Getting a taste for the terroir – or How an American learned to love British food

There are nearly 14 million acres of farmland in my home state of Ohio, USA. I grew up surrounded by some of these acres – a green expanse of soybeans to my left, and a waving field of corn across the street. Yet I have no concept of my home state’s goût de terroir – literally the ‘taste of the Earth’. This is the term winemakers, farmers and the otherwise food-inclined use to describe the relationship between a food and the place it comes from, and how the soil, sunshine, rain and other conditions infuse a food with its unique characteristics.

My mother briefly flirted with growing beefsteak tomatoes and kohlrabi when I was very young, and I dabbled in gardening in early adulthood and had a brief stint working on an organic farm. Otherwise most of the food I ate was from California. No doubt much of that food included soybeans and corn – as fillers in burgers and sweeteners in processed foods, like fizzy drinks – but that hardly qualifies as ‘eating locally’: California is as far from Ohio as England is from Azerbaijan.

After thirty years living in Ohio, I came to live with my British husband in Oxford. What I knew about British food at that time came from a few chuckle-worthy spotted dick stories and a mention of turkey curry in Bridget Jones’s Diary. I hadn’t given it much thought, but was sure of one thing: I didn’t want to look, sound or eat like an American. These were the years of President Bush, Jr, and Americans were taking a hit in the popularity department. I decided that my ambassadorial contribution would be to experience my new home with an open mind, and ‘gustatorially’ that meant I wouldn’t insist on every dish being saltier, sweeter, fizzier and faster … or served in front of the television.

I failed. Despite my best efforts, I missed the salt, the sweet, the fizz. Some evenings I even scoffed nachos while watching Friends on Channel 4. During the first couple of years my impressions of British food culture consisted not of what it offered, but what it lacked … or rather what I missed. This included big slices of New York-style pepperoni pizza, made by independently owned pizzerias and delivered steaming hot to my door. It also included Tex-Mex and ‘interior’ Mexican food: fresh corn tortillas, black beans, fish tacos, and mole poblano (a blend of chocolate, chillies and as many as 20 spices, simmered with chicken).

I also started to crave the garlicky Polish kielbasa (sausage) my grandmother served at Christmas. The kind I found in Britain just didn’t taste the same (and now I’m committed to eating high-welfare pork, making most imported Polish sausage off-limits). I missed my all-time favourite dish – veal paprikash. My Hungarian-descended mother would make it for me when I visited: thick egg dumplings and chunks of veal simmered in a thick soured-cream gravy. (For the past 20 years my mom made this dish with chicken instead of veal, after discovering that veal calves were under-fed and raised in crates.)

I also craved my paternal grandmother’s green-jelly ‘salad’. (My husband rolls his eyes incredulously when I call jelly a ‘salad’, comparing it to Ronald Reagan’s reclassification of ketchup as a vegetable.) The dish is green jelly with a tin of fruit suspended in it, and cream cheese mixed in when the jelly is warm, causing the cheese to float to the top and create a solid layer of sweet, pale-green ‘icing’. While not the height of sophistication, that dish takes me right back to Christmas dinner in my grandmother’s tiny dining room in east Toledo.

Though I missed many things, I grudgingly got on with my new life in England, including trying to like the food. I joined the local Slow Food group, and heard about a box scheme that offered fresh vegetables each week.  While I was no stranger to vegetables, I hadn’t spent much time with parsnips or Jerusalem artichokes, and I was only mildly acquainted with leeks. I liked beetroot, but felt cooking it demanded a lot of my time. Yet I was determined to cook what was in that box every week. My husband took pity on me and handed me The Cookery Year, which his mother had given him. It’s handily organised by month, with recipes using a lot of local, seasonal ingredients. Along with additional support from Constance Spry and Jamie Oliver’s more British recipes in the Ministry of Food, I was soon roasting parsnips and swede and experimenting with lamb joints (lamb being expensive and hard to come by in the USA). Eventually I whipped up a somewhat puffy toad-in-the-hole and even attempted a few (flat but tasty) Victoria sponges.

My British food education was also helped along by the traditional food tastes of my husband’s Welsh mother and English father. From the first meal I had at their house, we sat at a properly ‘laid’ table (in America, we ‘set’ the table), and I learned to eat with the fork in my left hand and knife in my right (in America we hold the fork in our right hand to eat). I sampled boiled tongue, Yorkshires and beef, kippers in tomato sauce, and beetroot (boiled expediently in a pressure cooker).

A few years later I started shopping at two local farmers’ markets, one of which sources food from within 30 miles of Oxford. Along with the box scheme, cookery books and my in-laws, I was gaining something I never had in my 30 years in Ohio – an understanding of the goût de terroir of my adopted home. I found myself dipping soldiers into the golden yolk of a soft boiled egg, which was from a chicken who lived in a village down the road. I was eating toast topped with damson jam which my husband made from the fruit trees in our garden.

Fortunately, I also learned to adapt some of my favourite dishes from America to the ingredients native to Britain. A chat with my local butcher revealed spicy Toulouse sausage, which is a fine substitute for garlicky kielbasa (Toulouse sausages are from a French recipe, but widely produced in Britain). One of my favourite comfort foods – macaroni cheese – is an even more comforting dish here, made with cheddar and leeks. And getting educated about ‘rose’ veal – crate-free and well-fed at North Aston Dairy – means veal paprikash is back on the menu after two decades. I’ve even had some inspiration for great Mexican dishes by eating at Wahaca Mexican Market in London, where they use as many British-sourced ingredients as possible.

“Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are,” wrote the 18th-century gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. To my surprise, I think Jean might look at what I eat today and think I’m British, even if my passport says otherwise. I still haven’t managed to make a decent green-jelly-and-cream-cheese ‘salad’ the way my grandma did, and occasionally I eat crisps while watching CSI. But I also fantasise about roast parsnips, carrots and potatoes in the middle of winter, and look forward to nettle and red onion omelettes in spring. And, yes … I do like Marmite, smeared on bubbly cheese-on-toast.

By Wendy Knerr, MSc – author of Ethical Relish: the pleasures, places and politics of food

Wendy Knerr, MSc
The Write Effect
research and communications for health, rights and development

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