I don’t know about you, but a strange thing happens to me when I see food from home here in France. Unexpectedly coming across a packet of ginger nuts in a French supermarket remains as incongruous for me as clapping eyes on a family of flamingos strolling across the beach in Blackpool. When my kids saw a man holding a pack of «Seriously Strong » cheddar recently, I reluctantly had to intervene and nip their plan in the bud before they subjected him to a stealth attack in the car-park.
Seeing British food out of its usual context triggers an uncontrollable, primitive reflex in me, a squirrel-like survival instinct involving the purchase and immediate hoarding of all possible booty in a top-secret location. I mutter « my preciouuuus » under my breath, Gollum oozing from every pore as I admire my treasure trove. Infinitely more valuable than the legendary last Rolo, certain gastronomic delicacies of Perfidious Albion are jealously guarded and ceremoniously introduced to French friends (although this did backfire on me once, when a French friend practically threw up on tasting prawn cocktail crisps. You live and learn).
One memorable day in a Pezenas supermarket, I unexpectedly came across a shelf that was full to the brim with British produce. I pinched myself and looked closer, then started jumping up and down on the spot and squealing like a four-year-old who had unwittingly found her way into Willy Wonka’s factory.
A concerned P.F came hurtling round the corner with the kids following in hot pursuit, trolley teetering dangerously on two wheels. When he asked what the fuss was all about, I pointed a quivering finger at the shelf boasting a proud line-up of baked beans, my favourite brand of crisps, Ribena, Horlicks, chocolate digestives, P.G. Tips and Cadbury’s chocolate….. Like Scrat discovering a pile of acorns, I was wide-eyed and breathless, and my knees were shaking. I could finally alleviate the cold turkey symptoms of an expat life without black pepper Kettle Chips. I grabbed the shopping trolley and feverishly scooped tins of baked beans into it, happily humming Monty Python’s “Always look on the bright side of life” under my breath.
P.F, party-pooper par excellence, touched my arm and pointed solemnly at the price tag. My satisfied hum gave way to an indignant squawk, and I yelled, “Hang on, they’re beans, not caviar! That’s the price of a four-pack in Sainsbury’s! What a rip-off!” P.F helped me to return part of my hoard to the shelf, and I strode indignantly to the till with my overpriced beans, ginger nuts, porridge oats, jelly, chocolate and other comforting reminders of home. They remained in the cupboard for as long as I could resist opening them. A kind of visual reminder of home: the hot Ribena rituals of my childhood.
When we return home to see my parents, we always fit in a pilgrimage to Waitrose. Whilst the kids line up reverentially in front of the sweets, chocolates and biscuits, I am generally in front of the cheddar, bacon and sausage section, kissing the ground in a papal manner. After this moment of personal meditation and prayer to the food Gods, we grab a trolley and fill it with all the victuals needed to fill the cupboard at home in France.
However, returning to France with our booty can sometimes be complicated. I remember making the error of trying to travel with a tin of golden syrup in my hand-luggage. A verbal wrestling match ensued with the heartless robot whose X-ray machine had picked out what he obviously hoped to be his first major security threat. This would no doubt boost his career and jettison him into instant international fame for saving innocent Ryanair passengers from a madwoman armed to the hilt by Abram Lyle & Sons.
He dug the tin out of my carefully packed backpack, and pointed at it accusingly. “Can you tell me what this contains, please?” “Uh… To quote Katie Melua, just what it says on the tin?” I suggested with humour. He stared blankly at me. “Gol-den sy-rup,” I added helpfully, pointing to the words on the oh-so-classy green and gold tin, which I had already earmarked as a pen pot for Bigfoot. I wondered whether reading was an obligatory part of the selection process for airport security, or whether communication skills were evaluated by the candidate’s ability to order a pint at last orders.
He cleared his throat and drew himself up to his full height. “Are you sure? For all I know, this could be filled with explosives.” He muttered suspiciously to himself as the queue grew. Impervious to the increasing sounds of tutting and grumbles of “Oh for goodness sake, get a move on,” he turned the tin in his hands and inspected the plastic seal with insistence. In the end, he finally accepted my proposal to open the tin and taste the syrup. I didn’t explode, and I finally got on the plane as planned, remaining glued to my seat until arrival.
A second run-in with security happened when I was travelling back to France with a willing hostage. As airport security called me to the luggage desk, my youngest sister curled up in her seat, rolled her eyes and groaned “It just had to be you…” before disappearing behind her enviable curtain of curly hair. I had a strange sense of déjà vu as the lady unzipped my suitcase and rummaged through it, removing the offending items as she discovered them among my underwear and manky slippers. “This is bacon.” “Yes.” “Cheddar?” “Yes.” Her eyes widened. “Baked beans? Umm….. can I ask you why you are travelling with this in your luggage?”
I wasn’t sure what to reply. Why on earth do you think I’m doing this? An Amélie Poulainèsque desire to take a photo of tin of beans at the top of the Tour Eiffel, at the Kremlin, and other exotic locations*? For my picnic on the plane because a) the food’s overpriced rubbish and b) the fart power will help me to gain altitude if the plane blows up and I find myself plunging headfirst towards the English Channel in my seat?
That was when I heard the conversation going on just beside me. “Umm…. excuse me, Madam, but can you please tell me why you have 20 walnut whips in your luggage ?” I turned my head, our eyes met, and mine lit up. “Are you going to tell them, or shall I?”
* I do in fact know of a blog about a travelling bag of oats, and it’s jolly good, it’s called “Tales of a Travelling Porridge”, and it’s here!