HOODS UP, heads down, shoulders hunched, hands deep in pockets against the tempest, Josephine and I butted our way a few mad March days ago into Tesco in Truro for a final stock-up of Brit goodies - and weather - before starting out for Plymouth a
HOODS UP, heads down, shoulders hunched, hands deep in pockets against the tempest, Josephine and I butted our way a few mad March days ago into Tesco in Truro for a final stock-up of Brit goodies - and weather - before starting out for Plymouth and Brittany Ferries' Armorique back home.
It's what we do every time we come back to Blighty for a few days, and by the time we've finished the car boot (or trunk, if you're reading this in Canada or the USA, and I hope you are) is crammed to bursting with the best of British.
I suppose we oughtn't to, really. If we've crossed the Rubicon, burnt our boats and set up home definitively in France, we ought to make do with the very generous best that France can offer. After all, we've lived here now for the best part of a quarter of a century, so there's no excuse for not knowing what's available on the shelves of E. Leclerc, Carrefour, Auchan, Intermarché or any of the other nationwide supermarket giants. But habits die hard . . .
- Jelly: The French just don't make it, not in the shiny gelatinous cubes that we've been used to since childhood. I remember being invited several years ago - it was reported here at the time - to a reception in Montpellier for English literary practitioners. In an attempt to make the Brits present feel at home, jelly was served. Had our French hosts broken up the cubes, dissolved them in boiling water, poured the syrup into moulds and left it to set? Had they cocoa. (We'll come to chocolate later on.) They served the cubes on their own, with cocktail sticks to stab them rather ineffectually so that we could nibble rubbery bits off the edge.
Now Josephine is renowned locally for her trifle, that delectably crafted mess of whipped cream, sponge fingers, sherry, fruit, custard and sprinkles beloved of anyone who had a British childhood. And jelly, of course. How can she make trifle without jelly? So into the Tesco trolley went several packs of Hartley's best. Deep relief. We can live the next few months without fear of jelly-starvation.
- Custard: Oh, the French will say, raising their eyebrows in surprise: we have custard, Monsieur, only we call it crème anglaise, English cream, you don't need to go all the way to England to get it. Ah, but we do. Custard and crème anglaise? Vive la différence! In the periodic table of dessert elements their values couldn't be further apart. For one thing, crème anglaise, like revenge, is served cold. There's a notorious French cafeteria or canteen dessert called île flottante, floating island. It's a lump of sweet white mousse mostly made of white of egg set in a yellow sea. Expecting to dip your spoon into the thick, rich, piping hot, comforting custard you've known and adored since childhood, you're disappointed to find that a) it's cold, b) it's thin and watery, probably made with that ultra-skimmed milk that Josephine's mother calls 'see-through', c) it's horribly sweet, and d) there's no skin, for those that go for this particular delicacy. So you can understand why a tin or two of Bird's Custard Powder finds its way into the trolley.
- Lapsang souchong: It took me a long time to accept French attitudes to tea stoically, calmly and philosophically and not to get murderously worked up over the abysmal hash they make of it. French visitors to our house compliment us on the marvellously full flavour of our tea. It's not difficult, we reply, all you have to do is use boiling water. Ah, is that so? they say, but we still feel when they get home they'll cling to their bad old ways of barely simmering the water or even just taking it out of the hot tap. But then the tea shelves of French supermarkets are piled high with substances that we would barely call teas: their word infusion or tisane is better for the mixtures of raspberry and echinacia, mint, camomile, verbena, hawthorn and lime flowers and so on that they prepare something like tea to aid digestion or to bring a good night's sleep. The no-nonsense, sergeant-majorish Yorkshire Gold that we prefer for early morning, or the smoky-flavoured Lapsang Souchong that we enjoy for le five-o'clock are well outside the French experience of tea, and it's rare to find them on the supermarket shelves.
- Cereal: Coarse-milled organic porridge oats. Not known here. And while we're on the subject, why is French Special K so different in texture and taste from British Special K? And why is French Special K directed only at women? Why is the design on the French pack strongly suggestive of trim boobs, hips, crotch and thighs with endless admonitions that only by eating Special K three times a day will you fit into your bikini? It's enough to make a man who happens to like Special K slope off into the broom cupboard with his bowlful of breakfast shame or out into the shrubbery to indulge his secret sin.
- Chocolate: There's no doubt at all that the French chocolate industry is very sophisticated indeed, and that some of the world's subtlest and most delectable chocolate creations are made by French chocolatiers. So elevated is the art of chocolate-making that its very specification, the definition of what chocolate actually is, is widely different from British trade descriptions. This has led to all kinds of marketing difficulties for British chocolate on the Continent, and it's probably why Cadbury's and other UK conectionery products rarely appear on French shelves. For a hopeless Fruit and Nut devotee like me, this spells tragedy. Five massive 400g bars of Cadbury's Milk Chocolate Fruit and Nut made it safely from Truro to our fridge. That should be enough to be going on with, wouldn't you say?
But do the French take their obsession with chocolate too far? Although the French are much less coy than the British about telling their age, I discovered the following French chocolate-based technique for discovering how old somebody is. Why don't you try it? It carries Campbell's Diary personal guarantee that it's 100% fat-free.
1. Select the number of times - between 2 and 9 inclusive - that you've had an urge to eat chocolate this week
2. Multiply this number by 2 (There's a gadget below to help if you need it)
3. Add 5
4. Multiply by 50
5. If you've already had your birthday this year, take away 1760. If you haven't, take away 1759
6. Take away the year in which you were born
7. You should now have a three-figure number. The first of the three figures is the number of times you claimed to have an urge to eat chocolate. The second and third is your age.
How about that, then? It remains to be seen whether this works with some of the other stuff we brought over, tinned rice pudding, dill sauce, deodorant, Lemsip, ginger nuts, contact lens liquid, pickling spice. Try them too, if you like. But I'll stick with the Fruit and Nut, if you don't mind.