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Carriage House

September 13, 2009

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- Carriage House Cafe at 107 S. Princess St. was once a real carriage house where horse-drawn carriages were built and repaired. The wide doors once rolled open to allow carriages to enter and exit. Today the doors give passage to a cafe that specializes in traditional British fare.

I was enchanted by the idea of real Welsh rarebit. And so I ordered that and a cup of coffee. The coffee was served in a big white cup, strong, delicious and only 75 cents with free refills. The owner, Caroline, told me the secret of the rarebit. "Butter, of course. I start with butter and some flour, add lots of cheddar cheese, mustard, Worcestershire sauce. And Guinness (stout). Not only for the Welsh rarebit but the hamburgers. And other items, too."

A long-ago Irish ad for Guinness stout stated "Guinness is good for you." Well, it was good for the rarebit. The cheese sauce was poured over a respectable square of real white bread. A slice of tomato covered all and the whole was grilled and served very hot. Alongside the rarebit was a fresh-made salad of Romaine lettuce, tomato chunks, red onions, olives, cucumbers and a very sweet onion vinaigrette dressing. It contrasted nicely with the Welsh rarebit.

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Outside, across Princess Street, I saw an unpainted picket fence overrun with pansies, margaritas, tomatoes, morning glories and red sage -- a picture worthy of a painting. Inside, artwork by local artists was displayed. There was a wine bar and an extensive menu of smoothies. There was seating for 26 with two soft chairs in one corner and two bar stools. A few more people could sit outside under red and white umbrellas.

This place was old. Old tools hung from old beams in the ceiling. The large windows were old and the wooden chair railing was old. An arrangement of teacups and teapots lined the rafters. There, almost hidden behind the kitchen, was the quintessential dartboard situated against a British flag.

The young waiter was kind and attentive. He worked in the small open kitchen, cleared the tables, served the food and handled the money.

On my next visit, I sat outside and ordered the special, a Cornish pasty, a salad and a drink for $6.95. The coffee came in a plastic foam cup this time and the background music was jazz. I read "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society." Potato peel pie was eaten on Guernsey Island during the German occupation during World War II. It was a potato food born of hunger. Pasties are also a potato food but different.

In times past, pasties were made by the wives of tin miners in Cornwall. They shaped a thick dough around a filling of meat and cubes of potatoes and root vegetables. The meat pie was semicircular with a thicker crust running along the curved edge of the pasty. The men would go off to work in the mines with the pasties, which would stay warm until their midday lunch.

Today, pasties can be found in Cornwall for the tourist trade, and around the world in places where Cornish people emigrated. Caroline, a woman from Devon, England, has brought the pasty to Shepherds-town. Her pasty is simple and authentic, consisting of potatoes, bits of beef, onion and gravy. There was not enough protein to keep a miner working all day, but it was tasty and very hot.

I asked for mustard and received bright yellow, American mustard. I longed for fresh-made, spicy mustard. I remembered pasties served with this mustard or with some deep dark relish in Cornwall, but memories are tricky. Maybe the relish was served with ploughman's lunch, a traditional British dish also on this English menu.

My third visit to Carriage House Cafe was with an artist friend, Marie. She ordered a quiche with Swiss cheese, portabella mushrooms and onions, and a salad. She proclaimed the quiche to be very good, very rich, especially the crust. We guessed the secret was lard in the crust.

Staying the course with English fare, I ordered Scotch egg and was told it had been dropped from the menu as it was not a crowd pleaser. But the bangers and mash (British lingo for sausage and mashed potatoes) was delicious for $7.95. The sausage was served sizzling hot and the serving was very generous. Two long, quintessential English bangers sat next to real mashed potatoes (potato peels intact) with gravy and a serving of baked beans. Undaunted, I ate it all and loved it and remembered my days in England when baked beans accompanied every meal. Even breakfast. For those who love baked beans, Carriage House Cafe's beans on toast costs $3.95.

Breakfast is served all day. Sandwiches, soups and salads are available. The Carriage House Cafe is like tea houses and sandwich shops in the British Isles. Except that in the British Isles, I always felt clumsy and awkward, bumping into people and tables, because sandwich shops are cozy and small. Carriage House Cafe has ample space and room to move about. Marie liked the cafe.

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