Rusks, crisps, and treacle

The English tea tradition calls for pouring milk in the cup first, then adding tea. (Photo by Laura McKenzie)
Rusks, crisps, and treacle

By Lisa Sorg

Find your favourite dishes at British Sensations

The characters:
Christopher Wickham, native of Reading, England, UTSA professor of German, and film buff. He came to America in 1976.
Lisa Sorg, San Antonio Current editor. Visited England in 1990. Only memorable meal was Indian curry.
Confused customer

The setting:
British Sensations flower-themed tea room and grocery, table near the front window.

(Tea arrives and is steeping)

Why have you stayed in the U.S.?

I have a job and I like it well enough. I haven't ever taken American citizenship.

Does John Ashcroft know?

I'm considering citizenship more seriously right now; I'm wondering if it could come through in time for November.

(Enter menu)

The Ploughman's lunch is a very traditional pub lunch. It comes with a big chunk of cheddar cheese. Pickled onions are very important. And crisps, or potato chips.

Shepherd's pie is usually hamburger meat cooked with some spices, but not a whole lot. It has mashed potato on top. There will usually be peas in it, maybe carrot, and a thin layer `of vegetables` between meat and potato. It's baked in the oven.

The cornish pastie sounds a little ...

That's because it's pronounced pastie `rhymes with nasty`. It's sort of a pastry case with meat, potato, and vegetables inside. It was originally miners' food. That way the miners could take their lunch with them down into the mine.

They have a steak and kidney pie. I'll do that.

Steak and kidney pie is very traditional. I've been struck by the responses I get. People say, 'How could you possibly eat kidney pie?' I've never known anyone in Britain to eat or sell kidney pie; it's always steak and kidney pie.

What's the tea tradition about?

Tea came to England through colonial connections. There isn't a tea ceremony like in Japan, but there are certain rituals associated with tea. You have to warm the pot before you start; otherwise you lose the heat. Boil the water and use some from the kettle to warm the pot. Put in the leaves or teabags, bring back to a boil and let it stand, or we say brew, for several minutes. Where I grew up, you always put milk in the cup first. Everybody I know does it that way. No one has been able to explain it, but I did once hear that it keeps the cup from getting stained. There is a small amount of fat in there and the tannins in the tea don't stain. There's a scene in Gosford Park, the detective offers to pour the lady of the house tea and he puts milk in the cup. After he's done that, she says, 'Tea first, milk after.' So there may be a class thing. Beyond a certain level of social strata, it's tea first.

British food has a bad reputation. Is it justified?

The British have the reputation for cooking the bejesus out of anything. They prepare vegetables by boiling them. British don't use much in the way of spices. A little bit of onion, some salt and pepper, not a whole lot of garlic. Mint sauce with lamb, but nothing dramatic or tongue-burning or searing. They have taken to curries. Assuming it's not too radical.

(The meal arrives.)

First of all, the utensils. People eat with an accent. Americans switch; British don't. Eat from your fork with your left hand, and usually you don't use fork as a scoop. It's a stabber. If you've got beans or peas, you use your knife to crush them on to the back.

Is your meal good?

Yeah, pretty good. I haven't come across any kidney.

What does kidney look like?

Well it would be rather small, probably ground-up.

(Dissects with knife)

I'm like a surgeon here. It's a little bit darker and smoother. I may have eaten it. As you can see, it's not a kidney.

No, it's not like there's a big kidney sitting there ready to be transplanted.

(Enter dessert menu)

I'll go with the jam roll with custard.

I'll have black currant crumble with custard. British lunches aren't terribly heavy.

British Sensations

4115 Naco-Perrin

Grocery hours:
10am-5pm Tue-Sat
Tea room hours:
11am-2:30pm Wed-Sat

Major credit cards
Handicapped accessible
But also not very green. Where is your vegetable content? Baked beans? The stuff I grew up with was informed to quite an extent by the Second World War and rationing and economic limitations. There is a carry-over from that.

(Dessert arrives)

Black currant doesn't figure into the American consciousness of edible fruits, but it's very, very big in England. It takes the place of the grape.

(Lisa scoops hot yellow custard and currants with spoon.)

This smells good, like food, but also like crayons. Buttery, waxy. Mmmm, it's rich, delicious.

Sponge puddings are very common British desserts. Sponge cake with jam or treacle. It's syrup, like molasses, and sweeter, and not dark.

(After dessert, exit to grocery)

Cockles is a seafood. Mussels and some kind of bivalve. I've never had them.

They kind of scare me.

Christmas crackers. These are high-end. They're a novelty item you have after Christmas dinner. On the ends of the package there is a strip of cardboard, you take one end of it and your partner takes the other, and you pull and there's a bit of an explosion. You open it up; the explosion doesn't blow it apart. Inside there will be a joke, a paper hat, a toy, a plastic whistle, or a car. A luxury one like this has a padlock, screwdriver. You don't know what you're going to get.

What are rusks?

Zwieback toast.

There's your Marmite. It's yeast extract. You use it very sparingly.

Rose's Lime juice in Britain is used as a soft drink. Put a little in a glass and add water. Rose was the guy who cashed in on the discovery that limes prevent scurvy.

Here's the treacle.

(Examines label).

Look at this: flies gathering around a dead lion. You know why? "Out of the strong came sweetness." It's a Biblical quotation and it's on there.

That's horrific. It's like roadkill on a package.

This should attract attention.

(Picks up several swollen cans of Spotted Dick)

It's a kind of steamed pudding. It has currants and raisins in it. These all look questionable.

(Enter customer)

Do you work here?


Could have fooled me.

(Exit to cash register. Total: $21.72)

Well, this has been fun. I've really enjoyed the reminiscing. •

By Lisa Sorg


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