Well, I guess I’ve been a bit slack with my blog activities of late, but as those of you who know me or follow me on Twitter might know, part of my excuse for that is being out of the country in the grand ol’ US of A for a fair bit of December.
My introduction to the Land of the Free was just over two weeks in Denver, Colorado over Christmas, so I had plenty of time to enjoy the area, spend a lot of time pointing out minor differences from the UK (Getting used to saying “restroom” instead of “toilet”, huge shops with taxidermy in them, insanely polite restaurant staff, lack of brown sauce…). Now I’m over the jetlag it seemed like a good time to write about some of the food-based experiences I had.
Eating is one of the most interesting, and occasionally stressful things about travelling abroad. You get to discover new dishes and new ingredients, and find out how food you’re sort of used to eating in the UK is served in the country it actually comes from: pizza bases in Italy are lovely soft but thin bubbly things – much nicer than the bready deep pan or cardboardy thin’n’crispy you tend to get here, for example (To be honest, I’m sure Italy pretty much just wins the international food competition in general).
You also run the risk of ordering something that isn’t quite what you expected: in Latvia I was convinced I was ordering some kind of hot drink off the illustrated menu, but when it arrived, what I actually got was a very rich chocolate mousse. Then there was the time in Berlin when my friend Vicky and I were about to catch the train back to the airport – we went into a cafe to try and get a bite to eat before leaving, and were told that sadly they were closed. Just as we were about to leave, the man behind the counter said “Hold on, I’ll get you something” sat us outside and bought us two bowls of very tasty vegetable soup. We gratefully polished it off, and were about to ask for the bill, when he bought out two plates full of burgers, salad and lentils, followed by two bowls of stewed rhubarb. The impromptu three course meal, appreciated as it was, meant that I ended up running through Berlin airport at a frankly quite dangerous speed and begging security to please hurry up – we did manage to catch the plane in the end, but only just.
Obviously, vegetarians do have a bit of an extra worry on this front. So far, I’ve not been anywhere where I couldn’t get something meat free to eat (the trickiest places tend to be office buffets and small towns in the UK), but not everyone in the world is familiar with the concept of never eating meat; not everyone has the same definition of meat (some people don’t count poultry); dishes that are typically veggie in the UK may be made with meat fat or bacon garnish elsewhere, and there may be a language barrier as well.
My visit to the States didn’t really present too many problems for vegetarians, and although eggs are a popular meat alternative, it was still probably better equipped for vegans than Europe. Whilst not everything on the menu was always what I expected, I was pleasantly surprised by most things.
Here are some things I discovered about food in Colorado:
There’s lots of it
They definitely live up to their reputation on portion sizes – which as someone who often still feels hungry after eating out, I appreciated. They’re good about giving you a doggy bag to take home what you can’t finish too (although clearly they don’t call it anything as British sounding as a “doggy bag”). I was also impressed by the amount of choice available in their supermarkets – one consequence of having that much land to build on is that the shops can offer a LOT of different products. I was a bit gobsmacked by Wholefoods – which is a sort of supermarket health food shop – selling all kinds of nuts, beans, grains, obscure flours and other ingredients, vegan pizzas, cakes, salads- would make it much easier for anyone on a special diet to get the ingredients they need: which brings me to….
They’re good at dairy-free
Britain is very much not good at dairy free. If you don’t eat meat here, you usually get given cheese. In fact f you do eat meat, you usually get meat with cheese. If you order a cup of tea, it comes with milk in unless you specify otherwise. Chefs here are in love with creamy sauces. Even the most basic corner shops stock several different varieties of cheese. I don’t know what it is with the Brits and their obsession with greasy white food but there it is. If you want a dairy free alternative to milk, your affordable options are generally limited to soya, and you have to go to a big supermarket or a specialist shop to get it. In Denver, even the everyday supermarkets had huge fridges full of different kinds of dairy-free milk and tofu products. Almond milk is ubiquitous and costs the same as soya – a choice of soya or almond milk was sold in most coffee shops, which was fab. Almond milk, if you’ve never had it, is thinner, sweeter and silkier than soya, and very nice in a latte (They do good coffee in the US as well, although a lot of it was stronger than I’m used to so be prepared to be running around like a hyperactive child.)
They excel at breakfast (even if they don’t do brown sauce)
Most of the best meals we ate were breakfast or brunch. I mean, let’s be frank, it’s tough to beat a good old-fashioned English Breakfast, but I’d say the Americans aren’t far off. Pancakes are amazing and I think we should all eat pancakes for breakfast more often. Pancakes aren’t so much like the pancakes we have here (which they would call a crepe – we also ate at a lovely crepe house), but more like Scotch Pancakes – thick and soft with a sweet flavour. At the IHOP (International House of Pancakes) they come in different flavours – I had pumpkin and cinnamon ones, which were delicious. I liked how at the IHOP you could order something called a “pancake combo” where you ordered a normal breakfast with your eggs, sausages etc then had pancakes as a sort of breakfast dessert. I’m definitely going to be making pancakes for breakfast on a more regular basis now, and maybe try adding some other flavours to the mix (berries, raisins, spices…? Any other good ideas?). This is a good pancake recipe for anyone who wants to do the same: Pancakes .
I was also very into the hash browns. I like hash browns in the UK as it happens: like almost any hot fried potato mush product, hash browns are perfect comfort food for eating when you’re ill, hungover, or without gainful employment and wondering what happened to your life. I’ve always had this vague idea that a proper hash brown is made from scratch by frying a mixture of potato and onion, but the fact remains that even in quite swanky hotels, when you ask for a hash brown you get a solid triangle of reconstituted potato that came out of a packet in the freezer (plus you only ever get one. What’s that all about? Why so stingy? If my boyfriend can have three sausages why can’t I have another hash brown? It’s not like they’re expensive). In America I got what I imagine a hash brown is supposed to be like: a loose patty of grated potato, still dangerously hot and crispy, that falls apart a bit when you try to eat it. They’re more crunch than mush, which makes them much more satisfying, and they taste much fresher. I’m not sure if there was any onion or other flavour in there, or what made them (sort of) stick together, but they’re definitely something I’m going to try and recreate at home because I bet they are amazing with brown sauce.
Which they don’t do. Much as I enjoyed American food, I’m afraid Britain still wins the condiment war (btw programmers, “the condiment war” needs to be a computer game asap.). Brown sauce is just an essential, and Colman’s mustard knocks the sock off that weird tasteless US stuff that doesn’t seem to do anything other than make food yellower. Also: piccalilli.
Another thing I learned that’s worth knowing for potential visitors: baked beans are not vegetarian. They have pork fat in them. You can get vegetarian versions, but they’re a specialist product. I’m really glad I was told this.
Biscuits and gravy is a bit gross but not in the way you’d expect.
I was really curious about biscuits. Obviously, we all know they call biscuits cookies over there, so it was a bit surprising to find out they have something called biscuits as well, and that it comes served with gravy. In my head this was a nightmarish Sunday roast with the slices of roast beef replaced with bourbon biscuits, but no, this is not what it is. I was really curious about the dish, so wanted to try it – I can’t say as I’m terribly enthusiastic about it though.
A biscuit is a bit like a very heavy, savoury scone, and the gravy is like a thick white sauce – usually with bits of meat in, but in my case, with mushrooms. So essentially, biscuits and gravy is a big bowl of cream of mushroom soup, with a scone in it.
They have excellent Asian and Mexican food
Really. Lots of lovely tofu and bean dishes, loads of choice for veggies –probably a good bet if you want something reasonably healthy.
They put all their beer in the fridge because WTF??
I was under the impression that Americans only drank Budweiser (which, as we all know, is vile, vile stuff), so it was a bit of a surprise to me when we went into the local liquor store (that’s American for “off-license” dontcha know), and they did have a variety of decent beers and ales. Weirdly, they were all in the fridge. A really cold fridge. I do like to try local beers wherever I go, so picked up a few bottles brewed by these guys: http://www.tommyknocker.com/ . Out of curiosity I tried one while it was still ice cold – and as predicted, it tasted of nothing but cold. Once it warmed up a bit to room temperature and you could actually taste it, it turned out to have a delicious malty flavour. I have no idea why you’d make a lovely beer like that and then kill all the flavour off – I love America, it’s beautiful, the people are lovely, the shops are amazing and most of the food rocks ass, but there are some things I just can’t embrace.