Letter From Home Part 4: The Disappearing English Pub

“The traditional English pub has all but disappeared.” Sighed a long-time friend, “Now they’re all about gourmet food with TV star chefs!”  She added, grudgingly. To prove her point we had lunch in a Tudor-timbered hostelry, with part of its structure dating back to the 16th century. Instead of squeezing in between regulars crowding the bar, attempting to catch the attention of the bar person, we were guided to a table by a fabulously slim young lady of Eastern European extraction, dressed in the obligatory black. We were handed beautifully designed menus offering gastronomic delights that could have been at odds with the surroundings until you got to the section headed Pudding. There, in their ubiquitous glory were the three words that confirm you are still in a pub in England…Sticky Toffee Pudding! This could start a long debate but, at some point in the last century, dessert in England became known as pudding. And here is where it becomes rather complicated, on almost every menu everywhere in England, under the pudding items will always be Sticky Toffee Pudding. You could be in the most snotty of haute cuisine establishments or chowing down in a workman’s caff, yet no matter the price range or the snob appeal, Sticky Toffee Pudding will be there. Of course, the name is a misnomer for the American diner, as it’s neither pudding in the American sense, or really that sticky as far as sticky goes. It may taste of toffee, sort of. But, that would depend on your idea of toffee. The reason Sticky Toffee Pudding is on every menu is most likely to do with the English obsession with connecting to our roots, as daft as that is. The menu at this pub, now proudly called a gastropub was, despite all the possible pretensions, most appealing. Two of our party went for the Bouillabaisse, one opted for the Trout a la Maison, while I went down-market with the curiously-named Posh Fish Finger Sandwich. After the meal my friend and aspiring authority on English pubs, suggested we go to a real pub that hadn’t been gentrified yet. “This is where you can still get a proper pint from a vast selection on tap and a bag of crisps if you happen to feel hungry.” She advised with a bit of know-it-all-attitude. The One Eyed Cat in Ripon, Yorkshire, did indeed have a splendid and varied selection of draughts beers on tap and yes, crisps were available along with pork rinds and pickled eggs for those in need of something to sop up the ale. There was a cozy fireplace with an actual fire, despite this being the middle of summer. A few customers sat silently glancing from their beer to whoever should venture through the front door. The jukebox played Jolene and a sign above it read, “Don’t bang the front!” Which I found disturbing and funny at the same time. “This one will probably be another gastropub the next time you visit.” Groaned my friend. I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps I had been away too long. The appeal of the traditional English pub had in effect all but disappeared from my memory.

For the month of June and part of July, Life Elsewhere. host, Norman B has been revisiting England, his home country. Part of his journey has included interviews which will appear at later dates on the program.

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