Bubble and Squeak: England’s Comeback Cuisine Makes Its Mark
I hear gunshots, followed by yips from spaniels as they dash to retrieve the downed pheasants. I am ankle-deep in the mud-slicked farmstead nestled in the rustic Somerset Mendip Hills-a far cry from Buckingham Palace, Savile Row or the National Gallery. I am in the "real" England and it’s not for the faint of heart.
"Hope you don’t mind," chirps Neil Worley, proprietor and chief doer at Worley’s Cider, as we slop through the muck to the cider house abutting the hunter-dotted field across the stream. "We open the property to local hunters a few times a year, and today’s the pheasant hunt."
This is England, where Normans conquered, Shakespeare scribed and country people hunt.
While previously we Americans (OK, maybe just me) might have been jealous of the British for their dry sense of humor, their gin, their literary past, their sense of pageantry and history and their sartorial splendor, we were always confident in one thing: Our food was better.
No more. From Michelin-starred delights in both town and country to homey pies and gourmet pasties; with upstart home breweries, vineyards gaining international acclaim for sparkling wine and a hotly brewing coffeehouse culture, the British culinary scene is not on its way -- it has arrived.
Cider House Rules
When I duck shivering into Worley’s cider house, surrounding by gurgling vats of sour-smelling fermenting apple juice, I appreciate how quintessentially British this eating and drinking evolution is. They’re not tackling new culinary cultures. They’re re-visiting and refining their own into something truly special.
Hard (alcoholic) cider is a longstanding UK tradition --Brits, Welshmen and Scots consume more than 150 million gallons per year, the most in the world. The West Country, the southwestern counties including Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Somerset, is best known for the stuff.
Neil Worley started his eponymous cider operations from his Somerset barn (two-and-a-half hours west of London) after he and his wife, Helen, left their publishing careers for the country life with their children. With a thriving distribution network in England, he’s currently seeking U.S. distributors for his traditional West Country cider.
The small-batch cider is quite dry, lightly fizzy and crystal clear. Worley produces several variations, all with moderate alcohol content between approximately 5.4 and 6.3 percent and with a delicate and well-balanced blend of sweet-tart and sour apple flavors.
Huddled in the cozy kitchen of the Worley’s 16th-century farmhouse, complete with a brace of colorful but dead pheasants hanging by the gate (a parting gift from the visiting hunters), the ciders pair perfectly with an award-winning Cheddar from the local Gould’s Batch Farm Cheesemakers.
Despite the chill and dampness of a typical winter English day, the cider manages to be both refreshing and warming, a perfect analogy for the resurgence of Britain’s bespoke culinary scene.
Your Very Own English Country House
While the mud-between-my-toes reality of Somerset was delightful, I have to say I was looking forward to a proper "English country house," hot toddies and bubbly. The approach to the Dorcester Collection’s Coworth Park-its creamy white exterior and pitch-perfect mansard roof and gables rising graciously from the surrounding greens-is an eyeful.
Just up the road from Windsor Castle and nearby Ascot (of the race course, darling), Coworth Park may not match the baronial footprint of Downton Abbey, but this Georgian manse boasts not one but two private polo fields. Of course. To say Coworth is a five-star retreat puts it mildly. From its on-site spa to its elegant rooms with heated floors and standing tubs or the stylishly converted stables-cum-cottages, the Coworth House precisely fits the bill of a British oasis in the country.
Gracious yet unobtrusive staff mesh seamlessly with the sumptuous yet tasteful furnishings. The grounds of Coworth Park looks quite traditional, but inside it’s a lovingly eccentric combination of stylish country and elegant funky. The accents in orange are striking, down to the leather-lined elevators and staircase railings.
As for food, Coworth Park brings it. The main Restaurant Coworth Park delivered meal after meal that features a "Best of Britain" theme. The extensive tasting dinner menu kicked off with a glass of the 2009 Gusbourne Estate Blanc de Blancs. Well-balanced with beautifully integrated oak and made in the traditional French method, this sparkler from Kent could easily hold its own with a proper Champagne. (If you can find a Gusbourne or another British bubbly in the United States, it’s definitely worth a try.)
The Hand & Flowers
Nearby in tony Marlow lies one of England’s most vaunted restaurants: The Hand & Flowers, a gastropub that was the first in Britain to earn two Michelin stars.
Opened in 2005 by Chef Tom Kerridge and his wife, Beth, The Hand & Flowers has garnered a devoted following and launched Kerridge into celebrity chef territory. He was a standout on Britain’s foodie reality TV show, "Great British Menu," and has gone on to judge and guest-star on various programs and recently host his own show.
A big fella, Kerridge is an affable West Country chef with a ready grin and an enthusiastic handshake. After a career in upscale restaurants, he and his wife decided they wanted to open their own place, but they were set on opening a casual pub with a focus on high-quality British ingredients and dishes.
"Just because it’s a pub doesn’t mean the food has to be rubbish," Kerridge says in his characteristic unpretentious style. Despite near-impossible to snag reservations and a wait for every service, Kerridge is "still terrified every day that no one is going to show up."
It’s that commitment to excellence that drives The Hand & Flowers to deliver truly British cuisine, updated and upgraded and paired with attentive service. The Scotch Egg (a hard-cooked egg wrapped in sausage, dredged in breadcrumbs and cooked to a crispy shell) was lovely, and the duck-fat fries really hit the spot. Be warned, though: This is definitely still a country pub, with low ceilings, crowded tables and hard wooden chairs that belie the price tag.