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British Breakfast, 1950s style (Pic: Chaloner Woods/Getty Images)
British Breakfast, 1950s style (Pic:  Chaloner Woods/Getty Images)
British Breakfast, 1950s style (Pic: Chaloner Woods/Getty Images)

Other people’s houses are strange, alien places, and their kitchens can be even more so. Multiply the weirdness by cultural difference and you’ve got a recipe (pun intended) for confusion and fear, the next time you pay a visit to friends in the U.K.

What are those strange tins and jars? What do they contain? Does one household really need quite so many eggcups or are they being used for another purpose? Let’s take a closer look…

Warm Eggs
Do you keep your eggs in the fridge? Do you worry about getting them back from the supermarket before they warm up and go off? Well, apparently there’s no real need. Although it’s true that salmonella multiplies at room temperature far more effectively than it can when chilled, British eggs are marked with a Lion stamp of quality if the farmer’s chickens are inoculated against salmonella. This is one of the reasons why British supermarkets sell eggs off a normal, unchilled shelf, and why a lot of British households keep their eggs at room temperature. The suggestion is colder eggs have less flavor and don’t bake well. So if you see a ceramic chicken on a British kitchen worktop with eggs inside, they’re not trying to kill you. It’s just a matter of personal taste.

And speaking of eggs…

Egg Cups
Call them what you want—dippy eggs, egg and soldiers—you can’t make a soft-boiled egg, slice the top off and then prod the yolk out with carefully cut fingers of toast if you don’t have egg cups. There was some talk of a device that could cut toast into shapes that looked like actual soldiers, but that’s just being overly literal. But you do need that egg cup otherwise you’ll scorch your fingers.

Golden SyrupGolden Syrup
Note: This isn’t maple syrup or molasses or treacle or any of that stuff. Tate & Lyle’s golden syrup has the consistency and hue of runny honey but without that bee-ish aftertaste, and, like Marmite, is a by product of an industrial process—in this case the processing of sugar cane into grain sugar. It’s one of the base ingredients of the British flapjack—the granola bar snack that is very much not a pancake—and is instantly recognizable from the green and gold tin. The thing to look for is the graphic depiction of a dead lion surrounded by a swarm of bees and the quote “out of the strong came forth sweetness”—a reference to the Biblical passage from the book of Judges, in which Samson comes across an unfortunate prone leonine figure with its own internal honeycomb.

An Aga
Granted, this type of oil or gas-powered stove only appears in a certain type of kitchen, usually a farmhouse affair belonging to people of a certain tax bracket. But they’re popular enough signifiers of rural village life to have spawned their own literary genre: the Aga Saga (full of tales of village gossip and baking competitions). And they’re something of a status symbol among the kind of Brits that venerate things that are artisanal. They also make fantastic baked potatoes, but that’s by the by.

Marmite
We all knew this would appear somewhere on the list. Marmite (and the associated Bovril, and sometimes even Vegemite) are household staples whether used primarily as a spread for toast or as the basis of a stock (it works very well with slow-cooked joints of brisket) or even spooned into hot water for a warming, slightly brackish drink. Do not fear the Marmite; it will not harm you.

A Washing Machine
Possibly one for you city dwellers to ponder over in wonder, but apparently it is far more common to see a washing machine (by which I mean clothes, not dishes) in British kitchens than it is in American ones. This does not mean there are no such things as laundromats (although they’re called laundrettes instead) or that the Brits are particularly fastidious over their clothes, it’s just one of those cultural expectations. A decent house is one in which clothes can be effectively laundered, and then draped all over the radiators to dry.

HP SauceHP Sauce
HP is known all over the country as brown sauce, because it is made of ingredients that are not immediately apparent by taste alone—tomatoes, molasses, dates, tamarind, spices, vinegar, and sometimes raisins or anchovies—and it is brown. There may be rival condiments with similar recipes—Daddy’s sauce, OK sauce, Branston brown sauce, all perfectly lovely in their way—but none of them have the iconic square bottle or the Houses of Parliament on the label.

Tea Strainer
Without meaning to bend to the stereotype of British people only drinking leaf tea out of a fine china pot, it’s relatively common to find a tea strainer somewhere in one of those utilities drawers. It won’t necessarily be well-used, however. Tea bags are by far the most common way of making the nation’s favorite drink, and in fact it’s becoming more and more normal for people to just bung one in a mug and have done with the whole business of the pot in the first place. That said, there will have been that one time when a favored relative with old fashioned ways came to visit, or the day someone found a particularly pretty tea strainer at a boot fair and decided to give Earl Grey a try, in the old fashioned manner. That’s what the tea strainer represents.

Custard Powder
Because you never know when you’re going to need to whip up a jug of what the French call crème anglaise, and while it’s better to make it from scratch, it’s time-consuming and some of your guests may be allergic to eggs, or vegan. The tub of Bird’s custard powder has receded slightly as a British kitchen staple in recent years, but only since Bird’s started selling cartons of reheatable custard instead, which are even more convenient. Basically, if there’s a pie, if there’s a crumble, if there’s a trifle, if someone has a banana and wants to jazz it up a little, there will be custard, and the thoughtful household will be prepared.

See more:
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By Fraser McAlpine