"DO HAVE a light lunch," the innkeeper said as we registered, "for our dinners are vahst!" A notable bit of English understatement, as we discovered later that day, and sagacious advice. The many dinner courses that followed were generous and superb. This plentitude, however, is not a testimonial to any particular inn. It is, rather, an appreciative tip of the hat to English country cooking.
For centuries, English inns have served as hospices for travelers, where hearty, simple fare was offered along with bed. In fact, the expression table d'ho te comes from the innkeepers' custom of serving all guests a set menu from one large table.
At its best, English country cooking still features carefully prepared seasonal foods. And the cooking at a good country inn is paced to the congenial atmosphere. "A good country dinner," a traveler once noted, "should have the proper slowness of service."
One of the most delightful ways to sample English country cooking is to leave the bright city lights behind and to travel the backroads, byways and backwaters in search of country inns. Visitors to England will find that guidebooks are readily available, and it is just a matter of heading off in the direction that is most appealing.
Of course, not all English inns produce fine country cooking; as in any country, quality varies. But English inns have a long history of service, and if several are visited, it is impossible not to be served some excellent country fare. Often the owner-manager is also the chef, and proud of the food as well as all other aspects of innkeeping.
Dishes likely to be on the menu include poached salmon and leg of lamb, simply roasted with herbs and accompanied by potatoes in their jackets. Marvelous cold fruit, vegetable and fish soups, and crisp-tender vegetables will also be encountered in season.
Oysters, plain fish and fish with sauce, crusty homemade breads, meat pies, puddings, sorbets and rich cakes are all plentiful. So are game dishes (pheasant, grouse, venison, hare, duck) and stews and beef roasts. The selection of cheeses is dependably excellent. And, of course, there is no cream in the world like English clotted cream. Try pouring it over dewy, freshly-picked raspberries.
Here are a few randomly chosen recipes from the English countryside for backroads adventurers to try. To keep up the spirit, remember to serve after-dinner tea and coffee in the parlor. And if you have a calico cat, masses of begonias and African violets blooming on a windowsill, and a gentle fire on the hearth, all the better.
STILTON, PORT AND CELERY PATE' (4 to 6 servings) 1 tablespoon butter 1 tablespoon flour 1 clove garlic, crushed 6 tablespoons mayonnaise 4 ounces heavy cream, lightly whipped 2 1/2 ounces port 1/2 cup finely chopped celery 1/2 pound stilton Salt and pepper to taste Celery hearts and hot toast to serve
Melt the butter in a small saucepan and stir in flour. Cook for a minute or two, then take off the heat and put into a medium bowl. Mix in the garlic, mayonnaise and cream. Gradually blend in the port, then add the celery. Grate the stilton and fold into the mixture slowly. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour into a pa te' dish or individual ramekin dishes and leave to set in refrigerator. Serve with raw celery hearts and hot toast.
BAKED AVOCADOS (4 servings) 2 strips bacon 1 tomato 2 tablespoons onion, finely chopped 3 ounces (6 tablespoons) cooked shrimp, peeled 2 tablespoons thick mayonnaise (homemade preferred) Pinch of allspice Salt and pepper to taste 2 avocados 4 to 6 tablespoons mild cheddar cheese, grated Parsley and lemon wedges to garnish
Fry bacon until crisp. Drain and chop into small pieces. Skin tomato and chop the flesh coarsely. Put bacon, onion, tomato, shrimp and mayonnaise into a bowl and mix together. Add a pinch of allspice and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Halve the avocados and remove the seeds. Scoop out the flesh--leave about 1/4 inch all the way around each shell--and roughly chop it. Carefully fold avocado pulp into mayonnaise mixture. Adjust seasoning. Put this filling back into the shells, mounding it up slightly in the center. Grate the cheese and scatter evenly over the top. Place the avocados in a shallow ovenproof dish and bake in a 375-degree-oven for 10 minutes. Run under broiler briefly to brown top. Garnish with parsley and lemon wedges and serve at once.
BANANA CURRY SOUP (4 servings) 3/4 pound very ripe bananas, peeled Juice of 1/2 lemon 1 medium onion, chopped fine 2 tablespoons butter 1 teaspoon curry powder 1 teaspoon flour 1 1/2 pints chicken or lamb stock Salt and pepper to taste A little heavy cream
Pure'e the peeled bananas and lemon juice in electric blender until smooth. Put butter in saucepan and add onions, stirring constantly over very low heat; do not let butter and onions brown. Add curry powder and stir in well. Then add flour and mix in well. Raise heat to medium, add banana pure'e and stock and bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Season to taste with salt and pepper and simmer gently for 15 minutes. Add a little heavy cream, adjust seasoning and serve at once.
CALVES' LIVER WITH GIN AND LIME SAUCE (4 servings) For gin and lime sauce: 1 tablespoon butter 1 medium onion, finely chopped 2 tablespoons apricot jam 1 teaspoon tomato pure'e 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard 1 1/2 cup beef stock Grated rind and juice of 3 limes 2 teaspoons white wine vinegar 2 tablespoons gin 1 heaping tablespoon arrowroot, mixed with a little stock Dash of worcestershire sauce For liver: 1 pound calves' liver, cut into 4 steaks Seasoned flour Oil and butter for frying
To make the sauce, melt the butter in a large heavy pan, then add the onion and cook until soft but not colored. Gradually blend in all the other ingredients and simmer for 35 minutes. Liquefy sauce in blender until smooth; keep warm.
Lightly coat the liver steaks with seasoned flour and cook in a mixture of hot oil and butter. As soon as you see small bubbles of blood burst through, turn the liver over and cook for a similar length of time. To serve, pour a small amount of sauce over the liver steaks, and pass the rest around separately.
HOT CAULIFLOWER SALAD (4 to 6 servings) Large firm cauliflower 6 tablespoons olive oil 1 clove garlic, finely chopped 1/2 teaspoon dijon-style mustard 2 tablespoons wine vinegar 2 eggs yolks 1 teaspoon finely chopped parsley Salt and pepper to taste
Trim cauliflower and soak in cold water for 30 minutes. Divide into florets and cook in boiling salted water to cover, taking care not to overcook or break the pieces. Drain them well, and reassemble in an approximation of a whole cauliflower.
While the cauliflower cooks, heat the oil in a pan and steep the garlic in it, being careful not to let it brown. Whisk in the mustard, vinegar, egg yolks, parsley and a good seasoning of salt and pepper. Continue whisking until thick and hot, then pour over cauliflower and serve.
LAMBS' KIDNEYS WITH MUSTARD SAUCE (4 to 6 servings) 4 tablespoons butter 2 pounds lambs' kidneys, skinned, trimmed and halved
Mustard sauce: 2 shallots, finely chopped 1/2 cup medium or dry white wine 2 tablespoons dijon-style mustard 3 tablespoons butter, softened Juice of 1/2 lemon Salt and pepper to taste Chopped parsley Melt the butter in a heavy pan and fry the kidneys in it gently for about 5 minutes. Then put them into a 325-degree oven and cook for another 5 minutes.
Transfer kidneys to serving dish and keep warm. Cook the shallots in the pan juices until softened. Add the wine, scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen the sediment, and reduce the liquid by three-fourths. Mix 2 tablespoons mustard with the softened butter, then add this and the lemon juice to the sauce, off the heat. Whisk in well, then season to taste with salt and pepper. Reheat sauce gently. Add a good sprinkling of chopped parsley, pour over kidneys and serve at once.
BAKED CABBAGE WITH GARLIC AND JUNIPER (4 to 6 servings) 2 pounds white cabbage 8 juniper berries 2 large cloves garlic, peeled 1/2 teaspoon sea salt Few tablespoons olive oil
Remove the outer leaves, quarter and core cabbage. Slice cabbage very finely. In a mortar and pestle, pound the berries with the garlic and sea salt until you get a smooth paste.
Just cover the bottom of an ovenproof casserole (3 1/2- to 4-quart size) with olive oil and heat through (use asbestos pad if necessary). Put in the juniper-garlic mixture and stir with a wooden spoon. Add the finely chopped cabbage, and stir-fry 3 to 5 minutes until cabbage is well coated with the oil, then bake in 425-degree oven about 15 minutes. (If you like very crisp vegetables, just stir-fry in a saucepan about 3 minutes -- the flavor is by then imparted to the cabbage, and as the vegetable is so finely chopped, it will have heated through. Leftover cabbage is good reheated and served with french dressing.)
STICKY TOFFEE PUDDING (6 to 8 servings) 4 tablespoons butter, room temperature 3/4 cups granulated sugar 2 cups flour 1 teaspoon baking powder 1 egg, lightly beaten 3/4 cup pitted dates 1 cup boiling water 1 teaspoon baking soda 1 teaspoon vanilla
Toffee sauce: 3 tablespoons butter 5 tablespoons brown sugar 2 tablespoons heavy cream
Soften the butter in a large mixing bowl, then add the sugar; cream them until pale and light. Sift the flour and baking powder onto a plate. Beat the egg with a little flour, into the creamed mixture. Continue beating for a few minutes before mixing in the rest of the flour. Flour the dates lightly and chop finely. Put into a bowl and pour the boiling water over them. Mix in the baking soda and the vanilla. Gradually blend this mixture into the batter, mixing in well. Transfer to an 11-by-7-inch, lightly greased cake tin, spreading out evenly. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 40 minutes.
To make the toffee sauce, melt the butter in a small saucepan and add the sugar and the cream. Simmer gently for 3 minutes. Cut the hot pudding into squares and cover with the sauce. Place under a hot broiler until it bubbles. (Take care, as it burns easily.) Serve at once.