Before I came to England, I wrote that I hoped to see more than just London; I wanted to see the British countryside, I wanted to see outlying cities and sample their meibutsu. I am pleased to announce that in just three weeks, I have been to seven British counties outside London and passed through several more.
A week after I got here, I went with Laura to visit some of her friends in Exeter, which I believe is affectionately named after a small town in Wisconsin. Exeter is in the county of Devonshire, a name I knew from listening to Laura rave about the clotted cream produced there. To my American ears, the term “clotted cream” sounded disgusting when I first heard it, as my mind conjured images of curdled milk and clogged arteries.
The clogged arteries actually may not be that inappropriate an association, as clotted cream is very rich. But the flavor is divine: it tastes pretty much just like heavy cream, with a supple, almost custardy consistency. It is so good on scones with jam; accompanied by a pot of tea, it becomes the classic “cream tea,” a most decadent mid-afternoon snack that made me feel vaguely guilty in a Victorian sort of way.
We walked off the cream tea – or at least some of it – with a stroll along a pretty, bramble-flanked river in the town of Totnes. The British countryside, by the way, is beautiful. I didn’t get any good pictures of it because I saw it mostly through train and car windows, but trust me, it’s gorgeous. In Devonshire hills roll over and tuck under one another, covered with a patchwork of farmland hemmed in by rows of stately shrubs. The landscape is dotted with sheep and spotted with cows and in the sunset, the whole country glows with warm greens and reds.
A word about the cows: I have never seen so many cows. I suppose in Wisconsin, many of the dairy and beef farms are simply too off the beaten track for me to have ever seen the bulk of them (though I did see a bison farm once on the way up to Minneapolis – very cool). Still, it made me think, with Jamie Oliver and Michael Pollan in the back of my mind, that maybe in Britain industrial farming is far more widely frowned upon and practiced far less. By the way, Devon is renowned for dairy in general, and if you ever encounter any Devon Cheddar or Stilton I encourage you to purchase as much of it as you can carry.
For dinner, we went to a pub. I love pubs. I will write more about them later, but for the moment I’ll just say that their real ales, their classic food, and their old-timey architecture and decor are all quite beguiling to me. This particular pub, in the middle of nowhere as far as I could tell, had a homey, familial feel and some very winsome local ales. The strong, dark one was especially nice, particularly as a pair to my hearty, delicious steak and ale pie; the malty, caramelized beer fit the crunchy, crackery crust, the tender hunks of beef, and the light bitterness of the ale-based gravy like a key in a lock.
The next morning we awoke to a delicious breakfast of sausage and bacon sandwiches, and then we spent the bulk of our sunny day canoeing down a canal. Upon return I was introduced to British pizza. Some of it was a bit weird – I’m still not totally sold on crispy duck pizza – but it wasn’t quite Japanese-weird, and it was actually pretty damn good.
I had eaten well, but so far I still hadn’t tried one of the region’s most celebrated specialties: pasties. The pasty (which unfortunately rhymes with nasty, not tasty) is a simple thing, but an ingenious thing: meat and a bit of veg stuffed into a stodgy, bready shell and baked until hard, brown, and piping hot. I think pasties fulfill some very primal gustatory urge, which is why there are so many analogous foods all over the world. In England there seems to be some debate as to whether they originated in Devon or in bordering Cornwall, and in fact there is a CAMRA-like organization that certifies and registers pasties as authentically Cornish. The pasties I had were certified, and pretty good, but I must say they struck me as very bland. Even so, as I write this with a mild hangover from a night out in London, I think a pasty would really hit the spot right now. I imagine they would be especially lovely on cold, drizzly days, as well.
The trip to Devonshire was a glorious success, and I have to thank Anna, Andy, and Alex for having us. While I am a city boy at heart, it was delightful to spend a long weekend taking in the country air and the country cuisine.