A Beef and Ale Tour

We just returned from nearly three weeks in England, which, aside from the travel to and from, were almost unalloyed pleasure. Among the pleasurable experiences was the food.

If you are one of those who still subscribe to the myth that English food is bland and unattractive, I can only suggest that you give it a chance. We found it almost unexceptionally outstanding. Although the village where our daughter and son-in-law live is no larger than our town, the grocery options are much more varied, especially in the area of fresh produce. In comparison to most parts of the United States, the English are much more committed to local produce, organically grown, and fair-trade products. As on our first visit, we were amazed by the variety and quality of prepared sandwiches available from M&S Simply Food (the grocery subsidiary of Marks & Spencer). Using free-range chicken and eggs, organically grown produce, and other high-quality products, these sandwiches are tasty and attractive—quite unlike anything available at a comparable price in the States. Other prepared foods we sampled were equally outstanding, including some incredibly cheap (£1.50) frozen pizzas from Tesco.

We experienced a variety of restaurant and takeaway cuisine: the obligatory fish and chips a couple of times, Chinese twice, excellent restaurant pizzas twice. My son-in-law made us a great prawn curry. And at the venerable Falkland Arms pub in Great Tew, Oxfordshire, we lucked into a special event and enjoyed spit-turned (rotisserie barbecue) lamb baps (sandwiches on large, soft round rolls) with salad (quite a variety, including a delicious potato mayonnaise) for just £6. For our road trips, we made sandwiches at home, including the quintessentially English (Cheddar) cheese and (Branston) pickle.

I seemed to luck into salmon (both plain and smoked) quite a few times, but what became a theme (to the point that I made it a crusade) was beef and ale (or steak and ale) pie. I ended up sampling the versions of five different pubs, all different, all excellent, and all, as the photos below demonstrate, very attractively presented.

The first version was the Steak and Tanglefoot Pie at The Black Horse in Horley, Surrey (near Gatwick). This is “a local pub owned and run by a centuries-old independent family brewer,” Hall & Woodhouse in Dorset, “one of the few remaining regional family brewers,” which has “brewed Badger ales and offered a warm welcome since 1777.” Among their ales is Tanglefoot, which is used in the pie.

The next version came from The Waiting Room, the bar/restaurant of our hotel, the Premier Inn at 26–30 York Way, London (near King’s Cross and St. Pancras rail stations). If I recall correctly, it claimed to use Ruddles County ale (a product of Greene King Brewery). As can be seen from the photos, accompaniments varied, usually including some mixture of vegetables plus potatoes in some form. From the offered selection (chips, jacket potato, boiled potatoes, etc.), this time I chose “Dauphinoise” potatoes, which were described as being in a cheesy sauce. Sort of like au gratin potatoes, but much better! (Recipes I found online vary widely; some do not include cheese, but all include heavy cream and are very rich.)

Version number three was the British Beef and King’s Ale Pie served at the Tiltyard Café at Hampton Court Palace in East Molesey, Surrey. It marked the first and last appearance of mushy peas as a side dish.

From the audio guide at Hampton Court Palace we learned that meat pies are as much a cooking method (alongside roasting, baking, and boiling) as a way of serving meat. In medieval times, when food was eaten directly from the table, or perhaps from a wooden trencher or a slab of bread used as a plate, the pie crust served as a dish for meat cooked in a stew. The meat and vegetable mixture was prepared separately, in a large cauldron, and then ladled into the prepared crusts and baked. Diners would break the top crust and eat the contents of the pie, leaving the crust uneaten. Since it was just a flour-and-water mixture, it would not have been very tasty, anyway. In contrast, the pastry of all the pies we had was a delicious short crust, and we devoured every last crumb!

Next came the Beef and Ale Pie from the Queen & Castle (a Beefeater pub), Castle Green, Kenilworth, Warwickshire.

The final version, and perhaps the best, was the British Beef and Ale Pie offered by The Prince Regent (a Greene King pub, as most in Cambridge seemed to be) at 91 Regent Street, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire. This was the first time we’d had a pie that was not individual and self-contained. My husband and I presumably got the two halves of a single pie, and it was quite possibly the best of the lot.

In most cases, it seemed appropriate to accompany these dishes with ale; in Cambridge, where the University is celebrating its octocentenary, we couldn’t resist the offer of Cambridge Octocentennial Ale.

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1 Response to A Beef and Ale Tour

  1. Dan Freeman says:

    Now I’m hungry!

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