GRUB!: Christmas Style

Monday, December 19, 2011

Yes you're right, there was no blog last week, and I am unrepentant.  What is my excuse? Well, last weekend I had a lovely few days in Brussels where I ran around the city with hashers, crawled pubs, drank some truly excellent Belgian beers, had a formal dinner, danced to ABBA, stayed out until 4am two nights in a row, met some fun people and topped off the beer with am generous helping of mulled wine.  I had a really excellent time, but the schedule was packed and didn't leave a lot of time for blogging, so I took a week off.  Get over it.  And now, on to your irregularly scheduled blog post:

It's a festive fiesta over here at GSWPL today!  Time to talk about some traditional English Christmas treats.  First up:

Mince Pies:

Mince pies are tiny sweet pies filled with mincemeat, a dark, thick jammy substance made by cooking suet with stuff like apples, raisins, sultanas, currants (or other dried fruit) candied peel, spices, sugar, and a generous measure of something boozy like brandy or whisky. Astute GSWPL readers will note from this list that mincemeat has no MEAT in it (Thankfully, and oddly, because over here hamburger - ground beef - is actually called MINCE.)  Still, mincemeat... no meat.  This has not always been the case, because the recipe seems to have originated as early as the 15th century when they were much more cavalier about mixing sweet spices and fruit with meat.  Over the centuries the meat faded into the background, leaving us with modern mincemeat which often now even skips the suet in favour of a vegetarian fat of some kind, resulting in a pie that looks very much like this:

Mince Pies
A tasty pile of mince pies from our work Christmas Lunch.  Yes, LUNCH.  It's normal over here to have the big Christmas meal - turkey, roast potatoes, Brussels sprouts, gravy, Christmas pudding - in the middle of the day,  possibly right after the Queen's Christmas Message.  Presumably you then lie around semi-conscious for the rest of the day pondering when you might next be able to cram something into your mouth.
In fact, mince pies are quite yummy, though possibly an acquired taste.  Luckily, it's a taste I developed as a child, having grown up in a family that embraces a whole lot of traditional English foods and customs (including steak and kidney pudding, another food which sounds like it can't decide whether it's dinner or dessert, and which is definitely a whole other post.)

Mince pies are utterly ubiquitous at this time of year.  They appear in grocery stores in boxes of 6 (for about £1! Fantastic!).  It's also impossible to enter a coffee shop without being presented with a pile of mince pies.  They are a staple at any Christmas function, and I've even seen them given away on the street for store promotions.  There is no escape, meaning that I have consumed approximately 7.3 times my bodyweight in mince pies in the last three weeks.  Luckily, they're small.  Unluckily, this makes it easy to eat nine in a row without noticing (it's the Jaffa Cake Conundrum).  Sadly, the power to resist mince pies decreases precipitously in a direct relationship with your consumption of:

Mulled Wine:

Red wine, heated through with a mixture of spices like cinnamon and clove, and often with sliced apples and oranges added.  Like mince pies, mulled wine is everywhere.  In Brussels and many other European countries it's called gluhwein.  In France it's vin chaud.  Brussels even had it for sale at outdoor gluhwein stands in the Christmas markets, which was quite lovely.  I've had it at work functions, on the street, and at house parties.  (Where it was once served with bits of chorizo sausage added for extra zip, though I am assured by other that this is a highly unusual practice.  Still, what is it about this place that makes people put meat in places where meat was not meant to go?)

Mulled wine is generally made with pretty cheap plonk, since it makes no sense to spend any more than you need to on a bottle (or box) that's going to be stewed to within an inch of its life in a pot full of cinnamon sticks and, if it's unlucky, a bit of sausage.  This means that it's not particularly high quality alcohol, hence it can be the cause of a wicked hangover.  It's very Christmassy, but should be approached with caution.

Selection Boxes:

I've heard it said that Christmas is not Christmas without a selection box.  Technically speaking, a selection box is a package containing a range of sweets from a single manufacturer.  A box of Pot of Gold chocolates would, over here, be referred to as a selection box.  And last week I got a Cadbury's selection box that had six different Cadbury's chocolate bars in it (Cadbury Flake, Dairy Milk, Fudge, Buttons, Crunchie and Caramel!).

But at Christmas time it seems the two grandaddies of the selection box game are Quality Street and Cadbury's Roses.  Chocolates in these kinds of tins are generally made with pretty low quality chocolate, but are fun because they're all different shapes and wrapped in brightly coloured foil, so it's easy to develop favourites, like the Quality Street long skinny gold one, which is toffee.  Or the green triangle.  Or the famous Purple One, which used to be a whole Brazil nut covered in chocolate, but is now, for reasons unknown, a hazelnut.

Quality Street
A tower of Quality Street selection boxes, in my local Sainsbury's
Brussels Sprouts:

Pity the poor Brussels sprout!  Trotted out at Christmas every year and often boiled into oblivion, they are the nightmare of British children the nation over.  (Last year I read a tongue-in-cheek article outlining key dates in the run-up to Christmas and somewhere in mid-November appeared the helpful hint: "Grans: Last chance to put the sprouts on to boil!")

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with bacon and chestnuts, which are very traditional accompaniments
Sprouts get a bad rap, probably because of the aforementioned overcooking, which can release a chemical compound (glucosinolate sinigrin) that makes them smell sulphurous and hence less-than-yummy.  Much better to sautee or roast them.  But everyone I've talked to says that Christmas dinner is not complete without a bowl of sprouts that get politely ignored by most people at the table.  I like them myself, though this was not always the case.  Apparently they're often served with bacon and chestnuts, which sounds excellent.

Christmas Pudding:

Christmas pudding is the truly proper end to a Christmas dinner (whether served at 1pm or 7...) and is familiar territory for me.  I've had Christmas pudding every year since, I suspect, I was in utero (except one).  And it bears repeating that in England "pudding" is a very broad term.  North Americans might fall into the trap of thinking a pudding is a smooth, gloopy, spoonable dessert advertised by Bill Cosby.  No so in England; here the term is used generally to describe any kind of dessert.

For those of you who haven't had the pleasure: a Christmas Pudding is another one of those mixtures of suet, dried fruit, sugar and booze (no meat this time!) with a touch of flour added to bind it all together into a batter.  It's traditionally cooked by pouring the whole mixture into a ceramic bowl called a pudding basin and then steaming it for hours, which results in a moist, rich, dense cakey sort of thing that resembles half a bowling ball in colour and weight when turned out onto a plate.  It's normally served by dousing it in brandy or rum and then setting it alight, and is accompanied by custard, brandy butter or - my favourite - hard sauce.

Christmas pudding (the bowling ball on the right), hard sauce (down centre) and a few mince pies thrown in for good measure.
(Aside on hard sauce: It's not hard, nor is it really a sauce.  Instead, hard sauce is a tooth-achingly sweet mixture of butter and sugar, possibly with a bit of vanilla or booze mixed in, which makes it quite thick - more like a spread.  My association with hard sauce goes back as far as my association with Christmas pudding.  Because a Christmas pud is very rich and dense and sort of challengingly flavoured - especially for kids - it was always a bit of a tough sell at our table.  The hard sauce, though, was a guaranteed hit.  Hence it was decreed that if you wanted hard sauce, you had to have at least a small slice of pudding to go with it.  This resulted in many years of being served a slice of pudding so thin you could read The Times through it, topped with an enormous helping of hard sauce.  Happily this tactic worked, and I'm now completely won over to the charms of Christmas Pudding.  As long as there's hard sauce.)

Christmas Crackers:

No, not crackers as in things-to-be-crumbled-into-soup.  These are crackers as in things-that-go-Crack!  Despite my Anglo-centric upbringing, this is one Christmas tradition that never made it into my personal list of Christmas Must Haves.  But over here Christmas crackers are mandatory.  A cracker is a small cardboard tube wrapped in paper so it ends up looking like a giant hard candy.   The intention is that the tube is pulled apart to reveal the contents inside.  The crack part comes because the tube is also fitted with a thin strip of cardboard impregnated with some kind of chemical banginess, so it make a sharp cracking noise when pulled apart (sort of like a cap gun).

Traditionally it takes two people to pull a cracker, with each person grabbing one end.  Similar to breaking a wishbone, the person who ends up with the larger bit after the pull is the winner, and is entitled to claim the entire contents of the cracker.  At less cutthroat tables, each person has a cracker and keeps its contents to him or herself, though the actual pulling of the cracker is still definitely a two person operation.

Crackers normally contain three things: a brightly coloured tissue paper hat, usually shaped like a crown (which must be worn); a small plastic toy of some kind (which must be crappy); and a small slip of paper containing a joke (which must be very very bad and which also must be read out to the rest of the table).

Cracker joke
A cracker and joke from the office Christmas lunch.  I told you the jokes were bad. (Other joke that appeared that day: Which side of a chicken has the most feathers? The outside!)

And there you have it - a few English Christmas traditions to chew on (ha!) over the holidays.  I'm heading back to Canada soon for two full weeks of friends, family, jetlag, food, presents, sleeping in and Christmas pudding with hard sauce.  I may blog while I'm there, and I may not... you'll just have to tune in to find out.  

The Games People Play: Rugby

Monday, December 5, 2011

It's high time I went to a rugby match, especially since I've been here for about a year and a half now and rugby really is one of The Big Three spectator sports in England, the other two being football and cricket of course.  (The "Big Three" thing is not any kind of official designation or anything.  I totally just made it up.  But it's still true.)  And most especially because one of my good friends is a HUGE rugby fan (in the sense that he has a great love for the game, not in the sense that he is physically huge and also happens to like rugby).  And most most especially because that same friend promised to take me to a rugby match oh, about a year and a half ago.  High time indeed.

Luckily, the last time I pestered Paul (the huge one) (kidding!) about his promise he was ready for it and offered a real treat.  We wouldn't be going to some piddling local match between the Little Whinging No-Necks and the Snortby-on-the-Plim Hippos.  Not us.  We were going to Twickenham, the spiritual home of English rugby and the largest rugby stadium in the world, with 82,000 seats.  (Twickenham Pronunciation Guide: It's "TWICKENum".  Certainly NOT "TwickenHAM")  Even better, the game was to be a fundraiser for the Help for Heroes charity, who raise money for wounded British servicemen.  Win-win!

Quick rugby primer: Forerunner to American/Canadian style football, the point of the game is for each 15-man team to try to advance the ball, which looks like a fat North American football, down the field to the opposing goal line.  If a player touches the ball to the ground past that line he scores a "try", which is the major scoring play and is worth 5 points.  (It also leads to an odd use of the phrase "Nice try" which doesn't actually mean, "Good effort, but not quite." It literally means... nice try.)  The ball can be run or kicked down the field, but no forward passing is allowed.  Also, there are points for kicking through the goal posts.  And there are a few odd plays like the scrum, which is sometimes used to put the ball back into play after a stoppage.  Scrums are a sort of structured pushing match involving very large men and very obscure rules.  Even Paul, who actually played the game, admits he does not understand the complex rules for scrummaging. (What a great verb!)

A short but creepy CGI video about the scrum

I probably should have mentioned that Twickenham is the home of Rugby Union, as distinct from Rugby League, a different variant of the sport.  Without going into too much tedious detail, it seems the major differences between Union and League are that League uses 13 players per side, and have tweaked the rules so that there are fewer chances to contest possession of the ball after a tackle.  Where Union players continue to hammer away after a tackle, League players stop.  League uses a system of six downs before possession switches automatically, similar to North American football.  There are no downs in Union; possession only switches when it is earned.  Union is generally the game that's played internationally.

As with everything in England, rugby exhibits some pretty iron-clad class characteristics.  Culturally, it's  considered an upper class sport, as befits its birth at Rugby School, one of the oldest public (posh) primary schools in England.  The oft-quoted maxim is this:
Football is a sport for gentlemen, played by thugs.  Rugby is a sport for thugs, played by gentlemen.
Rugby Union is certainly upper-class, and most popular in the more affluent south of the country.  Rugby League is more popular in the North and with working class fans.

But enough of the rules and the cultural baggage and the schism between Union and League - what about the game?  My foray to the heart of English rugby started with a traditional pint at the Cabbage Patch Pub, so named because Twickenham stadium itself is built on a former cabbage patch, which was purchased by the Rugby Football Union in 1907 for the sum of £5,550 12 shillings and sixpence.

After a warm-up pint at the Cabbage Patch we walked to the stadium, which is really big! Along the route the streets were lined with vendors selling burgers and mini donuts and cornish pasties.  We were early, so we hung around a bit, and had another pint, and I had a quite respectable chicken pie and mash, and we chatted and commented on how cold it was, and how we were both woefully underdressed (I think that by the time I was finishing that second pint the beer was colder than when it had been poured...).  And then it was into the stadium:

I told you it was big
It wasn't until I was in that stadium that it really became clear to me how popular rugby is.  Coming from North America, where rugby is a fringe sort at best, it was a bit like walking into an 80,000 seat badminton arena.  No disrespect to the rest of the planet, much of which likes the game very much (especially Australia and New Zealand and South Africa and, oddly, France).  And no disrespect to the game either, which is fast and rough and exciting and in that respect is very much like hockey and hence is A Good Thing. (Also, no disrespect to badminton.  Well, maybe a little...)

When I say the sport is rough I'm not kidding.  The players wear almost no padding, and the tackles can be vicious.  Also there are very few substitutions - many players are on the field for the whole game, which has two running-time 40 minute halves.  (One of the ways you can be sent off is in a "blood substitution", which means you're out to receive medical attention.  So like I said... rough.)  However, it can also be quite elegant.  When the ball moves down field in a choreographed series of running backward passes it's impressive.  As is the "lineout", a means of throwing the ball back into play from the sidelines.  Some time ago a bright spark got the idea that if a player were lifted up on cue he'd be able to receive the sideline pass well over the heads of the opposing players, so now whenever there's a lineout the players on both teams do this impressive lifting move to try and gain possession.

It's practically ballet!  Sweaty, dirty ballet performed by men who weigh 250 pounds and can probably tear phonebooks in half. 
The game was billed as the "Help For Heroes Northern Hemisphere XV against a star studded Southern Hemisphere team", and featured former professionals, players from the armed forces, and selected young "academy" players. I don't know any better, but Paul said there were a few legends in the lineup.  Naturally we were cheering for the North, who ended up being soundly smacked by the South by a score of about 17 to something-more-than 17...  But the North had a few nice tries and the South had a few more, and we cheered for those too, because rugby fans are a remarkably civilised lot.  In fact, rugby fans are known for being even-tempered and appreciative and, unlike football (soccer) fans, never have to be separated from opposing fans in the stadium, or escorted to waiting buses - for their own safety - when at away games in "hostile" territory, or hauled away in police cars or ambulances (or caskets) after altercations.  There is simply no such thing as a "rugby hooligan", which is a lovely thing.

And so even though the North lost, a good time was had by all.  Paul and I left the stadium chatting happily and trying to get blood moving back into our frozen limbs.  And even though 30,000 people were headed to the train station the walk was orderly and the wait for the train was surprisingly short and the trip home was quick.  So it was a nice afternoon - I finally got to see a game live, and Paul gets to stop having me pester him about the rugby, and the Help for Heroes people made some good money.  Win-win-win!

Me and Paul at Twickenham (See?  He's not huge at all!  I, on the other hand, apparently have a touch of jaundice...)

P.S.  Paul is doing a big bike ride next summer as a fundraiser for Help for Heroes.  Send him money for it!  Even if you're not a fan of this or any war, it's still a good cause.  Also, I suggest you make your donation contingent on him wearing his famous pink lycra cycling shorts.  Win-win...