The most interesting aspect of travel for me is the food culture of other people, the chance to see where, what, why and how they eat (and drink). Despite its meat-and-potatoes, fish-and-chips reputation, London is a far more vegetarian-friendly place than my own town in Ohio.
I have mentioned before that breakfast is my favorite meal, anthropologically speaking. It seems to be the meal with the most individual variation. Some fastidious types don’t indulge at all, while others insist on a hearty repast (such as the “English breakfast” of fried bacon, sausage, and eggs with tomatoes, mushrooms and toast). Just about all of us have very decided preferences on what we like to eat in the morning. And that’s not even touching on the beverages (Having grown up in Florida, I myself am an orange juice fanatic.)
My hotel during my London sojourn (the Park Grand London Paddington) offered a decent spread (three kinds of cheese, tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, scrambled eggs, plus toast, croissants, yogurt with toppings, fresh fruit, and juice). Fresh melon and pineapple is a sign that it’s a nice place; lesser hotels serve canned peaches and mandarin oranges. The coffee at the Park Grand, however, left much to be desired. Colleagues I met while attending a workshop seemed to assume that good coffee could not be expected in a hotel; these high sticklers rose early to venture out in search of a decent bean.
On this trip I found myself absorbed in the contemplation of European table manners, which diverge from American habits in the use of knife and fork. American table manners seem to be rapidly disappearing in the Age of the Device, but I believe it is still customary to cut one’s food, then lay down the knife and transfer the fork to the right hand before eating. Europeans keep both utensils moving and display great dexterity in manipulating the food between them–even using the back of the fork, something I was taught never to do. The European rule is to keep the tines of the fork pointed down.
The cut-and-switch method was developed in 18th century France, whence it reached the United States as the height of fashion– yet was soon after abandoned by the French. Despite a Slate columnist’s insistence that we Americans all become more “efficient,” I plan to stick to my old habits. Cut-and-switch is a restrained, elegant mode of eating, prevents one from wolfing one’s food, and ensures that if the table gets into an argument over Trump, we are not all brandishing sharp knives simultaneously. Besides, when were manners ever a question of efficiency?
On the other hand, Europeans are more elegant in the consumption of hamburgers, since it seems to be customary to cut them (and most other sandwiches) with a knife and fork. This strikes me as odd, since one might say that the teleology of a sandwich is to be eaten from the hands. Yet on my trip, I felt self-conscious about grabbing my lentil burger and shoving it directly into my mouth.
The most interesting food ritual in London is afternoon tea, which most of the big hotels offer. It is not merely a tourist attraction, as I originally suspected, but is very popular among the locals. One can usually get either the elaborate tea with finger sandwiches and sweets, or the simpler “cream tea” with scones, jam and clotted cream. Americans often speak of “high tea,” mistakenly supposing it to be the frou-frou kind with the tiers of delicate pastries, but in London they always call this “afternoon tea.” “High tea” is different, featuring more substantial dishes of eggs, cheese or meat.
Fortnum’s tea menu has three options based on degree of savouriness. There is the afternoon tea, which is finger sandwiches, sweet scones, and pastries. The “savory afternoon tea” substitutes savoury scones and other salty/cheesy bites for the sweets, with just one tea cake at the end. The “high tea” is a hybrid, with a main dish like Welsh rarebit or eggs Benedict, plus sweet scones and a tea cake. I plan to try one of these tempting savoury teas on my next visit, in May. Who could resist a scone made with Stilton? Fortnum’s does not offer the “champagne tea” so popular elsewhere (meaning simply that a glass of bubbly is included) but it has a generous wine selection with plenty of sparklers by the glass.
The tea itself is by no means an afterthought. Most places offer a variety of black teas (including their own blends), an oolong or two, a few greens, and various herbal tisanes (I refuse to call them teas). They vary quite a bit in how the tea is brewed. You may be given a pot already brewed, a pot and a strainer, or a large tea-bag and a dish to set it in when the tea is brewed to your satisfaction. As to the etiquette of tea service, the “rules” are legion: never put milk in first; never stir in a circle, but side-to-side; never cut a scone but break it into small pieces with your hands, etc. And no extended pinkies! Fortunately, it doesn’t matter whether you prefer to put the cream or the jam on your scone first. (I am a cream-first gal all the way.)
My only problem with afternoon tea is that it finishes me off. I have no appetite for dinner after one of these carbohydrate orgies, and the combination of caffeine and sugar makes me feel light-headed for hours afterward. But it’s worth it.
I am salivating here, Linnet!!! Thank goodness lunch is coming up right now (although I am now lusting after either some savoury breakfast, or some sweet tea time treats).
The table manner issue – yup, I keep both knife and fork in play during dinner, too. The American one-handed method actually makes sense, too. The only trouble with it is, that it seems to be part of that method to keep the left hand under the table when not using it. That, however, is considered bad manners in Europe. (Or at least it was in Germany when I was growing up.) The hands should be visible on the table at all times – after all, you could be doing all sorts of mischief under the table if you concealed your hand ;-). So when you are eating dessert, for instance (a one-handed endeavour, even in Europe ;-)), you place your left hand on the table, beside your plate… My husband is very amused by the fact that I also eat sandwiches with knife and fork. This only applies to open sandwiches, though. Proper sandwiches which have bread top and bottom, are eaten with hands. BTW – I don’t take my love for knife and fork *this* far:
Ah, can’t get the link to work!
But yes, what an illustration of cultural difference, re where to put one’s hands while dining. In the US one is taught to keep that left hand down and not to put hands (and certainly not elbows) on the table, at least when in formal situations.
I found that open face sandwiches are more common in Europe than in the US, perhaps because of the preference for knife and fork. In Denmark, they seem to be an institution. In Sweden, we went to a restaurant run by Danes which was devoted entirely to open face sandwiches and aquavit 🙂
Oh, does the clip not show in my comment? Try this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UxB-H6f3crY
I find open face sandwiches much more common in Germany than in Ireland or the UK, for instance. Both breakfast and light evening meal tend to be eaten in the shape of an open sandwich. (But fork and knife are only used for the evening open sandwich, not the breakfast one… wow, the amount of unwritten rules in this… it never occurred to me until you broached the subject here…)
Hilarious! I especially love the guy eating the donut with knife and fork. Another supposed cultural difference is that Europeans don’t appreciate “Seinfeld” but you have handily disproved that!
I have to laugh about the rules for the open-faced sandwiches… the only kind I would eat with knife and fork is a wet, overflowing one that can’t be managed any other way.
Oh, I loved Seinfeld. Unfortunately I never saw much of it when it was on – not available in the original to me.
Overflowing sandwiches definitely look better when eating with knife and fork. But I also eat an open sandwich that has only butter and a slice of salami on top…
That was a great show for its observations on little things like how people eat. My favorite sandwich is grilled cheese, which I might eat with a knife and fork, if it’s really hot and oozy. But it’s more fun to eat with the hands.
Wait, so … What? How do you guys use a knife and fork?! Cut and switch? What is ths sorcery? 😱
Hee, hee! It’s drilled into us as youngsters not to use them together except when cutting food. In fact, one of the images of the “country bumpkin” without manners is someone sitting at the table with knife standing up in one hand and fork in the other. As a result, it can be difficult to eat certain kinds of food, like peas! You have to keep scraping the plate with one hand, or spear them up one at a time.
Woah, to a European that’s really bizarre. Here we’re taught how to use a knife and fork, and in which hand you’re supposed to hold them (I used the “wrong” hands for quite some time to my mum’s dismay). Eating with only one of them would probably be frowned upon as being rather uncultured. How different countries are, eh? Haha!
Yes, things we take for granted are viewed so differently, based on culture. But I trust that some things are the same everywhere 🙂
Lisa @ cheergerm said:
Love this post and all of its Englishness. There is nothing like a fancy proper buffet brekky in a posh hotel and a gorgeous high tea/afternoon tea is such a wonderful extravagance. (Sorry LM, I am a jam first gal but I suppose we can still be friends.) 😘
Ha! Jam first is OK with me, as long as the cream comes a close second. I am already looking forward to my next trip, for the sake of the breakfasts alone. The Long Suffering Husband likes to recall a hotel in Bloomsbury, which had a bottle of Scotch at breakfast for the convenience of those who wished to (ahem) pour it over their oatmeal!!
porridge! over porridge 😉 yes , i’ve had it this way up north, yum! but then again the water version with salt needed something 😉 And i loved the Yorkshire way.. made with double cream .. yuummmmm
And i need to tell you about this place in Ken High street that does breakfast with all organic ingredients, which i adore.
I would like an all-organic breakfast, especially for the eggs. And Yorkshire porridge sounds divine!
Sylvie G said:
I think they call it high tea here,the afternoon tea with plates of all sorts of bad for you food. I do not understand how people can eat that and eat again a few hours later. But I have now adopted the English porridge for breakfast, it always makes me feel virtuous (and they have a good one at prêt -à -manger, in London )
Yes, if I have afternoon tea, I can’t eat dinner. By porridge, do you mean oatmeal? My husband is fond of it, and it’s very good for one’s health, indeed. I like it with brown sugar.
Sylvie G said:
Brown sugar ? Big sin, you have to have it with berries, sesame seeds, flax seeds(or just as you like it, really)
Yes, my instinct is to make it less healthy!
nay sin! it’s usual to put brown sugar on it as much less easy to obtain than honey and /or cinnamon if available. Our cantine always puts sachets of brown sugar next to the porridge bowl.
I was raised with the brown sugar, so I like it 🙂
Copper Spoon Cakery said:
If you ever get a chance to visit Yorkshire, Betty’s afternoon teas are famous for being incredibly delicious and quintessentially British! 🙂 https://www.bettys.co.uk/bettys-cafe-tea-rooms/afternoon-tea-at-bettys/cafe-afternoon-tea
Oooh, I hope I will get to come one day. And if I do, I’ll be sure to stop by 🙂
and they have some of the best , actually no, THE best mince pies i have ever eaten.
Mince pie, now that is something I have little experience of. They don’t actually have meat in them, do they?
giggle, no not anymore. Originally they did in the medieval times they used to add dried fruit to normal meat pies to make them sweet; in time they took meat out and they are now just for desert, especially Xmas. It’s what people stuff their faces with here at Xmas. A normal small pie casing and top and inside a mixture of small diced dried fruit, spices all cooked together in a sticky and not runny mass. https://www.bettys.co.uk/speciality-mince-pies-box-of-12 Yum! i normally hate dried fruit, hate Xmas pudding, hate Xmas cake but their mince pies even i like, theirs and Fortnum’s 🙂
Well, Fortnum’s! Goes without saying 🙂
I’m feeling like such a slob now. Switching utensils sounds so cumbersome. Oh well, I suppose that’s expected of an American. Although it’s a bit odd when I refuse to use chopsticks when eating Asian food…I’m usually the only Asian eating with a fork while everyone else fumbles around out of cultural sensitivity.
You seem to eat a lot of delicious-looking tea pastries. I’m so jealous. 🙂
I’m one of those non-breakfast eaters, but I do love breakfast foods. And ditto on the orange juice, especially when I can make it myself with my juicer. My neighbor has an orange tree that’s just loaded with fruit, and I have to look at that beautiful tree from my office window. I don’t know if they plan on eating those oranges, but it doesn’t look like it. Which makes me want to get up in the middle of the night and pull a St. Augustine, with the exception that my thievery won’t be exclusively for sin’s sake.
I envy that orange tree. Your neighbor should know it’s a sin to waste good oranges!
My husband taught me to eat with chopsticks on our first date (he’s not Asian, just dexterous). I like to pull them out when I’m cooking Asian food, to stay in practice. But I’ve never been able to clean the plate of every grain of rice, the way he does.
I grew up with no breakfast other than a cup of milk. Only time i /we ever had any was Sunday’s when it was a soft boiled egg and soldiers or when my gran had time eggy toast (ie stale bread dipped in egg and milk and fried with butter or oil in a pan, NO sugar). But years of hotel and work travel have spoiled me and i adore proper hotel breakfast or brunches, preferably with the hot version cooked on order and freshly squeezed organge juice and German bread buns and natural yogurts with real fruit and nuts and seeds. And good , strong tea 🙂
And yes, hail the tradition of afternoon tea and may it long continue 🙂 Time Out published a list of their top 10 in London and i am glad ‘my’ secret spot is still sort of secret 😉 Looking forward to many more.
I’m with you, I love the lavish breakfast. But old fashioned eggy toast sounds quite tasty.