A note for American readers: While British food may be hard to find, the task is not impossible. Most bigger supermarkets stock an ‘Irish’ section that holds what are, in reality, British style goods, sometimes but not always made in Ireland, but also in the United States and Britain.
A note for British readers: A number of items that amount to standard issue in the shops are virtually nonexistent in the United States, so make no unwarranted assumptions about the workaday and check with your American friends. Many of the items that you take for granted are exotic in North America and their receipt would be most welcome to anyone interested in British food there, or indeed to anyone whom you might like to convert to the cause. We have identified a number of examples.
Teas warm any soul, at once refreshing and relaxing, a booster like coffee without the buzz. Avoid anything twee or fancy and stick with PG Tips in bags, widely available at upmarket chains like King’s and larger supermarkets of any stripe. The tips might hide amongst the other teas, in the catchall ‘international’ area or in the ‘Irish’ section. Bewley’s is back in business after giving us a fright and its tea is good too. For loose tea we like Lyons Red Label, virtually invisible in the United States but light enough to inveigle a British friend to ship.
For anyone in the United States starved of British charcuterie, Tommy Maloney offers succor. Their ‘Irish’ line of products made in Queens is, in fact, indistinguishable from the stuff made elsewhere in the archipelago except for the big chunks of cured ‘bacon,’ really a cured but unsmoked loin of pork for the true Irish national dish of bacon and cabbage. The traditional bangers have just the right proportion of cereal and throw considerably less grease than many British counterparts. Unsmoked bacon rashers are good, and both the white and black puddings are superb, the black ones redolent, as they ought to be, of allspice.
The smoked salmon at the King’s chain of small supermarkets in America is remarkable value at $6 for four ounces, $11 for eight. Goya imports olives stuffed with smoked salmon, or anchovies, chilies or ham, from Spain, and they are bargains too at a little over $2 a can. They also sell little cans of ready to eat salt cod for those who wish to commune with the spirits of sixteenth and seventeenth century English fishermen on the Grand Banks. They will serve as unusual starters or satisfying snacks and taste good with Chilli Pepper Pete’s Liquid Fire, a hot sauce made in Brighton, the louche and lovely city on the south coast of England. Marks & Spencer sells its own label hot sauce too, but only at intermittent intervals. Excellent if you can find some; cheap too.
From the Early Modern era until the nineteenth century in both Britain and New England, birds stuffed within birds within birds frequently graced festive tables; an 1850 recipe for New Year’s based on a Yorkshire Christmas pie put a cooked calf’s tongue within a chicken, the chicken within a duck, the duck within a (smallish) turkey and the turkey within a goose, all seasoned with lemon and mixed spice. The edifice was set in jelly to reflect the light for jaunty effect. If you would like to serve a similar creation, the simpler turducken is available online from a number of Louisiana shippers in various permutations and sizes. Prices range from about $37 to $70 at Cajun Creations, www.cajuncreations.com. The Louisiana Crawfish Company, a reliable and friendly bunch, sells seventeen different brands of turducken, including Alpine Gourmet, Cajun Specialty Meats, La Boucherie and their proprietary label. The Crawfish Company stuffs its turduckens with a number of options, including cornbread, sausage, both, and a crawfish and shrimp etouffe. They range in size from ten to fifteen pounds and in average shipped price from $64 to $80. At www.lacrawfish.com.You will need to provide your own jelled carapace if you want one.
The US Department of Agriculture persists in its arbitrary refusal to allow the importation of haggis from the United Kingdom. If you do not want to smuggle some peerless Macsween’s, help is to hand in the form of a can. A number of American producers make a decent haggis. The best may be from Stahly Quality Foods under the plain “Scottish Haggis” label.
If you do not scrutinize the can you would believe that it came from Scotland, but to circumvent the ban it is in fact made in Chicago by Vanee Foods. Both Stahly and its American distributor, Camwrap, insist that the American haggis recipe tracks the Scottish one, and unlike some American haggis, the Vanee version includes lamb offal, both heart and liver. No lung; perhaps Stahly really has eliminated that part of the traditional ‘pluck’ from its recipes, although the label of a can that the Editor purchased several years ago in London quite distinctly includes “Pork Lung” in the list of ingredients.
If you cannot find ‘Scottish Haggis,’ Camwrap can send you some even though their core business is wholesale. Call the personable people there toll free from anywhere in the United States at (800) 353-9004. They will direct you to a nearby stockist or, failing to find one, will send you some at a fair price.
Lamb other than offal, and particularly little rib chops, benefit from a rubdown with Vann’s Whiskey Rub, a blend of powdered whiskey, salt, pepper and rosemary; www.vannsspices.com.
Not much remains of Little Scotland in Kearney, New Jersey, but the Argyle abides. The unpretentious restaurant that started life as a chippie over half a century ago makes an excellent clootie dumpling for dessert, but you will need to visit; takeout but no shipping. They also stock a good range of frozen Scottish style meat products from Cameron’s British Foods, including sausages of pork or beef and various pies. Cameron’s itself, somewhat incongruously based in Cape Coral, Florida will ship; www.cameronsbritishfoods.com.
We do not normally tolerate dry packets of sauce mix, but do agree with Gary Rhodes that Crosse & Blackwell Madeira sauce is excellent in a pinch (or even not in a pinch; this is the frozen puff pastry of gravies). Make it thicker or thinner than the instructions to suit your dish; a dollop of actual Madeira helps. Ubiquitous in the UK and nonexistent in the US.
Last year we pointed to a number of culinary evergreens, including Atora suet, Paxo sage and onion stuffing, Opie’s pickled walnuts and Walker’s mince tarts among others. They and a number of sources, both on the ground and in the cloud, all appear in the 2010 Christmas Number at our archive; click here.
This year Walker’s has added little bags of shortbread stars for about $3. Each star is pretty and tiny, just the thing for the feast clogged holidays.
‘Things We Like’ this year featured a number of items suitable for presents. Fabulous, boozy little Tortuga rum cakes with an infinite shelf life make good ones. They come variously flavored with banana, chocolate, coconut, key lime and pineapple. Coconut is best.
Other ‘Things’ to get a friend include chutneys from the DB Chutney Company in Brooklyn; Maldon Sea Salt; and mushroom pies from The Cleaver Company at the Chelsea Market in Manhattan.
Tortugan curry powder from Sunny Caribbee on the island, another ‘Thing’ this year, includes lemon zest and chicken stock base; available in the United States exclusively through their website at www.sunnycaribbee.com. Curries reached Japan in the nineteenth century, not from India but rather via British seamen visiting the islands. The Japanese have evolved their own version of the dish, a rich, dark one that usually includes carrot, onion and potato, and chicken, shrimp or meat. Commercial curry pastes, actually more of a roux, look like chocolate bars and melt into the stock, coconut milk or water used as a medium for the curry. They are quick and convenient. S&B makes mild, medium and hot pastes available in the United States at some Garden of Eden branches in the New York metropolitan region and in Asian groceries everywhere; ‘Vermont’ curry, another peculiarly Japanese variation, includes applesauce and honey. Several brands of Vermont curry paste, in packets or bars like S&B, may be found in Asian markets too. Chinese and Korean as well as Japanese markets stock them all.
… and drink.
This year we have extended our shopping proposals into the liquid zone: Self medication is not an irrational response to hard times. Sales of booze are up in both Britain and the United States, and britishfoodinamerica (shrewd sharpies all) would never fail to exploit a trend. Given the economic circumstances we will eschew suspense and lead with the strongest stuff first. We will, however, skip the obvious and harp on a spirit as dear to the Editor as the great loa Ghede.
Rum. As the helpful people at Chambers Street Wine & Spirits in Manhattan have observed, rum reigns unopposed as the best value within the expanding universe of hard liquors. A number of good rums lately have become less difficult to find in the United States, including Ron Atlantico, Pampero Anniversario and Smith & Cross. Each of them should run you something like $30-$35 a bottle.
The Atlantico has a deep amber color and silken texture; the flavor is richer than you might assume from its hue and source, the Dominican Republic, which produces several rather tepid rums. It is hard to believe how smooth it feels both on the tongue and down the hatch.
Anniversario is just about black, richer and more complex, equally smooth; ‘the Cognac of South America.’ It comes from Venezuela and tacit import restrictions levied by the Bush administration to irritate Cesar Chavez have caused inventory gaps that now appear rectified. If forced at gunpoint to choose one rum, this would be it.
That would be a particular shame now that you can find the Smith & Cross, somewhat confusingly a blend of Jamaican rums from Plummer & Wedderburn. All of them are pot stilled, none filtered and the copper colored rum is bottled at a navy strength of 57% alcohol so it swirls with flavors. Smith & Cross have dealt in rum out of London since 1788. This is the taste of the eighteenth century, if not the ‘hot, hellish and strong’ rumbullion of the age then hot on the palate, wild in complexity and packing a big mouth feel. We break with our hallowed practice of purity and sip it over a shard of ice. Not for everyone perhaps, but anyone who likes the bigger, less peaty cask strength whiskies from Scotland would be most pleased to find it under the tree.
Why is the rum always gone? Oh.
Blackwell, another Jamaican rum, has not become less difficult to find because Chris Blackwell, the Island Records impresario, has only just begun producing it as his latest hobby. The rum, however, is no gimmick. The label describes it almost oxymoronically as “black gold liquid,” and it is unclear whether the marketing aims to highlight quality or color, but the rum does carry a pleasing sort of black/gold tint. It is thinner than Atlantico or Anniversario, and considerably less complex than Smith & Cross (but then, other than a dangerous muse or femme fatale, what isn’t?) but it is relatively cheap and frontloaded with a not unpleasant sensation of aromatic alcohol that is strangely good; sometimes hint of melon later. At about $27 a bottle it would be no sin to mix Blackwell with the merest splash of tonic and a hunk of lime but the rum is good enough to sip.
Now to Cadenhead, the renowned whisky merchants relocated after many years in Covent Garden to Marylebone, not far from the estimable Daunt Books. It turns out that Cadenhead are dealers in rums too, from around the globe, and in common with the whiskies they commission for bottling under their own label, all of their rum must be clear of coloring agents or any other ‘enhancements.’ If they made cheese at Cadenhead none of it would be annatized red. Their rums may therefore look lighter than others in color but bow not to them in flavor. Every Cadenhead rum we have tried holds a certain fascination; a five year old from Panama did actually taste, as one of the knowledgeable proprietors said, of Christmas pudding. It is too bad that unlike dozens of their whiskies, Cadenhead offers none of its rum in little airline nips. It is too sad that Cadenhead has no presence in the United States, but a visit to the shop would justify any trip to London.
On an elegiac note, the friendly proprietor of Vickers Liquors in Newport, Rhode Island, has informed the Editor that Mount Gay has, in its wisdom, discontinued the distillation of its Sugar Cane Rum. It is less nuanced than the flagship Eclipse, which uses molasses too but like a single malt Scotch, this is an instance in which less is more. The use of cane alone gives the amber rum a refreshing intensity. Impending unavailability makes the gift even better, and this is one of those strange examples that breaks the law of supply and demand. Scarcity has not driven price so that if you can find a bottle it still should cost $20 or less.
Oxymoron. For the jaded whisky drinker who craves the shock of the new, or at least enjoys thematic variation, French Scotch now is available in the United States as well as the United Kingdom (or, in your case, take the Chunnell). Distillerie Warenghem produces Armorik single malt whisky in Brittany, the rugged Atlantic peninsula that can see weather as stark, or nearly so, as Speyside Scotland. The Scots tradition is not traduced: The Bretons smoke their barley over peat and send its spirit through pot stills twice. The whisky has smooth honeyed tones and a light, almost delicate or thin texture depending on your predilection.
Spark. For aficionados of the cocktail, you could do lots worse than present a gift of Fee Brothers Bitters. They come in all kinds of flavors, conventional angostura bark through all manner of fruit and vegetable. You can boost cranberry juice or cranberry sauce with the berry’s bitters, and the celery version adds some bright depth to a Bloody Mary. There also is now a whiskey tinged Fee bitter aged in Bourbon barrels. It adds a welcome touch to a Manhattan or Old Fashioned, or just to your glass of Maker’s Mark.
For the impassioned bitters imbiber there also is a new book, Bitters by Brad Thomas Parsons.
We like to cook with whiskey bitters too, added to the bacon and milk for simmering smoked haddock, to season lamb chops coated in Whiskey Rub from Vann’s Spices (www.vannsspices.com) or to flavor soups and stews. Kalustyan’s in Manhattan stocks a good selection of Fee Brothers at variably high cost. Yankee Spirits, with three locations in Massachusetts including Sturbridge, has them for the holidays at a fraction of the price, $5.49 a bottle for every flavor in stock, including the whiskey.
Fortification. Here too the obvious is out and something else, Madeira, is in, at least in these holiday pages of bfia. We could go on and on about it (and have, in the lyrical), but for our immediate purpose will stick to the more practical task at hand and stop with recommending gifts. Any wine enthusiast, and a proportion of sane people too, will thrill to opening the gift of a ‘Historic Series’ Madeira from the Rare Wine Company. They may not realize that they are thrilled until they uncork the bottle itself, but instant gratification has become epidemic and a little discipline brings a welcome pedagogy to the season of excess. Perhaps we digress, but in any event each grade of sweetness in the Historic Series line gets its name from an American port where the wine’s untrammeled popularity outpaced all others during the long eighteenth century from the Glorious Revolution until the accession of Victoria. They are expensive at about $60 per, except for the New Orleans Sercial, which gets produced only sporadically and is priced closer to $85. All of these wines are spectacular; for an especial friend, the New Orleans namesake would be nonpareil.
Berry Brothers and Rudd, the venerable London wine merchant, sells a cheaper line of good Madeira named for ships. The “Ship Series” of four wines, as Berry’s explains, “reflects the practice, common until the mid nineteenth century, of naming the wines after the ships that carried them.” ‘The Spy,’ a five year old about as dry as Madeira can fly, gets its name from a Bermudan sloop wrecked off Funchal in 1714. L15.95 for a 500 ml bottle.
Strength. For centuries, the blistering climate of the Canary Islands has produced wines of great strength and intense flavor. Little other than grapes will grow in the black volcanic ash of the islands, and then the vines require close attention and yields are low. The wines had fallen from favor in the United States and have become difficult to find but that has begun to change.
Reporters casting for copy read each others ‘scoops,’ so breathless articles this season from The New York Times Magazine, Saveur and elsewhere trumpet the incipient return of Canaries to the American market, when in fact Chambers Street has stocked a number of fascinating examples for years. Still, the wines remain unusual enough to bring a smile to the world-weary oenophile, and not just out of novelty. We particularly like a white, a pink and a red; none of them will break your bank at something like $20 a bottle.
The deep yellow, almost golden 2008 Bodegas Caballo from the island of La Palma displays heavy perfume and lots of body with an astringent finish. The wine smells and tastes reminiscent of a fino Sherry; it pairs admirably with shellfish or robust finfish preparations. The relatively high strength of 12% is not apparent.
The Bermejo Lanzarote Rosado from the main island of Tenerife is a blockbuster at 13% alcohol, especially for a rose. It also is lively, smooth and goes with just about anything. As a quirky bonus it comes in a sort of amphoric bottle that has a vestigial spout; keep it to contain your own recipe for flavored vinegar or something.
Our red, like the white, comes from Bodegas Caballo, but our bottle is the 2009 vintage and, no surprise this time, also weighs in at 13% alcohol. We expected something like a deep, chewy Zinfandel but the color is garnet and the wine more analogous to a Barbaresco or Burgundy than to a blockbuster. This is a wine that works well with the same sort of food as those it resembles; gamish birds like roast quail are particularly appropriate.
Steadfast. English historians, and lesser writers too, describe Portugal as the oldest ally, the salient reason why Port has flowed into Britain uninterrupted for centuries. Some of the great Anglo-Portuguese vinting families also produce unfortified still wines, including Churchill’s. Their estate blend of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Tinta Roriz, all indigenous to the Douro, creates a rich, structured wine with considerable finesse. Our 2008 bottles show a trace of Port. A big wine at 14% alcohol and a big bargain at under $20.
Vinho Verde, however, is small wine indeed, and dirt cheap at under $10 a bottle. It features a trace of fizz and remarkable presence for something so young. The alcohol registers a noonday 9% or so and it does not pay to purchase pricier brands. Broadbent, from the Madeira house and just now hitting the American market, along with Aveleda are the best examples of this precocious Portuguese wine.
Versatility… or indecision? For a most esteemed friend or colleague, the Berry Brothers & Rudd ‘Like Clockwork’ program will send the grateful recipient a case of wine a month. You can choose the price points and bottles. Only available to British addresses.
In the United States, TastingRoom sells over four dozen assortments of sixpacked airline bottles. Sample a wine; if you like it, TastingRoom will sell you the standard bottle at a discount. You can choose by region, although the options are Californiacentric, varietal or expert; several sommeliers and Mario Batali have chosen flights. The samplers of six 50 ml nips run from about $24 to $35 at www.tastingroom.com. They ship to 32 states.
Beer! The official default drink of britishfoodinamerica does not usually jump to mind as a present, but a number of strange brews seem strongly suited to the holidays. The run of Christmas ales that appears each year will be familiar to readers, even if brewers like Sierra Nevada like to change the spicing each season. The tasty version from the Abita Brewery in Louisiana has now appeared in the northeastern United States. We cannot muster much regard for pumpkin in our beer and draw the line well before maple but some of the more unusual flavors do appeal.
Innes & Gunn in Edinburgh bottle heavy ales aged in rum or oak barrels. We find the oakenbeer clumsy but like the rummed. The beer is bigger and rounder than other ales, maltier than hoppy but without the cloying sweetness of red or brown ale. At 7.4% the alcohol is not extreme, at least not by West Coast IPA standards, but even so this is a beer for sipping. To us, the flavors unfold in phases of rum, oak, Scottish heavy and then vanilla. It comes in big bombers and fourpacks of conventional beer bottles. For another beer like rum, try the rich and nuanced Newport Storm ‘Quinn’ porter from the Coastal Extreme Brewing Company if you can find it. The company also distills Thomas Tew Rum and puts the used barrels to good… use. Why ‘Quinn?’ They name their special beers alphabetically like hurricanes. Both beers are good after dinner with a glass of rum.