Dinner With The Omnivore

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British tea, what.

Britain, according to the ever-inaccurate Wikipedia, is the second largest per capita consumer of tea in the world. Ever since enterprising English merchants in China started swapping the stuff for class A drugs in the nineteenth century, tea has been seen as a quintessentially British tipple. Which makes about as much sense as the expat’s constant lament that he can’t get ‘proper British curry’.

The French have caught on to the Britsh tea thing even though they are clearly baffled by it, and various varieties of teabag are now fairly readily available in supermarkets. As well as the standard Lipton Yellow (nasty by anyone’s standards) you can also get some Gallic version of Tetley, and usually PG Tips in those stupid pointy teabags at an eye-watering price.

The question really is why on earth you’d want to. Teabags of whatever brand contain floor-sweepings, not tea. That’s what teabags are for – it’s nothing to do with your convenience, just a way of disguising the fact that you are being ripped off for something which has been harvested in a dustpan. Hats off to the evil marketing genius who came up with that one.

Have a good look at the contents of a teabag sometime. Now sweep the kitchen floor. I bet you can’t tell the difference between the two (apart from the cat hairs, crumbs and odd bits of chopped onion, obviously).

How long have those teabags been in there?

Mind you, given the sort of abuse to which British drinkers subject their tea, it could be argued that the good stuff is wasted on them and they might as well carry on buying low-grade rubbish. How many times have you been to some caff where the tea-maker has blatantly just thrown a handful of PG Tips teabags into a huge tin tea bucket and then left them there for hours before serving up a mug of unspeakable stewed muck cut with 50% milk? I’d sooner drink coffee. From Starbucks.

Here is some news for you all: tea is not orange. It does come in all sorts of colours, from a delicate yellow tint through to rich golden brown, but at no time and under no circumstances should it be bright orange. It’s not supposed to be made with half a pint of milk either. Some milk, if you like it that way, fair enough. But I can’t see how you can face the prospect of a cup of what amounts to watered down warm milk with orange colouring in it.

Ultimate British teapot

In fact, if you drop the milk business altogether, a whole new world of tea-drinking opens up before you. Teabags like PG are designed with the British market in mind, so they are specifically made to produce that evil-tasting orange liquid on the grounds that even if you do add all the full fat gold top in the fridge it might still taste of something. It doesn’t work either – the stuff still tastes like those horrible little bottles of milk they used to give you in school.

This is why you all think tea without milk is disgusting – it’s because you’re drinking the wrong tea. And you’re right, PG Tips and others of its ilk are indeed slightly more disgusting without milk than with it.

But most teas aren’t blended with milk in mind. Next time someone tries to dump dairy product in my Darjeeling I might have to get violent. And what are you all thinking about, pouring semi-skimmed into the Earl Grey? Vile, I tell you.

Rancid yak butter. Err .... not for me thanks.

Not that I’m going to get all snotty about tea additives and the ‘proper’ way to drink the stuff. Plenty of cultures add things to their tea – I’m told the Tibetans favour rancid yak butter, and while I’m generally open to new culinary experiences, I think I might be tempted to file that one away with the andouillette. So drink it with milk if you must, but you’ll enjoy your tea a whole lot more if you apply a bit of moderation. Apart from anything else, it’ll taste of tea. And lay off the teabags. Get a teapot. Buy some decent loose leaf tea – Ringtons and Adagio have plenty of it. You never know, they might even stock it in Sainsrose. Trust me, you’ll never look at PG Tips again.

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Emperor Louis Napoleon III

Napoleon III - poisoning the peasants

In 1869, according to that modern Delphic oracle Wikipedia, Emperor Louis Napoleon III offered a prize to anyone who could come up with a butter substitute ‘suitable for use by the armed forces and the lower classes’. French chemist and part-time amoral mad scientist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriés, being presumably short of a bob or two at the time, duly produced some kind of industrial filth which he called oleomargarine. Well, thanks Louis Napoleon. Thank you so very much for that gift to corporate Big Food, just what the rest of us needed, I don’t think.

To their credit, the French ‘lower classes’ proved resistant to the idea of eating something cooked up by a fruitcake wielding a chemistry set, preferring to stick to foodstuffs produced by actual farmers using modified mammal sweat, so Hippolyte sold the idea to the Dutch. All of which tells you what you need to know about the merits of food culture in those places.

Nowadays, margarine may be made by passing hydrogen through oils in the presence of a nickel catalyst. Does that sound like any kind of sensible food-production process to you? No, me neither. In fact, if you’d told me it was a way of making fertiliser I would have seen no reason to argue.

I don't think so.

Butter, on the other hand, is made by shaking cream about so that all the fat sticks together. It contains butterfat and possibly salt if you like it that way. As a butter eater you have no need to disturb your breakfast by wondering what potassium sulphate and acidity regulators are and whether or not it’s a good idea to put them in your mouth.

But despite all this, margarine and its deviant derivatives continue to sell to people who have been suckered into believing that it is somehow ‘healthier’ than butter. It’s not sounding ‘healthy’ to me, what with all the hydrogen and nickel. It certainly doesn’t taste healthy. (I can say this for certain, having eaten a ginger biscuit made with half butter and half marg after JC ran out of butter half way through the process. It tasted like something you should be putting on a bike chain, not using in food.)

No, it isn't.

In fact, manufacturers are more or less admitting that the stuff tastes like ming by mixing it with butter and giving it names like ‘Utterly Butterly’ and ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!’ (complete with exclamation mark) in a bid to convince people that they really aren’t eating engine oil. It’s margarine, everyone. It’s still made of diesel and dead dogs, even if they’ve ruined perfectly good butter by putting that in there as well.

french butter

Now that's better. Someone pass the crumpets.

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Or at least not the stuff you’re talking about, most of which is not actually food. I lose count of the number of times I’ve heard British resort staff  bemoan the lack of ‘proper bread’ (ie sliced polystyrene), ‘real bacon’ (pink spongy stuff which pours with water once in the pan) and Cheddar ‘cheese’ (by which they don’t mean decent farmhouse cheddar but those lumps of industrial cheeseoid you can buy in Tesco). For God’s sake people, you’re in France. It’s famous for bread and cheese, what are you talking about? But no, they carry on bribing coach drivers to bring them British ‘sausages’ and complaining that they’re tired of baguettes (having completely failed to spot the two dozen other types of bread on offer in every boulangerie). I despair.

French bread - not 'proper', apparently

Not that the paying public is much better. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that having forked over good money to travel abroad on holiday, people would want to make the most of the experience – eat things they can’t get at home, look out for local dishes, whatever. But no. Every major resort is littered with English bars offering over-priced Full English Breakfast made with the lowest quality ingredients. You wouldn’t dream of paying upwards of a tenner at home for budget sausages, watery bacon and frozen hash browns, so why on earth do you do it on holiday?

Long-term expats don’t seem to be a great deal better at surviving without weird semi-foods at stratospheric prices either, judging by the number of British gorcery shopping websites out there. Birds Dream Topping at nearly £5 for three sachets, tins of  ‘Celebrity Bacon Grill’ (don’t tell me, I don’t want to know), ready-to-eat orange jelly …. hideous.

So I’ve got some alarming news for everyone out there – people in other parts of the world do actually eat stuff. No, honestly, they really do. And it probably tastes a whole lot better than Crosse and Blackwell Hunger Break followed by Angel Delight and washed down with Maltesers Hot Chocolate Drink.

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Food for thought

“Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.” ― Orson Welles

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