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.