock—heard bad news, been in a car wreck (UK: car crash), or perhaps found a dead body, because to judge from UK television’s line-up of detective programmes, it’s difficult to avoid finding a corpse when walking a dog here—someone is bound to offer you hot sweet tea.  Hot sweet tea is right up there with brandy as a restorative.  When the toughest he-men of the SAS (Special Air Service, one of Britain’s special forces) were in Iraq, one of the most important things at any pause in the action was to “get a brew going”, if Bravo Two Zero is anything to go by.
 

Bracelet by Pickard--wedding china that looks great on a Christmas tablecloth.

When a friend drops in, the first thing you must say after how nice it is to see them, is either “Shall I put the kettle on?” or “I was just putting the kettle on”.  If the person dropping by isn’t a guest but is any kind of technician, builder, or engineer there to repair, construct, or install something, you must keep the kettle going—tea will be wanted throughout proceedings.  (If you like these workers, you can offer biscuits—that is, cookies—too, but that’s not required.) 

If you move house, the removals men (US: movers—Britons do not move, they remove, apparently—though I don’t know what female movers are called here) you will find that they need milky tea with lots of sugar, all day long.  In my experience they don’t eat lunch, they decline your biscuits/cookies, they go all day on a constant supply of milky, sugary tea.  The very last thing to go on the moving van will be a box containing your teakettle, and that box will be unloaded into your new house or flat first, with a comment to let you know that the kettle is in that one.  If you value your possessions, you’ll take the hint.

In addition to the ordinary three meals, the British have a couple of optional auxiliary back-up mealtimes in case anybody gets peckish.  What Americans would call a morning coffee break, the British call a tea break, or sometimes call elevenses.  Tolkien famously patterned his hobbits on the good folk of England, and hobbits put high value on comfort and on food.  They eat dinner “twice a day if they can get it”, he wrote, and they are well-acquainted with elevenses, sometimes calling this “second breakfast”. 

A sturdy mug of authentic builder's tea beside our crumbling brick garden wall.

So finally we reach a discussion of afternoon tea.  Now at this point, there are a lot of options.  Tea can refer to a beverage, a snack, or a meal, and you can have an ordinary tea, a high tea or a cream tea–it’s such a large subject, I’ll have to address it in a separate post. I’ll tell you about afternoon tea in the next installment in which I’ll also, I hope, get into the subject of how one makes a good British cup of tea.

While it’s true, as I said at the beginning, that I hadn’t yet written about tea itself, I have posted my story of having afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason. And in another earlier post I wrote about an attempt, under the most recent Labour government, to encapsulate Britishness in a catchphrase of five words, but I don’t recall any of the published phrases including any mention of tea.  Tea may very well be a given, British at so basic a level that nobody thought to mention it.

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A Treacly Thanksgiving Message

Tate & Lyle tins/cans from my pantry

My family doesn’t usually observe American Thanksgiving now that we’re living in England; when nobody else is celebrating and it isn’t a public holiday, it loses most of its appeal. It’s not that I’m not thankful, that’s for sure, and it’s not that I don’t cook anything. In fact I spent the evening making spice cookies (UK: biscuits) to take to my doctor’s office (UK: doctor’s surgery) tomorrow for him and all the staff. The British National Health Service gives me excellent care—and without doubt the best access to medical care I’ve ever had—and I am truly grateful for it.

I couldn’t find my pumpkin- and turkey-shaped cookie cutters, though, so the clinic staff will have to make do with autumn leaf shapes and plain old circles. And the recipe calls for molasses, which we don’t have here, so I made the cookies with treacle.

When I first encountered Alice in Wonderland and read the story told by the dormouse about a treacle well, I was too little to know it was meant to be nonsense, and since I had no idea what treacle was, I happily took Lewis Carroll’s word for it that treacle was something that came out of a well. Harry Potter’s favorite dessert, treacle tart, isn’t quite that misleading, but it has none of what people usually call treacle in it, either. It’s one of my favorite British concoctions, and like so much good cooking it was born of necessity—you use up bread crumbs to make the filling—but it’s sweetened with golden syrup.

I’ve included photos of the tins (US: cans) of Lyle’s brand treacle and golden syrup from my pantry so you can see the remarkable labels used by the manufacturer, Tate & Lyle. It’s not often you come across food labeled with pictures of the carcass of a dead lion. The connection is the story of Samson, which is also the source of the quotation on the cans: “out of the strong came forth sweetness”. 

Samson seems to have been quite a capable lad, as the tale involves him killing a lion with his bare hands; finding later that bees had made a hive in the body of the lion, from which he harvested honey for his family; and later still being quick-witted enough to turn this into a riddle for what seems to have been some kind of after-dinner entertainment, karaoke not having been invented yet. But the dinner guests cheated at the riddle game so Sampson had to kill thirty of them, which is just the kind of story that makes reading the Old Testament so much fun, yet is precisely the part they leave out when they tell you about it in Sunday school.

The difference between black treacle and golden syrup.

From what I’ve read, treacle and molasses are both byproducts of refining sugar from sugar cane, as is golden syrup. Golden syrup is a type of treacle and molasses isn’t, though I have no idea why, and nobody calls golden syrup by the name treacle because… er, because treacle is something else entirely. Just look at the photos posted with this article and you’ll see the difference. And I have no idea why it’s easier to get molasses in the USA and to get treacle here. Presumably wherever you live, stores offer what the population prefers.

(My father, who was from Mississippi, preferred sorghum, which comes from a different plant entirely. If offered molasses he would launch into the old—if you’re from the American south—joke about how you cain’t have mo’  ’lasses if you ain’t had no  ’lasses yet.)

If the British prefer treacle then I would assume that treacle is sweeter than molasses, because most British food is sweeter than I like it. The national sweet tooth here seems to prefer things amazingly sweet, which I’ve always thought it might just be a holdover from the second world war. They had sugar rationing until 1953, and seem to still be making up for lost time.

But apparently treacle isn’t as sweet as molasses after all, because my spice cookies came out under-sweet. I’m going to give them to the clinic staff anyway.  I can pretend they’re meant to be like that, maybe call them low-sugar biscuits, bill them as a healthier option. The staff will still know I’m thankful to them for being there.

 *   *   *

And, readers, I’m thankful for you. 

In fact, I’ve been delighted to see how many readers seemed to be coming to read my posts these days—my hit count was looking pretty good.  That is, I was delighted, until I found that a good number of these readers were clicking through to this site from an Asian porn site.  Yes, my post from last Christmas on the English tradition of Christmas cake appeared, along with several links to other peoples’ Christmas-food blog posts, on what seems to be an Indonesian pornography site.

 So I am taking the advice of reader Rod Cuff from the north of England, who said that perhaps I could ask the people who enjoy my blog to post links to my site on their sites.  I would be most grateful if people would be willing to link to me, or even for people just to talk this blog up to their friends.  Somehow, I’d rather get new readers by asking you to join me in a marketing effort, than by getting myself listed on more porn pages.

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Brave Men vs. Chickens in Aldershot

In an earlier post I mentioned staying at a farmhouse B&B and helping to put the turkeys to bed at night. The family there said they’d started raising chickens and turkeys, intending to eat them all, but found they were too soft-hearted to kill a single bird; the poultry experiment had turned into an expensive hobby and the birds into pets. So when I talked to my local egg farmer (see previous post), I wondered whether she just sold eggs, or whether the chickens eventually appeared on the dinner table.

Gurkha grocery in Aldershot

She told me that some varieties of chickens are kept for eggs, and different varieties are raised for meat. What happens to her chickens when they no longer lay eggs? Here she hemmed and hawed and didn’t want to answer.

Britain is famously a nation of animal lovers. With the average person here concerned about animal welfare, and with animal rights organizations ranging from the ardent to the militant—and according to some into the terroristic—ready to picket (or worse) at the drop of a feather, I can see why the farmer wasn’t too sure she wanted to tell me what happens to her elderly laying hens. But eventually she did come out with it: she gives them to the Gurkhas.

Insignia of the Royal Gurkha Rifles

Gurkhas, in this context, means members of the British Army’s Brigade of Gurkhas, made up of soldiers from Nepal known here as especially fierce, brave fighters. (An Indian Army official famously said that if a man says he’s not afraid of dying, he’s either lying or a Gurkha.)

Gurkhas have been part of Britain’s armed forces since 1815, and while the Brigade’s headquarters and training sites have been located in different places, they are historically associated with Aldershot.  So when I go to my gym in Aldershot, I see rather more Gurkhas than you might otherwise expect to run into in Hampshire: generally shortish, powerfully-built people with almond eyes in round, dark-brown faces. Once in a while there’ll be a soldier in uniform—the Brigade’s insignia includes a crossed pair of khukris (or kukris or khukuris), traditional Gurkha fighting knives—but it’s more usual to see women with children, or older couples: he’ll usually be in western clothes with a pointed wooly cap, and she’ll be in a western coat over an ankle-length sarong-like skirt of colorful cloth.

Recently, older Gurkhas have fought in the courts to be allowed to remain in the UK after retirement, and to get the same retirement pay as other British soldiers. When the British Army first recruited Gurkhas, it was with the colonialist assumption that they would return to Nepal on retirement and wouldn’t need as much pay. While arrangements today aren’t the same as those in1815, change hadn’t kept pace with the realities of the modern world, but recent campaigns have resulted in some court victories that have improved the situation. Actress Joanna Lumley’s support for the campaign—her father was a British officer with the Gurkhas, and a Gurkha soldier once saved his life—ensures a lot of publicity.

Miss UK Nepal 2010 competition poster

The average Gurkha shopper on the streets of Aldershot isn’t after publicity, so I didn’t think it would be polite to ask anybody to stop their shopping to pose for my camera.  All I can offer, then, is shots of businesses catering to Gurkhas; on the way to the gym I pass the Buddha Convenience Store and the Everest Cash and Carry, which currently displays a poster advertising the Miss UK Nepal 2010 competition. (Alas, as in many beauty competitions around the world, the contestants pictured are far lighter-skinned than the average Gurkhas I pass on the street, or the young lady at the Everest, where I go to buy mango pickle and okra.)

So what do Gurkhas want with chickens? They’re used in training exercises, for practice living off the land in hostile territory. Hostile territory, that is, featuring elderly domestic hens—but I suppose everybody has to start somewhere.

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Eggs Hell

There are three eggs sitting on my desk between the dictionary and the telephone. Let me explain—

Goose eggs (the big ones) and duck eggs (the green ones) from a nearby farm.

In the UK, regional stereotypes are the opposite of what Americans are used to. The Independent (a national newspaper), for example, says the country is “starkly divided between the rich South and the poor North”; the BBC reports that most of “the affluent south east” is relatively unaffected by the rise in unemployment. A London Evening Standard columnist asks why a Scottish politician can’t seem to get along with “educated southerners”; search Google for “uneducated northerner” and you’ll get plenty of hits—people from the south of England lobbing the insult and people from the north of England using the phrase for humor or sarcasm, the way those of us from the southeastern US might joke (but only among ourselves) about being hicks.

Like most stereotypes, the one about the affluent educated southerners here has a little truth hiding a larger picture. I live in Surrey, a county in that affluent educated region, the part otherwise known as “the stockbroker belt” or “the gin-and-tonic belt”. Look into a train carriage on the line from London to Guildford in the evening rush hour and you’ll find plenty of stockbrokers and investment bankers heading back to posh homes in Surrey; there’s even a special little Tube line in London that does nothing but shuttle people between a station called Bank, in the financial district, and Waterloo, the station from which the trains run to Surrey.

The red lion on the carton shows what the red lion on the egg is supposed to look like; they often come out as just little red smears on the eggs themselves.

But that’s not all there is to Surrey. When we lived at the other end of the village, we bought eggs and firewood from a family that lived in a caravan (US: camper, in this case a fairly large one, but smaller than a trailer) on a plot of land, making what living they could with some sheep, chickens, ducks and geese. Their roadside sign says you can buy hay there—good for the horsey set, no doubt—and manure to fertilize your garden—possibly the output of the horsey set. And they’ve recently added charcoal for barbecue grills to their list, but they can only offer charcoal when it’s their turn to use a charcoal kiln they share with other farms, all part of a countrywide trend for farmers to diversify just to try to stay afloat. From the look of the place, it must be pretty hard going for them. Affluent, they are not: a few years ago they gave their daughter, as a 12th-birthday present, a trip to London. It’s only about 35 minutes by train, but train tickets cost money, so she’d never been there.

The girl’s mother was usually there to sell me eggs.  The trip made a nice break from sitting in front of a computer screen for me; I’d park by some trees where I could usually see a chicken or two perched in the lower branches, and start by greeting the dogs—two collie-type working farm dogs so friendly they’d practically try to get in the car to come home with me. Then as often as not I’d have to walk through some of the free-range chickens, ranging freely right over the paved walkway to the egg shed, where I’d chat to the farmer while she counted out my eggs.

I was thinking about this because the other day, somebody on Facebook mentioned that English eggs have darker yolks than American eggs, from the conversation, it was clear some people assumed that darker yolks mean better tasting or healthier eggs. I used to think so, too, but the egg farmer said it doesn’t work that way.

According to her, purveyors of chicken feed publish color charts, so you can pick the shade you want the yolk to be and buy the feed that will make the yolks turn out that color. There’s no difference in nutrition and, according to the farmer, anyway, no difference in taste. (I’ve since read that salmon farmers do the same thing to pick a desirable shade of pink for their fish.)

The code on a free-range egg

Shell color, on the other hand, is mainly a feature of the breed. Most of the eggs sold in England have brown shells; it’s the white ones that are unusual here. There are even breeds of chickens that produce green or blue eggs, though I’ve never seen any. (So Dr. Seuss could truly have eaten green eggs and ham.)

Even with brown shells as standard, people still use eggshell to mean a shade of white. Or at least they use something close to the word eggshell: when I wanted white shutters for the bedroom windows, the salesman showed me samples of the colours he offered, each stamped with the name of the shade: Bright White, Soft White, Linen and—Eggs Hell. Eggs Hell?

It seems the samples had come from the manufacturer in China, where someone apparently had relied a bit too much on their spell-checker, and he was stuck using those samples until he could get them to stamp a new batch.

The code on an organic egg

So I was ordering shutters in England, in a style called Vermont, to be made in China, for a company in Ireland, named Sante Fe Shutters. There’s globalization for you (or possibly, globalization coming home to roost). In such a world, it’s nice to buy local eggs, but I rarely see the egg farmer now that we’ve moved to the other end of the village. The milkman can bring eggs, the supermarket delivery van can bring eggs and either one is greener than driving someplace to buy things myself; I felt a bit guilty about abandoning ‘my’ farmer, but I was keeping my carbon footprint lower by using services that come to the house anyway.

Or so I thought. The local eggs don’t travel until I put them in my car; Lord knows where the other eggs I buy start out. So I went looking for the food miles associated with my eggs, and found a website where you can type in your postcode and the code from the egg you’re about to poach, and find out how far the egg travelled.

American readers may wonder what “the code from my egg” might be. Each egg sold in England carries a stamped string of codes and symbols (unless you buy it straight from the producer, on either your premises or theirs, and they have a flock of fewer than 50 birds). Most eggs have a little red lion, indicating the hens have been raised according to some health standard to minimize chance of salmonella and what-not.

But each egg also carries a digit to indicate whether it’s from organic, free-range, barn-raised, or caged hens, then a code for the country of origin, a 5-digit code identifying the farm it came from, and a best-before date.

Our elderly tabby cat, who was fascinated by the smells of the goose and duck eggs.

I had two kinds of eggs in the kitchen—one from a box (US: carton) delivered by the milkman, one from the supermarket—so I got one of each and fed the codes into the Egg Tracker at http://www.organiclinker.com/egg-miles.cfm and—

It didn’t work. Either I’ve got counterfeit eggs, or there’s a bug in the software. So I went to another supermarket and bought more eggs (I think I’d better make quiche for supper) and that one was tractable for the Tracker: It came from 169 miles away, in Derbyshire. Definitely time to start buying from the local egg farmer again.

In the meantime, here I am, an affluent, educated (quiche-eating) southerner and resident of the posh stockbroker belt, looking like a hick with a handful of eggs on my desk.

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The Full English

'True Humility' by George du Maurier, Punch, 1895. Original caption reads 'Bishop: "I'm afraid you've got a bad egg, Mr Jones"; Curate: "Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!"'

English food is great, despite what you might have heard.  The reputation of British cuisine—the reputation being that British and cuisine don’t belong in the same sentence—is long out of date.  I knew we’d crossed a threshold some years ago when an American professor of French literature told me he’d rather eat in London than in Paris nowadays; Britain now has Michelin stars all over the place, celebrity chefs by the kitchen-ful, and gastropubs which emphasize fine food rather than just good beer.  

It’s true that in the bad old days vegetables were boiled if you got them at all, even desserts were stodgy, and the average home cook had an acquaintance with suet that would cause a modern nutritionist to go weak at the knees.  Imported foods were rare during the war and for a long time afterward. In 1957, pasta was such a novelty that on April Fool’s Day, when the BBC ran a spoof documentary on the continental spaghetti harvest—farmers pulling ripe spaghetti from trees, enjoying a bumper year due to the eradication of the spaghetti weevil—some viewers phoned in to ask, in all seriousness, where they could get spaghetti trees to plant.  Attempts to bring in other cuisines weren’t always successful at first; in Edinburgh around 1990, a restaurant that claimed to offer “California-style Mexican food” served me the vegetable of the day: over-boiled cauliflower topped with guacamole.    

Those days are gone, thank goodness.  But throughout British history, where the cuisine really shone—and still shines—is at breakfast.  Even Hercule Poirot, who looked down his moustaches at English food otherwise, looked forward to a proper English breakfast as a fine meal indeed.   

Typical full English breakfast: fried egg, banger, bacon, grilled tomato, mushrooms, beans and that square thing on the left is a kind of Irish potato cake called a 'farl'.

Today the traditional full English breakfast, which I usually only encounter when staying at a B&B (bed and breakfast guest house), consists of tea or coffee, at least one egg and maybe two, bacon or sausage, with grilled (US: broiled) tomato, baked beans, or mushrooms.  But that’s just the start.  Most hosts offer all of these at once, and many add extras: fried bread, maybe, or haggis, or black pudding.  And then there’s the toast—like Americans’ endless cups of coffee, the toast just keeps coming, but served in toast racks, strange little toast caddies used so that the steam doesn’t make the toast soggy, but which my family calls Authentic English Toast Coolers (see illustration).  There’s almost always fruit juice and cereal as well.  Few people go away hungry from an English breakfast.  

But those new to the full English may be surprised; things are not always as they seem.  The bacon is back bacon, that is, what Americans call Canadian bacon, and so a real piece of meat rather than the streaky fatty stuff common in the US.  The problem is that it can be had smoked or unsmoked.  What the point of unsmoked bacon is, I have no idea, but even after eleven years here, I sometimes forget to look to be sure the package I pick up at the supermarket is marked smoked, because I’m still not used to the idea that you can sell something unsmoked and call it bacon.  

And as for the sausages, these are never sausage patties, but always links known as bangers.  They’re usually tasty but, unlike the bacon, they offer less meat than you expect, rather than more.    The basic banger—so-called because of the noise they make splitting as they cook—is about 30% rusk (a kind of bread crumbs).  With 5% made up of salt and other seasonings, that leaves 65% meat, of which half can be fat.  And beyond that, I don’t want to know; no matter where you are, enquiring too closely into what goes into sausage isn’t wise.  

Toast in a ceramic toast rack, aka Authentic British Toast Cooler. The little figure is the company mascot of Lurpak, a Danish butter company, and the rack was a freebie.

The eggs in a full English are usually fried, but not the way Americans fry eggs; these are almost deep fried.  You get a good depth of fat in the pan, break in the egg, but you don’t flip the egg over—you spoon the hot fat from the pan over the egg to cook the top.  I say “you” do this, though I don’t mean to cast aspersions; all I know is that I certainly don’t cook eggs that way.  

British breakfast eggs can also be had scrambled, but I don’t advise that option.  I don’t know how they scramble their eggs, but I suspect it involves adding a lot of water, as the result looks like something that might have been mixed up from a powder.  Once, at a particularly poorly run B&B—no heating, no shower, little hot water, at a price so high that when I heard it and blinked, the landlady crowed that so close to Bath, she could charge what she liked—scrambled was the only choice, and the eggs leaked so much that the sausage and bacon stood awash in a measurable depth of water on the plate.  

Children, and adults looking for comfort food, eat eggs and soldiers.  If you cut a piece of toast so as to form pretty-much-identical long fingers of bread, you have soldiers.  You get the boiled egg in an egg cup, slice off the top, and dip the soldiers into the yolk.  It seems to me that if you eat all the yolk with the toast you’re left with the bland egg white to finish up, so I don’t see the point of that method, either, but then I didn’t grow up eating that way.  

And then there’s a curate’s egg, which isn’t something you eat for breakfast at all, but is a common idiom.  To call something a curate’s egg is to say that parts of it are good and parts are bad (although originally the idea was that the bad parts spoiled the whole thing).  It comes from the Punch cartoon you can see at the top of this post.  

A close-up of the Lurpak butter-man; if you think he looks weird in ceramic form, you should see the animated version in the telly adverts/TV commercials, in which he plays the trombone.

Now, about those extras I mentioned—  

Fried bread is just what it sounds like: slices of bread, fried, and no, I can’t say that I like it.  I assume it must be a holdover from a time when peasants needed lots of fuel to keep them going all day, working the land, but were too poor to afford something better; then again, the whole breakfast, being a little of this and a little of that, may come from a peasant tradition in which you might only have had a couple of eggs, a handful of mushrooms, a few rashers of bacon, and you stretched it with some beans to make up a meal for everyone out of the little you had.  Or maybe that’s ridiculous, and the full English is about plenty of everything. 

In any case, the first time I encountered fried bread, I found it doubly unfamiliar because the oil used for frying had, regrettably, been previously used to cook fish and so I got fish-flavoured fried bread.  It was horrible.  Since a B&B guest is a sort of houseguest, I felt bad leaving it, but an obliging little terrier kept coming into the dining room, and I fed him bits of fishy bread under the table.   

As for haggis—vegetarians and those of nervous disposition should look away now—that’s a sausage made by boiling the heart, liver, and lungs of a sheep, mixed with onions and plenty of oats, in the sheep’s stomach. In the hands of the right cook, haggis is delicious.  I can unreservedly recommend eating homemade haggis in a Scottish farmhouse with a view of Ben Nevis through the kitchen window.   

Black pudding—blood sausage made with oatmeal—is another dish that tastes better than the recipe would lead you to expect.  I’ve occasionally run across white pudding, which is blood pudding without the blood, that is, a sausage made of just of oatmeal and fat, resulting in a pale concoction that, oddly enough, is more disconcerting that the sausage made with the blood.  

And there’s more to a hot British breakfast than the full English.  Porridge is one of those words I ran across  in British books as a kid, words that seemed exotic but turned out to refer to the mundane, in this case oatmeal.  You may encounter kippers (whole smoked herring), and at trendy retro hotels you may run across devilled kidneys (lambs’ kidneys in a spicy mustard sauce) or kedgeree (a rice dish with fish, hard-boiled eggs, and curry powder).  

I’ll stop there, though, because I didn’t actually mean to write about breakfasts at all.  I sat down to write about British B&Bs, but realized I couldn’t do justice to the subject unless I explained the amazing food.  I’ll move on to the B&Bs themselves next time.  Anyway, after all that writing about food, I need sustenance; all I had for breakfast this morning was shredded wheat.

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A Pub-Sign Safari


No matter where you are in Britain, you probably aren’t far from a pub. Okay, there are wilderness areas and mountaintops with no place to get a drink, but most people do live within a convenient distance of a public house. After writing about pubs recently (you can click here to read that post), I went on a little pub-sign photo-safari, and this post is the result.

Just between my house and my gym, a trip of 3.3 miles I make five—okay, three—okay, at least two times a week, I pass 9 pubs; that’s one pub every third of a mile. The names reflect four animals and one each of insect, trade, royal title, heraldic emblem, and war. Starting at the gym in Aldershot and working my way back into Surrey, here are the pub signs I pass along the way:

The first pub, the Crimea, has an unusual name, possibly a name unique in the UK (at least, I haven’t heard of any others and neither has Google). During the Crimean war, a new military base established just outside what had been the little village of Aldershot, population 875, drew not only the regiments themselves but traders to cater to the new population, turning Aldershot into a town of 16,000 in no time. The layout of the town shows the military influence, with more than the usual number of streets, roundabouts, and buildings named for members of the royal family, or for famous generals or field marshals. You won’t find the names Ordnance Roundabout and NAAFI Roundabout anyplace else, either. (The NAAFI is the organization that runs shops and recreation facilities for the armed forces—pronounced “naffy”.)

Once you know that Aldershot is very much a military town, calling the pub the Crimea makes a bit more sense. The sign displays, on a background of soldiers silhouetted on the battlefield, the medal awarded to Crimean veterans, which shows a Roman soldier with sword and shield being crowned with laurel by a winged Victory. (Well, that’s the back of the medal, actually. The front only shows Queen Victoria.)

Not all the pubs in Aldershot have a military air; the next one is the Beehive, with a sign showing a beehive in the pastel flowers of a cottage garden—very peaceful. And after the Beehive comes the Golden Lion, and then the Red Lion.

I don’t know the politics of the customers of these pubs, but from the earliest days of heraldry, a gold lion on a red background stood for England, and a red lion on a golden background stood for Scotland. Given the ties between the two countries and the tensions ditto, having symbols so closely related and at the same time completely opposite makes a sort of sense. These symbols , set out almost 800 years ago, remain intact in these pubs’ signs; that they’re used on pubs within sight of each other might suggest that the customers in that neighborhood divide along political lines, but I doubt it. You don’t get a whole lot of Scottish nationalists down here on the Surrey-Hampshire border.

And people who’ve grown up around pub signs don’t seem to think much about them. I phoned some of the pubs to find out more about their signs, and only one could answer straightforwardly; most not only didn’t know, they clearly thought I must be some kind of eccentric if I cared. The staff at the Prince of Wales fell into the latter category when I asked which Prince of Wales was on their sign.

Any number of people throughout history have held that title, only a few of whom were actually Welsh, since England conquered Wales pretty early on. Legend has it that in 1301, to pacify the recently conquered Welsh, King Edward I promised that, while he would be dictating who would rule them as the next Prince of Wales, he would select someone born in Wales, someone who couldn’t even speak English. That sounded good until he brought out his infant son—born in Wales and too young to speak any language at all.

Since then, the reigning monarch’s Heir Apparent has normally used the title. An Heir Apparent is an heir who unquestionably will be the next monarch according to the rules succession; if the heir to the throne could theoretically be thrown out of that position—say by the birth of a son to a monarch who has no sons, because a new male baby would jump past any daughters or nephews and go right to the front of the queue—then you have a Heir Presumptive rather than an Heir Apparent.

So the Prince of Wales on the pub sign could be any number of individuals from any of several centuries. I can tell you though that the tunic he’s shown wearing over his armor shows a design pretty close to the correct arms for the current Prince of Wales. But while it’s not unusual to see the current Prince of Wales on horseback, you’d normally find him in polo clothes, not armor/armour.

The next pub on the route, the Greyhound, is part of a chain, the Embers Inns. Chain pubs have a reputation for having a bland homogeneity, little personality of their own. A chain is a brand, a company that owns multiple pubs, often buying up local pubs and keeping their names—so the pub will still operate as the Greyhound, the Swan, or what have you, but no longer be an independent business.

That’s why this Greyhound has a disappointing sign, nothing to do with greyhounds, though the name still appears on the side of the building itself.

The next pub uses a sign related not to the name of the pub, but to the brewery where it gets the beer. It’s not a chain pub, but a tied house: a pub that has a contract with one brewery to serve only that brewery’s products and no other. It’s an independent business, but one that has made an exclusive contract with its supplier. That’s as opposed to a free house, which is an independent business that can serve any beer the landlord wants to serve.

That’s why the sign of this next pub, the Bricklayers Arms, shows a golden rooster: that rooster is the logo of the Courage brewery. Makes a change from lions, but it’s still disappointing to see a standard sign rather than something unique to that particular pub.

I’d always assumed that the many pubs throughout Britain with names such as the Bricklayers Arms, Thatchers Arms, Weavers Arms, Anglers Arms and so on (generally written without apostrophes so please don’t write in to remind me I’ve left them out) were named as a bit of a joke on the even more numerous pubs named for armigerous families (families who have their own coats of arms). Just googling for pubs in the Guildford area you’ll find the Holroyd Arms, Drummond Arms, Onslow Arms, Grantly Arms, and Sanford Arms. But it’s possible that pubs with names reflecting trades could be referring to the arms of their guilds. That might work for Bricklayers, Thatchers, or Weavers, but not for the Anglers; Angling, in American English, is just plain fishing.

The next pub down the road towards home is the Dover Arms, whose insignia comes from the arms of the borough of Dover. How this design came to be on a pub sign within walking distance of my house is a question, since Dover is 100 miles away. I had trouble figuring out the design, but eventually tracked it down to the arms of the borough of Dover, which show St Martin using his sword to divide his cloak so he can share it with a poor man. The cloak is in green, and looks suspiciously like an enormous bottle, which could be a subtle attempt to get you inside for refreshment.

Unfortunately, the web site designers for the borough of Dover relied on a spell checker, not an editor, and so their site claims the borough’s arms show St Martin using his sword to divide his clock to share it with a poor man. File under “why everybody needs editors”, please.

The final pub on my safari is the Lion Brewery, which may once have brewed its own beer for all I know, but now serves the produce of other breweries. Some locals call it the Black Lion, though there’s no lion on the sign, and the word black doesn’t appear, but is only implied. Neighbors warned us when we moved in that it’s not the kind of pub you could take your mother to, but I have been in a couple of times and found the locals to be friendly. The publican there does a lot of work for charity, including hosting an annual one-day music festival in the recreation ground next door. That festival is close enough to us and loud enough that we honor their charitable efforts by making sure we’ve got something to do that will keep us away from home all day on festival days.

Now that the Nightingale, which was a mere 400 feet from our house, has closed, my safari ends with the Lion. Or almost ends there, because I have an update about the Good Intent (click here for earlier post). Belatedly, I realized that the sign is an example of the English love of a good pun, which I’ve mentioned before. The sign shows Cromwell praying at the entrance to his tent. I’m sure some of you are ahead of me here, but there’s the pun: Good-in-Tent.

But I’m frittering away my time on pub signs when there’s an election in less than a month. In the next couple of weeks I’ll be writing about the British election process—very different from the American one!—assuming I stay out of pubs in the meantime. I hope you’ll come back to read about it.

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Going to the pub, with the best of intentions

Oliver Cromwell praying for victory on the sign of the Good Intent, Puttenham

Last Monday I went out to a pub with some friends—or at least, we tried to get into a pub. We usually go to the Good Intent, but it was closed, so we tried the Harrow, also locked up tight. Finally we went to the Withies, but found all the windows dark, with no sign of life. What had happened to the country pubs in this corner of Surrey?

The next day, a friend said she’d seen this before. That time, a local publican (aka landlord, licensee, or pub-keeper) had died, and all the pubs in her area had closed so that all of the staff members could attend the funeral. Perhaps our pubs were all in mourning.

Pubs have been hit hard by the economic downturn; people without jobs don’t go out for drinks as much as they used to, which then means that the staff of the pubs lose their jobs, too. At the low point last June, 52 British pubs were closing their doors every week, for a total loss of 24,000 jobs last year. Recent reports put the losses at about 40 pubs every week these days. Pubs offering food as well as drinks haven’t been hit as hard, and gastropubs—pubs that revamp themselves as trendy foodie haunts—seem to be doing pretty well.

The Harrow has tried to turn gastropub, with limited success. The food doesn’t seem that much different, but the prices are up. And the last time I was there for a meal, the waitress warned us that they weren’t accepting credit cards, which another friend tells me is the sign of a business in trouble.

But surely all three pubs in the same area wouldn’t fail at the same time? Especially as they all offer food, which seems to be a sort of pub insurance, if you trust the statistics.

I had taken houseguests from the US out for a pub meal the week before. They wanted a traditional British pub serving traditional British food, in a quiet atmosphere—they don’t like a lot of noise. I stewed a bit over which pub to choose and finally decided on the Good Intent. When we got there, the bar teemed with people, but the dining room was empty, which we thought was lucky until the entire girls’ field hockey team from a nearby school showed up. Just my luck: those empty tables were reserved for their end-of-season celebration. Even though we found it hard to hear each other, we couldn’t be too grumpy about it, not when we had plates of bangers and mash with bacon-onion gravy in front of us, and it was a good evening, even though groups of hockey girls did practically barricade themselves in the women’s room, keeping everybody else out.

My writing group usually repairs to the Good Intent after meetings; it’s the perfect name for a pub frequented by amateur writers, a species notorious for having the best of intentions but not actually putting words on paper. Staff there once told me nobody knows where the name comes from, but it might have been the name of a ship. That’s a good bet; sailors able to retire with enough money to open a pub often named their establishments either for the captain under whom they’d served or for their ships. It’s not that the Royal Navy paid that well, but that at one time a crew that captured an enemy vessel got prize money or even a share of the value of the captured ship’s cargo. While the Good Intent isn’t a common name for a pub, it’s far from unique, and of the handful of Good Intents scattered around the country, a few do feature ships on their signs.

Pub signs are one of the joys of life here. Sometime before 1400, the king (Richard II, if you care) made it law that pubs must have signs, in large part so that government inspectors could find them. I’m sure I’ll write about pub signs again, probably more than once and with photos; I never get tired of pub signs, even from pubs with common names—the White Hart, the Royal Oak, the Crown, and such. The names may be fairly standard but the designs can still show great invention.

The sign of this particular Good Intent shows Oliver Cromwell on his knees, in front of his tent, praying for a military victory. (Oliver Cromwell governed England using the title Lord Protector, after his faction staged a revolution that turned Britain from a monarchy to a Republic for a brief period in the 17th century.) Not a lot of pubs advertise themselves with pictures of Puritans, although British Puritans weren’t as puritanical where alcohol was concerned as were American Puritans.

The day after our thwarted attempt to get a drink at the Good Intent I phoned to ask why they’d been closed. The woman who answered said with obvious irritation that they’d been closed for maintenance and redecorating, and that there’d been a sign up for two weeks to say so. Oops. Pardon me. None of us managed to see any sign.

Next I phoned the Withies—withies meaning willows, or more particularly meaning flexible shoots from willow trees, used like cords to tie and secure things. I asked why they’d closed early. Most pubs close up at 11:00; they used to have to, by law, and even though the law changed in 2005, closing time is still usually 11:00. In any case we’d arrived there well before 10:00.

It seems that while the cat was away, the mice may have closed early and scarpered (to use a good English word meaning “make good their escape”; it comes from Cockney rhyming slang—if you don’t know what that is, stay tuned and I’ll get around to it eventually). The landlord answered the phone and told me that as far as he knew the pub had been open as usual. He said he’d ask his manager, and I could hear him as he did, and as she answered that they’d been open until 10:30. Hmmm. Right.

Same thing happened at the Harrow—a harrow being a toothy thing you dragged over soil to break up clods and turn the earth over. The landlord said he hadn’t heard anything about them closing early on Monday. But it was locked tight when we arrived, some time before 9:30. We even tried the doorbell, but the landlord dismissed that as evidence, saying his doorbell doesn’t work anyway.

So I may have got (the British don’t use gotten) some pub staff into hot water, although I didn’t set out to, and I am happy to report that all of those pubs seem still to be going concerns. Long may they stay that way! I’d be happy to help out by buying a round of drinks, if only they’d let me in.

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