Eating in England: experiencing delicious `crisps,' `chips' and some choice ales

May 10, 2006|By ROB KASPER

Their pies are made of meat. Their ales are hand-pumped. Their potato chips are called "crisps"; their fries are "chips." That is what I learned while eating in England, where I recently spent 10 delicious days.

Ostensibly I was in Oxford, along with my wife and older son, to check on the educational progress of our other son, a college junior who is spending a semester studying economics at Lady Margaret Hall, a college of Oxford University.

I took a glance at a syllabus of one of his courses, saw something about "command economies in transition" and quickly determined that the kid was on his own and that I was embarking on a mission to sample the local food and drink.

FOR THE RECORD - Rob Kasper's column in the Taste section Wednesday misidentified the Inspector Morse television series.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Mornings began with a pot of tea, and with scones and clotted cream. Clotted cream, my new best friend, has the texture of butter and a minimum fat content of 55 percent. Spread some on a scone dotted with sultanas - also known as raisins - and the world becomes a wonderful place.

Oxford is a college town; there seemed to be an educational institution on every corner, like the bars in Highlandtown. From the breakfast table, I would look out the windows of our rented flat on Banbury Road and see a stream of scholars cycling into the center of the city.

I saw graybeards, men in suits, middle-aged women in skirts, a mom with her offspring on a two-seated cycle. They were all rolling along in the bicycle lane. They ruled the road, with buses and cars yielding to them. The morning cyclists were, I figured out later, probably burning off their clotted-cream breakfasts.

Eventually I joined them, renting a bike, or as the British would put it, getting a cycle for hire, and pedaling around town, on the "wrong" side of the street, to eat and drink.

One of my first stops was the Turf Tavern. To get to this pub I had to walk through a wall, the old Oxford city wall that dates to the 14th century. After stowing the bike on New College Lane, I walked along the wall until I spotted a narrow passageway, then I took a couple of snaking turns and suddenly I was in a walled courtyard.

The entrance to the pub was on one side of the courtyard, picnic tables were on another and somewhere I spotted a chalkboard listing the eight hand-pumped ales that the Turf was serving that day. I felt like I had discovered the ale drinker's Shangri-La.

My older son, 25, was with me and we sat at the picnic tables savoring pints of a tangy porter from a Burton brewery. He laid into a serving of fish, chips and peas. I had one bite and had to agree with him that the fried fish tastes better in England than in the States. It was crisp with no greasy overtones. I speculated that this was the result of the English fish being fresher and the oil hotter than what we usually get in America.

My son had another go at fish and chips the following afternoon after we had pedaled to the Perch. This pub was near Port Meadow, a great greensward of 440 acres in Oxford that serves as home to cattle and horses and as a place where dog walkers, hikers, runners and cyclists take the air.

On this day, as was often the case, the air was chilly, about 50 degrees, and a light mist was falling. The raw weather didn't seem to bother the locals, but I was happy to slip into the warm confines of the Perch and sip the room-temperature ale.

It was here that I met my first meat pie, a remarkable mixture of beef, gravy and a pastry crust. Later I learned that the merits and subtleties of this medieval dish - whether vegetables add or detract to the flavor - are hot topics of British debate.

As I punctured the "coffin," (or lid) of my pie, sweet, aromatic steam rose from the crust. I fished with my fork among the dark pools of gravy until I speared a piece of tender beef. Then I took a sip of my ale, an Admans' Bitter, and was ready to sing "God Save the Queen."

The next day, I met another pie, this one filled with fish. My wife had accompanied me on this cycling outing, a trek along the Thames Path. We had cycled along the dirt path that runs beside the River Thames, a stretch also known as the Isis.

We had viewed the ruins of Godstow Nunnery, the burial place of King Henry II's mistress, Rosamund the Fair. We had admired the waterfall and the resident peacocks at the Trout Inn, where the Inspector Morris television series was filmed. We had dodged cow pies on the path.

Now it was noon - time to eat. As we rolled back to the paved streets of Oxford, a sign warned of city traffic by stating "Changed Priorities Ahead."

We parked the bikes near Loch Fyne, a seafood restaurant in Jericho, an Oxford neighborhood of small businesses and homes that reminded me of Baltimore' s Locust Point. I had half a dozen oysters, four of them raw, briny and sweet. Two were baked in a magnificent blend of garlic and cheese. My wife had the fish pie, pieces of cod and haddock swimming with vegetables in a delicate cream sauce. This pie was topped with a "crust" of crisp mashed potatoes.

We did not lunch like this back in Baltimore. But then again, we didn't usually cycle to our eateries. Maybe we should start.

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