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SOME MIGHT call it an amiable weakness, others might frown and mutter at this deplorable departure from received standards of civilisation. Personally I think it's probably a gentle glide into senility and second childhood tha

SOME MIGHT call it an amiable weakness, others might frown and mutter at this deplorable departure from received standards of civilisation. Personally I think it's probably a gentle glide into senility and second childhood that's at the heart of it. Anyway, never mind all that, what I have to tell you is that I feel threatened and insecure, uncomfortably uncertain about my place in this world and the minuscule part I play in it if there isn't a goodly supply of a certain commodity in the larder, and that commodity is tinned rice pudding. I know, I know. Childish, isn't it? What's more, I'm not actually driven to eat the stuff, although I do from time to time: it's not that kind of dependency, I don't need to slope off behind the shed for intravenous shots or a quick line of the creamy wonder. It's enough to know that it's there. It's a metaphor, I suppose, for mother England, home and beauty, lying there just across the Channel.

The other day I was strolling round our local supermarket, guided by the GPS (Gourmet Pud Search) I switch on, on these occasions. To find what turns out to be a pretty feeble display of British products you have to locate a hanging sign that says produits étrangers, foreign products, and then turn left down the aisle, where there are colourful, eye-catching headers to the shelves saying (I leave you to translate) Mexique, Thaïlande, Chine, Espagne, etc. But if you're looking for Angleterre there's only a little Union Jack shoved in between two top-shelf tins of Bird's custard powder to guide you.

As usual I stopped to survey the spread of British gastronomic delights, to breathe in the rarified air of this corner of a foreign field that is forever England, gastric juices surging in patriotic fervour. But was there any rice pudding? Was there cocoa. Tin after tin of custard from the same maker. But no rice pudding. There never is.

This was it. I'd had enough of perpetually pointless GPSs and dashed expectations. I strode in a purposeful manner to the acceuil, reception, and asked if le responsable des achats, the buyer, could spare me a moment. A minute or two later a tall, gangly man appeared. He introduced himself as Monsieur Leboeuf. I explained my mission: would it be possible for his supermarket to keep a small stock of tinned rice pudding? I wrote it down for him. I even drew him a picture of the tin. He said he would see what he could do, but he seemed bemused by the bizarre, totally un-French nature of the product I was asking for. I gave him my name and telephone number and went home.

I hadn't been home ten minutes when the phone rang. It was M. Leboeuf. Could I possibly come in and see him? He had important things he wanted to talk to me about. We made an appointment for the next day. I asked Josephine to come with me. You really can't leave this sort of thing to men only.

M. Leboeuf received us in a rather cluttered office. He explained the situation: the number of Brits, expats and tourists, was growing all the time. (The British presence in this part of rural France averages some 12% of the local population.) He needed to satisfy this significant fraction of the retail market, but suspected his supplier of British goods was playing up, taking him for a soft touch, off-loading goodness knew what rubbish on to him. M. Leboeuf threw away more than he sold, mostly through not knowing what to stack on the shelves. Like tinned custard, we said. Maybe, he replied, but if he lent us the wholesaler's catalogue, could we possibly mark the items that we felt would appeal most to Brits?

Realising that here was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to ensure an unfailing supply of tinned rice pudding we went home, promising to contact him once the selection had been made. We took it seriously enough to realise that we could hardly play this game to our own personal advantage, so in no time at all we organised some market research among local Brits, and even called into play a leading blog, read and commented on world-wide. The family gathered round the fire one crisp February night to assess the results and mark up the catalogue. We decided on a scale A (most in demand) to E (least saleable), with five leading products marked with an A*. Aware that my own tastes weren't necessarily universal, I took advantage of fights breaking out over the relative merits of Milk Chocolate Digestives v. Milk Chocolate Hobnobs and Oxford Marmalade v. Bonne Maman Bitter Orange Jam to award my rice pudding an unobtrusive A. I'm sure you'd have done the same.

The A* products came out as follows:

  • Branston Pickle
  • Cheddar cheese
  • Marmite
  • Heinz Baked Beans
  • PG Tips

Unless you're starving in exile somewhere, I don't expect you agree with any of these, do you?

A few days after all this, I carried the marked-up catalogue of goodies in triumph to the supermarket and asked for M. Leboeuf, wondering what he might offer us in return. A trolley dash, maybe? Free rice pudding whenever I felt the need?
(Josephine had already asked, as a special privilege, for the inescapable music to be switched off at certain hours, so that she could do the shopping in peace, but M. Leboeuf had demurred: the supermarket chain had its own nationwide in-house radio service which couldn't be silenced. Yes, he agreed the music was rubbish, but that was because they only broadcast inferior artistes, who cost much less in royalties than better-known ones. So now you know.)

M. Leboeuf? the receptionist asked. He doesn't work here any more. Stunned, I asked where he'd gone. She didn't know, she said. He was viré (a polite way of saying 'sacked') for reasons of economy. Would I like to see M. Muche instead?

M. Muche was sent for. I explained my mission and gave him the precious catalogue. I knew at once I was wasting my time. M. Muche was one of those Frenchmen who screw up their eyes and open their mouths when they're obliged to listen; I sensed every word I spoke went in one ear and straight out the other. I might as well have given him an old Timbuctoo telephone directory for all the interest he showed. He thanked me and disappeared into a thick mist of incomprehension .

I wandered disconsolately over to the produits étrangers aisle. The Union Jack had slipped and flumped as though at half mast. The Brit shelves were piled high, indeed spilled over in their careless plenty, with stuff no self-respecting son or daughter of Albion would ever wish to be seen in their trolley, let alone pass their lips. Somebody had grossly overordered huge quantities of unsaleable stuff. M. Leboeuf's revenge?
But no rice pudding, of course.