Jane Stern: Gourmet food with a British accent in Bethel, CT
A number of years ago, I transported (in my new luggage) a grocery cart of foodstuffs that I picked up on a car trip through the north of the UK. My luggage, once beautiful and showroom fresh, smelled of potted Stilton cheese, six half-thawed Melton Mowbray pork pies and a boil-in-bag of semi-thawed haddock and kippers.
The attention paid to my stinky luggage caused such alarm that five custom officers descended on it to see where the stench was coming from. I will not go into the details, but leave it that everything was deemed illegal to transport, and all I was left with was my smelly suitcase and a strict warning.
It was shortly after this fiasco that I stumbled upon the UK Gourmet in Bethel. I was half beside myself with joy, the other half pissed off that everything I so lovingly attempted to bring home was right there on the shelves 10 miles from where I live.
If you are a fan of British, Irish, Welsh or Scottish foods, go here and recalibrate your palate. I do it on a regular basis.
One thing to get clear is this is not a restaurant, it is a grocery and gift shop. Many of the foods are ready to eat, just warm your oven and heat them up.
The cheeses are of course ready to go. You can nibble them on the way home followed with the wealth of UK chocolates (many filled with impossible to get in America Rose and Violet fillings. If your sweet tooth does not like edible flowers, there is a jaw-dropping selection of “boiled sweets” (known in the USA as hard candies). On the shelves are exotic oat crackers and tiny Bramley apple pies so packed with flavor you will swear you have never eaten an apple before. There is Horlicks malted milk drink for bedtime, and Scottish haggis to eat or gross your friends out with. (Haggis is a sheep stomach filled with spiced oatmeal). It is the quintessential love-it-or-hate-it dinner meal.
In the freezer case on the side wall are the impossible to get and difficult to make British meat pies. Months back at Trader Joe’s I saw a beef-and-ale pie for sale, I bought it and it tasted bland and awful. At UK Gourmet you will find real steak-and-ale pies, some intoxicating with ale, onions and potatoes, some with onions, steak and pork kidneys. If you are less then adventurous you will find the more familiar Shepherd’s pie, ground and browned beef and onion under a roof of mashed potatoes.
If you like pasties (no, not stripper pasties) I highly recommend a two pack of Cornish pasties. Another time a year ago I was in Birmingham, England, and the venue I was at had a stand selling them. Pasties are colloquially called “hand pies” meaning portable and needing no silverware. My favorite is filled with hand-cut cubes of beef, potato and rutabaga.
Root vegetables are the cornerstone of much British cuisine and unless you are a finicky 5-year-old who will only eat chicken McNuggets, try it. These are not pretty vegetables, but pack a wallop of flavor. In the freezer you will find bangers, hotdog-shaped sausages to be served alongside mashed potatoes. There is black pudding made with blood (ick) and white pudding made with who knows what. Less exotic is the Cumberland sausage, peppery pork spiked with pepper and crushed crackers.
I have only scratched the surface of what is in the freezer, but unless I write a 60-page review, you will have to go there and check in out in person.
With that said, I could also easily write a snappy 50-page review of the cheeses here. English cheeses are as good as any French cheese, some better. I know this for a fact because three years ago, I did a North Atlantic crossing on a famous British ocean liner. It was a wonderful experience, but the food was lousy.
After the third day, I stopped dressing in my mandated formal attire and trekking down to the dining room. Instead I located the small buffet hidden away on a lower deck. I was also not happy with the food, wringing my hands and wondering how I would get through eight more days in the middle of the North Atlantic. Then I spotted a gigantic wheel of blue-veined Stilton wrapped in a starched white cloth napkin and for the rest of the trip I ate cheese and crackers trice daily. It was perfect.
There must be close to 200 cheeses on the UK Gourmet menu, obviously not everyone is available all the time. Many of the cheddars and blue cheeses might be familiar to you, but I would lay money down that no one has nibbled on Carrigbyrne Humming Bark aged in Spruce Bark, Stinking Bishop (a runny cheese ripened in pear juice, Lord of The Hundreds (a grassy nutty goat cheese) or Butlers Blacksticks (a blue cheese with a red hue).
78 Stony Hill Road, Bethel
I could go crazy at the UK Gourmet, and on a small scale I have. I have emptied my wallet for their bone china mugs with the Royal family’s mugs on them, I stocked up on six packs of bizarre soda pop flavored with elderflowers and roses, and grocery staples like Bird’s Custard powder or tins of Lyle’s Golden Syrup, which I have no idea what to do with, but they look cool in my pantry.
I have rationalized this outpouring of money by telling myself that it is a drop in the bucket next to the cheapest coach ticket across the pond. And it is so much more likely that my purchases will make it home safely.
Jane Stern co-authored the popular “Roadfood” guidebook series.