Everyone in the land of my birth is very excited because warm sunny weather, which is always brief and elusive in England, has arrived.
The British climate is very changeable and suffers from many cloudy, grey days and drizzly rain all year. But my parents report that this week it is sunny and 75 degrees, with no rain in sight. I must admit that I do feel the occasional nostalgic pang for those few lovely warm, but not hot, days in England, especially when we are sweltering in the high 90s here in beautiful Coastal Georgia.
There are a few specific things that come to mind about those rare perfect days back in Britain, including two of my favorite indulgences. The first is strawberries and cream, which is very different from what we serve by the same name here in America.
To start with, the British strawberry is smaller and sweeter than its American cousin, primarily because of the shorter summer season.
It is the British cream, however, that makes the real difference — a delicious, thick poured cream with no added sugar — and boy do I miss it! There is just no comparison to standard whipped American cream with added sugar, and I think the spray stuff that comes out of what looks like an aerosol hairspray can is just awful.
The second thing I think about is the very British tipple of G and T – the iconic gin and tonic, served with a slice of lemon or lime and ice. I don’t like beer at all and rarely drink liquor, but G & T is an exception I make when I miss the tastes of an English summer.
Gin is a clear alcoholic spirit distilled from grain or malt and flavored with juniper berries. The British have been enthusiastic gin drinkers since the early 18th century. London remains the home of gin but its origins come from a Dutch drink called Genever. When the British welcomed the Dutchman William of Orange as their new king in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, he brought with him a revolution in drinking. He declared a free-for-all on making spirits from English grain and a British version of Genever was quickly developed which became the dry style London gin.
Unfortunately, this led to devastating levels of over indulgence. Gin started life as a very cheap drink of the poor, which was widely abused and made by amateurs using dubious and sometimes dangerous ingredients. When in 1751 the London authorities investigated what had become a binge drinking crisis, they found 17,000 gin shops in a city of only 600,000 people.
Popular revulsion was spurred on by one of William Hogarth’s most famous paintings, "Gin Lane." This depicts a drunken debauchery at its peak, and eventually led to legislation aimed at stopping this binge drinking of cheap and sometimes poisonous gin (there is more information at www.history.co.uk).
After these laws made gin more scarce and its production more professional, several famous British distilleries, including Gordon’s and Tanqueray, were established. Gin moved into the upper classes, and it was exported across the British Empire, much of which was in hot and distant lands. Not only was it very refreshing in the heat but the quinine in tonic had anti-malarial properties — and malaria was a big problem for British expatriates unaccustomed to mosquitoes and the diseases they spread.
Later, gin became very popular in the cocktail era of the 1920s and 1930s, but fell out of fashion in the 1960s. Today gin is back as a trendy drink with boutique distilleries springing up across London and the world.
I will say goodbye this week with a quote from the British actor, Ed Westwick, who explains the effect of weather on the English psyche: "I’m a big fan of London in the summertime. English people are dependent on weather to change our attitudes and, provided it’s a decent summer, everyone’s spirits are uplifted and the whole place is in bloom. It’s a magical transformation."
God bless America, and the British summer too!