My fellow Iowan (or Iowegian depending on who you ask) and one time ex-pat Bill Bryson wrote many marvelous books about his observations on British culture. In Notes from a Small Island he admits that many of Britain’s culinary contributions are less than savoury. I use savoury in literal sense because Bryson expresses big love for British desserts, or puddings as they are called here, or sometimes “afters”.
“Don’t f*** with our puddings,” he writes in no uncertain terms. Because the British have this culinary art form nailed! The term “pudding” has two meanings here. The word can mean any type of dessert, but it refers specifically to a kind of dessert made with a batter than closely resembles sponge cake, though it is steamed rather than baked. The resulting steamed sponge is served with warm custard, which resembles vanilla pudding. (I plan to write an entire post praising custard in the near future. When I think of all the years I wasted eating vanilla pudding cold…what a fool I was.)
Steamed puddings have as many varieties as cake. My personal favourite is Sticky Toffee, available in a perfected form at the Magpie Cafe in Whitby. My husband is partial to Jam Roly Poly with layers of jam rolled inside steamed sponge . This is oddly difficult to find and I am far too intimidated to make it myself. When my Mother goes to her Happy Place there is generally a Treacle Sponge there, available in a perfected form at my Mother-in-Law’s house for Sunday lunch. There is also a savoury pudding called Steak and Kidney which has permanent residence in my husband’s Happy Place. So much so that he has been known to find excuses to travel two hours north where the village of Warkworth, Northumberland hides the Topsy Turvy Cafe which has certainly perfected the Steak and Kidney Pudding in his opinion. Bet he finds a way to detour there on our way to Scotland next week. “Don’t f*** with our puddings” indeed!
But puddings are not the only sacrosanct food product in the UK. This week has seen another beloved culinary friend placed in the spotlight of political theatre. I speak of pies.
When the British talk about pies they are not referring to the fruit-filled, meringue-topped cream-studded items available in America–though of course Brits have those too. Just as everyone here understands that “potato” means “boiled potato”, “pie” means “meat pie”. They closely resemble pot pies, only with less vegetable to dilute the shameless meat and gravy love fest. The catch-all term of pie also encompasses the pasty. I have a love-hate relationship with pasties. The love from all the years my mother made us eat them, the hate because I never liked them. I knew I had truly married my mother in male form the first time I saw my husband’s eyes light up on a trip to Cornwall. So many pasty shops. I don’t think he stopped drooling for a fortnight.
Imagine his horror then upon reading a news article earlier this week about a proposed price increase to pies…indeed the horror went round the nation: “Don’t f*** with our pies!”
Unlike the US, the UK has no sales tax–at least not on the surface. There is an additional price on some items buried in the advertised price label on products making quick math work unnecessary (GO TEAM BRITAIN!). This took me several months to get used to when I first moved here. The hidden tax does not exist on all products. VAT or Value Added Tax is placed on items classed as “non-essential” or “luxury”. Alcohol, chocolate and cake for example are all covered by VAT, though biscuits (cookies) are not. Biscuits, apparently, are essential. So are pies…until now.
The Government in its Age of Austerity wisdom has decided the time is ripe for a pasty tax. Of course it’s not actually called a “pasty tax” or even a “pie tax”, what it is trying to do is classify this darling of the hot fast food world as a luxury item rather than a food staple. The trouble is, the public have taken this in a very different way. Pies and pasties seldom grace the tables of the posh and privileged. They evolved from working class convenience: folk who worked the mines or the fields needed satisfying food they could consume with dirty hands. When Tories get their hands dirty they do it metaphorically. Thus, the political hot button of the “pie tax” comes down to class.
It has been quite entertaining watching the Conservative Tory Government, with its boys raised by nannies and educated at Eton, back track in the face of public outrage over taxing the nation’s beloved hot snack food. Prime Minister David Cameron’s insistence that he once enjoyed a pasty at a Petrol Station in West Yorkshire was particularly amusing for a variety of reasons. First of all because I am not convinced Cameron has ever eaten a working class pasty in his life, second because the Tories have been so burned by both the pasty tax and the petrol crisis so much this week and third of all because I am not sure Cameron can find West Yorkshire on a map as it’s far too North for his socio-politcal sat nav to locate.
I can’t wait until they decide to declare a biscuit tax. Little old ladies up and down the country will be raising their wrinkled fists shouting: “Don’t f*** with our biscuits!” Then the Tories will truly be screwed.