Sticky toffee pudding, other British delights

June 5-11, 2023

My Take by Joe Rogers


James Parker writes odes on various topics for The Atlantic magazine, calling them “[s]hort exercises in gratitude.” Kayne and I have just returned from our 25th anniversary trip, commemorating our wedding in Edinburgh. Here’s my offering of very short exercises – odettes? – in gratitude to things British:


• Breakfast. By which I mean the “full” version, which varies some but not wildly from England to Wales to Scotland. It starts with the standard eggs, with maybe a spud represented in some crispy fashion, but veers into less familiar territory with baked beans and fried mushrooms and tomatoes. The bacon may call to mind ham, the sundry sausages – link, patty and “pudding”– are occasionally of a provenance it’s best not to question. Just eat it all. You won’t need lunch.


Along those lines: Fear not the haggis, which the poet Robert Burns memorialized as “Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!” It’s quite tasty.


• Pubs. In the best ones, locals outnumber tourists by a significant margin, with the typical age range starting with those old enough to have voted for Tony Blair and ranging upward to some who probably have pretty solid memories of the Blitz. Note that they seem more interested in visiting with one another than in getting ... blitzed.


The age of the pub itself is also a good indication of its worthiness, with anything from the past century or so qualifying as “new.” This visit included one in Chester, the Victoria, that laid claim to roots in 1269. The Scotia, in Glasgow, is a relative teenager by comparison, dating only from 1792.


• Beer. In whatever pub you choose, at least some of the beers should be hand-pumped from casks. Real ale, it’s called. I noticed a disturbing trend on this trip for the Italian lager Moretti and other fizzy imports to have displaced more traditional British fare. But with due diligence I managed to find a fair amount of the real stuff, including the first Bass I’ve seen pumped in ages. You should also keep an eye out for Belhaven, a Scottish brew.


• Friends. This is also a Scottish thing, in my experience, dating to my chance meeting of Ralph and Helen Connolly at an Italian restaurant in Paris in 1982. (How’s that for a cultural medley?) We’ve stayed in touch ever since, and the relationship now extends to three generations of their family.


We’ve lost Helen, a great sadness. But Ralph, their children, spouses and the grandkids made our three-day visit to Balloch on Loch Lomond a series of treats. It all culminated in a music night at a pub featuring not-ready-for-Nashville amateurs performing everything from Scottish folk tunes to Johnny Cash. Delightful.


• Accents. They come in many varieties, and some can be pretty hard to understand, especially in parts of Scotland and Yorkshire in England. It’s why we watch British TV shows with the subtitles on.


• TV shows. “Inspector Morse,” “Prime Suspect,” “Line of Duty,” “Unforgotten,” “Luther” and other cop tales have long been among my favorites. For a country with a murder rate about a quarter of ours, it’s surprising how the fictional bodies pile up for entertainment purposes.


• The Beatles. We spent a full day on a guided tour of various Beatle haunts and landmarks, including schools, drinking holes, homes of each of the Lads, the church grounds where Paul was introduced to John, Penny Lane (with its “shelter in the middle of the roundabout”) and Strawberry Field. Our guide said he could easily have filled two more days. And our hotel, the Hard Days Night, played a nonstop moptop soundtrack.


• Weather. The temperature in Nashville when we returned was warmer than the botanical hothouse we visited in Glasgow. ’Nuff said.


• The monarchy. I know. We fought a revolution to get out from under it. But I’m convinced that the ceremonial version that remains, with its regal head of state, serves Britain well as a tourist draw and a symbol of the national identity in a way that this upstart republic can’t compete with. We were there – albeit in Liverpool, not London – for the coronation of Charles, and I watched loyally. One thing you can’t argue: The Brits know how to put on a show.


• Sticky toffee pudding. This moist, date-based confection, accompanied by honeycomb ice cream, seemed to be on offer at every restaurant we visited in England and Wales, before becoming strangely absent in Scotland. I could live on it.


• Castles. Nothing says “We’ve got history” like a good set of castle ruins. We spent time in Conwy, Wales, partly because it has one of the best-preserved examples on the island. Edward I had it built and hung out there in the 13th century.


• Left-side driving. It’s like a mirror-image world, and a constant reminder that you are definitely not at home. (Kayne, who handles the driving there by virtue of her left-handedness, is less of a fan.)


• Money. One of the challenges of traveling in Europe, as well as appeal, used to be figuring out the currency used by each country, and how it compared to the dollar. (That 65 francs I just spent on a beer in Paris. Was it a lot?) That’s basically gone since the introduction of the euro in 1999. But Britain never signed on for the euro, stubbornly – and rightly – clinging to its pound sterling. An added bonus: The bills are much more colorful and cooler looking than our boring greenbacks.  


Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville.