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Five Foods Only the British Could Love


British food, like British weather and British dental work, has a bad and often undeserved reputation. Try the tasting menu at a glitzy celebrity chef restaurant, visit a stellar gastropub in the countryside or pick the catch of the day at a dockside café, and you could well enjoy the best meal of your life.

But it can't be denied that some British foodstuffs have foreigners recoiling in horror. None of the fare here will kill you (with the possible exception of too many scotch eggs) and few should even make you gag. And if you do summon up the courage to pop them in your cake hole, you'll understand British culinary quirks a little better.

1.       Marmite
Don't feel ashamed if you dislike this salty brown sandwich spread: even 40 percent of the British admit to hating it (its own website opens with the tagline "Marmite: love it or hate it"). The sharp, tangy flavor comes from yeast recycled from the brewing industry. Having done their job of turning sugar into alcohol, the yeast cells are broken down into proteins and amino acids, then concentrated, filtered and bottled — yum! Best experienced slathered heavily on buttered toast or on a thick wedge of Cheddar cheese.

2.       Scotch eggs
When London merchants Fortnum & Mason first cloaked a hard-boiled hen's egg in pork sausage meat, covered it in breadcrumbs and deep-fried it in 1738, the English language did not include the words "cholesterol" or "cardiovascular time-bomb." If you do feel the need to harden your arteries, Fortnum & Mason's delightful Piccadilly store still stocks a fine example of this savory treat (£2.75, or about $4). Whatever you do, though, avoid the ghastly plastic-wrapped versions found in gas stations and convenience stores.

3.       Jellied eels
Banish any thoughts of sweetened seafood. The "jelly" in this traditional East End (of London) dish forms naturally as freshwater eels are boiled in water, vinegar and spices. The result is gelatinous, if not a little slimy, but actually has quite a light flavor. Even if you can't face the slippery stuff, a traditional eel and pie house makes a great visit. Instead of jellied eel, you could try "pie, mash and liquor," a minced beef pie served with sloppy mashed potatoes and a watery parsley sauce.

4.       Warm beer
Called "real ale" in Britain, this is beer stripped back to its basics: unfiltered, untainted by chemicals and, most importantly, unpasteurized. The result is a brew that continues to ferment in the cask at room temperature and is pumped by hand without fizzy carbon dioxide or nitrogen. Although these soft, foamy ales can taste flat and un-hoppy at first, stick with them and you should start to appreciate their subtleties. Three or four pints usually does the trick.

5.       Haggis
What's to dislike about a sheep's stomach, packed with a selection of the animal's internal organs, onions, oatmeal, fat and salt, then boiled for three hours? Add a longstanding US ban on its importation (sheep lungs are a no-no here) and this traditional Scottish food sends a shiver down the spine of many visitors. But if ever a dish's bark was worse than its bite, it's haggis. In fact, this "great chieftain o' the pudding race," in the words of poet Robert Burns, is a nutty, spicy concoction that even the fussiest child should wolf down. Insist on "tatties and neeps" (potatoes and rutabaga) on the side.

by Mark Harris


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