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Back home

Just spent the last fortnight in the UK.

Quick overview:
Fly into London (Heathrow) Dec.25 – plan to take rail to Birmingham – find out that the entire national rail service shuts down (and just assumes you know it will be shut down, so no special notice) on Christmas Day – rent a car – drive to Birmingham – return car – train to Llandudno (middle of the coast of northern Wales) – see some sights in northern Wales – train to Cardiff – train to London – see fireworks over the Thames for New Year’s Eve – toodle about London for a few days – fly home

Because I blew my budget on renting a car and buying shoes (they have wider lasts and just more comfortable shoes), I was very conservative on the eating front.

I highly recommend meusli for the traveling diet. All I had to pack was a liquid-tight container. Once abroad, I bought rolled oatmeal, dried dates, and a fruit and nut trail mix – all for about £3.50 (and that lasted through the entire fortnight, as more than half of my dinners). And then the refrigerated ingredients (milk and orange juice) came free with even the simplest breakfasts served in the hostels on my trip.

I did indulge in hot chocolate. But after spending the last year or so figuring out my favorite hot chocolates, I found that Cadbury’s powdered cocoa wasn’t something I enjoyed. No matter how strong I tried to make it, I could never quite get it to taste like chocolate – only leave a lingering chocolate feel on my tongue. Oddly enough, my favorite hot chocolate in the UK was found at a chain restaurant called Pizza Express; I asked the waiter what brand of cocoa they served, and he said it was Abyss (but I did not see any packaging to confirm that I am linking to the right company).

So, yeah, speaking of Pizza Express – it’s a crappy name because it sounds like some sleazy pizza joint on the corner, but it’s a fairly decent restaurant, even if it is a chain that I saw everywhere I traveled. The first time I ate there, I had cannelloni. It was very tasty, with rich sauces, but for some reason it was filled with ricotta and spinach instead of a surprise mixture of meat, but it was very tasty nonetheless. I sopped up the sauce with the dough bits and their sexy garlic butter (ended up being much tastier than the proper garlic bread looked). And they had a special running for your next meal in the new year, so I ate their again later in the trip and got a proper pizza. They do two styles of pizza: Romana and classic – “Our Romana bases are stretched thinner, making your pizza bigger and crispier, so the bold flavours really stand out.” So I tried the thin, crispy kind topped with “goat’s cheese, spinach and red onion with tangy caramelised onion confit and a drizzle of garlic oil” (Padana). The toppings did soak through the crust a bit, but I folded the soft parts over the crispier parts toward the outside and got good bites of tastiness all the way around.

I refused to eat at another chain that was usually near the same locations: Gourmet Burger Kitchen. The cheapest burger on the menu was £6.80, and most were over £8, and that’s just crazy talk.

I did have a good burger in Cardiff Bay at a bar called Salt. I ordered a mozzarella & mushroom burger, topped with sweet tomato chutney & crisp salad. First of all, I was thinking a portabella mushroom cap – but it was minced mushroom and cheese all balled together, breaded, and fried. And the bun and the patty all formed a spherical shape. But once you mushed it down and gave up on the idea of health food, it was very tasty. I did laugh when I had to ask for salt for my chips. Oh, but the best part was the salad. Okay, so it was just a pile of lettuce that you could put on your burger, but it was interesting lettuce – and green – and tasty. And I’d been feeling a little green vegetable deprived. So instead of dessert, I ordered a bowl of that lettuce with a bit of balsamic vinegar. It was awesome.

Speaking of green vegetable deprived… so there I was in northern Wales, and I took a bus (because not only were the trains not running on Christmas Day, but this little line gave up on running the Sunday after Christmas Day, too) down to Dolwyddelan, had a lovely short hike, and went to a pub for Sunday Lunch. I was given a choice of lamb or chicken and then offered a seat on a cozy leather couch by the fire in the pub because the dining room was a bit smoky as they were still building up the fire in that room. I chose the lamb. And when I was presented with the lamb and fresh veg, it was definitely what you think of as stereotypical UK food. The lamb was very tender, and had a lovely salty sauce (with a side of a thin mint sauce). There was a yorkshire pudding on the side. And each seasonal vegetable (diced potatoes, mashed potatoes, mushy peas, parsnips, rutabega, carrots, turnips) had been cooked separately, with love, just to the point of complete mushiness. Very much like the southern way my mother used to cook vegetables, only she started from frozen, instead of fresh. But, hey, it was warm and tasty and very soothing, even if I did get a smile over it not being what we consider gourmet.