21 March, 2006

about salt beef and other Britishisms



















Oh, it's such fun to live here. I know I am tiresome on the subject of Selfridges Food Hall, but it really is a mecca, a dream come true, and a Pandora's box of temptation all at the same time. There's a simile I'm thinking of... it's like when you go on an austerity campaign and for a good two months or so, you buy only house brand tinned tuna. Canned tuna to you across the pond, sorry. Then, you find yourself in Fairway, in good old Harlem (homesick for a moment! thinking of the incomparable finds to be had there, not to mention an awfully nice view of New Jersey), and, lurking in aisle 4, is a huge display of "Tonna di Sicilia all'olio d'olive", hey, it's only $4 a can, and look at the pretty font! You're doomed. Well, all it took was one innocent trip to buy my spareribs over the weekend and now, suddenly, I simply had to have a salt beef sandwich from Selfridges for lunch. So off I went, armed with my copy of the laugh-out-loud cookbook by Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham, "The Prawn Cocktail Years," and a hearty appetite. I mean, a girl has to eat.

I ordered my savoury and luscious-looking half sandwich (so civilized, the half sandwich, a perfect solution to a lack of dining companion), with a completely inadequate coleslaw salad on the side, awful, simply drenched in salad cream. Better just left in the bowl. However, the salt beef is good enough to make "The Railway Bar" in the Food Hall a destination. A lovely man called Calvin behind the counter said, handing me my wine glass, "That's a great cookbook, I used to work for him at Bibendum." "Did you? What was he like?" I asked, fascinated by the possibility of food world gossip. "Oh, a lovely funny man, but after seven years I had had enough of shellfish. I opened an average of 7000 oysters a week." Having tried, 15 years ago, to shuck enough oysters for one measly Christmas Eve stew, I was truly impressed. "My copy's signed, though," he said, and I quickly leafed through to find MY signed title page (the book was a Christmas gift from my foody London friend Carla years ago, and hiding in it was a note from her thanking me for the picture books I sent her son!), so it was a standoff. I sat down and was just taking my first bite when a manager sort of person came round asking if everything was all right, so I asked what I had always wondered, "What is salt beef when it's in America?" We debated the possibility that it was pastrami, but no, The Railway Bar offers pastrami as well. This nice man, Alex, brought me a sample of it, and we decided that where pastrami is peppered and possibility cured in a vinegar bath, salt beef is just that, salt-cured. Delicious with plenty of yellow mustard and rye bread. Not quite Katz Deli on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but pretty good, and the best I'm going to get until I get up enough energy to go to Golders Green on the Northern Line (Alex drew me a map on my receipt) to the Jewish district.

I rang up the Press Office at Selfridges to get permission to take a picture of the salt beef, but "Roz" was away from her desk or on another line, so I gave up and took these pictures of the outside. I'm not sure who the flowing-garmented figure is, but it's certainly a landmark in Oxford Street.

Hopkinson and Bareham are worth the price of admission to their cookbooks. Their first collaboration, "Roast Chicken and Other Stories," won every award known to the cookery world and is an absolute must-read on a grey London afternoon when you don't know what to cook. But this one I read over lunch is really subtle, very appealing. Their contention is that the British own a rare talent for creating a perfectly good dish, making it a classic, and then running it into the ground. They begin, of course, with the staple of all English menus, the prawn cocktail. Now, my sister aside (who has a sad history with prawns, but we needn't go there) every right-minded person without a shellfish allergy loves a good "shrimp" cocktail. But they can be so BAD. "Freshly boiled prawns from the British seaside are rare today, which is a pity, so the next best thing is whole cooked prawns. They will often have been frozen but their quality, once shelled and decapitated, is surprisingly good. Frankly, if you wish to use those tasteless, bulk-frozen little commas, then you have only yourself to blame."

The recipe for beef consomme, however, reminds me why I dropped my obsession, some years ago, with consomme. There's something about this sentence that just pricks my culinary balloon: "When the first signs of froth and scum appear, and the clarification mulch begins to solidify, a trickle of stock will appear through it." This is where my "somebody gut this fish for me" tendency kicks into high gear and I want to go to McDonalds. I guess there's a reason I never went to cooking school. I do want to talk to someone about potted shrimp. Would you believe this cookbook actually contains a recipe that involves boiling trotters for stock (yes, they're actually pigs' feet, trotting along), and then picking out the boiled meat and potting it under aspic? It's a wonder the English have survived this long.

So Avery is out with her beloved Katie right now, going to Madame Tussaud's and the London Planetarium! They're just a ten-minute walk from school and Katie will have her trusty London A to Z (the indispensable map book of London, don't forget to say "zed" instead of the crass American "zee"). Avery's friend Anna came over yesterday and in the cab taking her home, they invented a surprisingly intelligent, if eventually mind-bendingly annoying, game. They said every French word they could think of (I was amazed there were so many!) only they pronounced them with a phonetic English pronunciation. So poor "vendredi" came out sounding like an Indy 500 driver, "ven-dretti", and "je suis" was "gee soo-is". I have to admit it was funny. Considering that the King's College children are taught by the felicitously-monikered but markedly NOT French lady "Mademoiselle... Stanway," they're not doing too badly. Hey, it beats studying with the Spanish teacher, "Senorita...O'Malley." I'm not making this up.

And in case you were wondering what's up with my finding an actual occupation for myself, I've put my name out in an email to a film production company to intern for them! My erstwhile-acting friends Anne and David at Stillmeadow Farm in Connecticut assure me this is the way to get my proverbial foot in the door. The advertised post is for one full day, possibly more, a week, doing who knows what. I wonder if I could offer to come more days, but for fewer hours? Not sure how much babysitting help I want. It's probably easier to get Avery an agent and become a stage mother. I'm sure I'm qualified for that.

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