No Oven Required: Real British 'Tiffins'
When I first moved to England, I was based in the Midlands. Whenever I could, I'd try to spend time in Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare. I'm a confirmed classical theater geek, but the town always left me with mixed feelings. On one hand, it's the home of one of the preeminent theater companies in the world, The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). On the other hand, the whole town is decorated in a kind of weird, kitschy faux Elizabethan fashion.
I was awed by the athleticism of productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream and the tightly-wound tension of T.S. Eliot's The Family Reunion. Then I puttered around little shuttered "country" Tudor houses with "quaint" Olde-style lettering that were supposed to give you an idea of how life was "really like" for Shakespeare. The effect is like seeing La Scala relocated to the Italy of Epcot Center. Stratford is a surreal blend of the real and the fake—kind of like my way of eating at the time.
I stayed at a bed and breakfast on my first trip to Stratford—I admit, giddy at the idea of seeing what I'd only previously been able to view on PBS. The first morning I had kind of a revelation of sorts. The breakfast was continental: fruit and cereal and rolls. "Oh my God," I said taking a bite of the cereal. It looked like cornflakes (it was cornflakes) but I had never tasted cornflakes so rich, so unctuous, with notes of butter and honey.
Then I realized what was transporting me into raptures: whole milk. Yes folks, this American girl hadn't had whole milk since she would only drink out of cups with cartoon characters. That's why a bowl of perfectly ordinary cornflakes tasted so special.
My revelation was about ten years ago, so perhaps more diet products have made their sorry, soggy way across the Atlantic. But in England, I was fascinated by the lack of fat free and sugar free products. Yes, there were some low-calorie lines of products but they tended to contain things like vegetables that were naturally low in calories, rather odd, unpronounceable chemicals.
After eating 10-calorie-an-ounce frozen dairy products in the U.S. by the bucket, it amazed me to see little containers of extremely tasty ice cream sold at theaters, in portions sizes that were probably lower in calories than the nine million ounces of frozen goo I gave myself license to ingest. People would eat a half-cup of ice cream and feel satisfied! I could eat a Digestive biscuit or a HobNob made with buttery goodness and feel full, as opposed to an entire box of Snackwells!
Sometimes it's necessary to leave your routines to re-discover what you knew all along—that the point of eating is enjoyment, and not to get the maximum amount of food for the minimum amount of calories. What is real is the satisfaction we derive from food.
I always felt a bit sorry seeing tourists who were bored by the plays, but felt they were getting the real Shakespeare by buying postcards of his birthplace. But now I also feel sorry of the teenage girl I was, telling myself that Lean Cuisine French Bread pizza was so good because it's pizza and it's only 350 calories (never mind I'd still feel hungry and then tuck into a pint of Healthy Choice fake ice cream an hour later).
In honor of my revelation of the need for fat and flavor, here is a no-bake recipe from the blog Joy of Baking, an English recipe called chocolate tiffins (otherwise known as British no-bake chocolate cake) made with very real ingredients. (Although the texture really resembles a candy bar or chocolate brittle). If you've made shortbread, or any kind of plain cookie and want to give it a second life, it's a wonderful way of reincarnating the ingredients. Or to be traditional, you can use English digestives.