Could you bring back:
x 1 box of mini Shredded Wheat honeynut
x 1 box of mini Shredded Wheat plain
x 1 bumper pack of Heinz baked beans
x 1 Thai Taste green curry paste
x 1 Yorkshire tea bags
x 1 Walkers prawn cocktail 6 pack crisps
x 1 Galaxy Minstrels
x 1 Dairy Milk bar chocolate
Saturday or Sunday Guardian, Observer or Times
Thanks dude! Can pay in Euros or Sterling.
I am a British expat and that there is a shopping list from my expat neighbour. That shopping list encapsulates everything it is to be British – stuck in our ways, multi-cultural and above all, wistfully nostalgic.
“I’m going back to the UK, do you need anything?” The question that will get an expat salivating quicker than a Bloodhound in heat. I live in the country that has the longest-standing love affair with cheese — vive la France! There is a saying in French, “triste comme un repas sans fromage”, which literally translates to, “sad like a meal without cheese”. What it really means is to be extremely unhappy — as disgruntled as a French person facing a cheese-less meal perhaps. Despite living in the cheesiest country in the world, the thing that I and so many other British expats request from the UK is, Cheddar. “Bring me all the Cheddar! Cheddar cheese, please.” Why do us expatriates crave the taste of home so much?
The taste of home that us global wanderers so often yearn for is the bittersweet taste of nostalgia. The roots of the word go some way into not only encapsulating what it means, but also the types of food that we crave when living in a foreign country. The word nostalgia come from Ancient Greek; a compound consisting of νόστος (nóstos), meaning “homecoming”, and ἄλγος (álgos), meaning “pain” or “ache”. It’s definition is “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past”. Kind of like those rock band band t-shirt wearing dads who switch from the radio to their frequently abused AC DC Greatest Hits CD, whilst mumbling “they just don’t make them like they used to”. Nostalgia is more than reminiscing, it is a compelling feeling that makes us long for the good ol’ days when something starts to feel unfamiliar. This explains why I want to reach for the multipack of Mini Cheddars when I find myself up the creek without a paddle. (Crisps by the way, are uniquely British and somebody needs to make a 50 Shades of Crisps of the UK).
The weather is terrible, I’ve just finished a two week stint of cheffing where my skin has barely seen daylight, my struggling French has seen another downturned mouth and my car that refuses to truly give up like the almost-end of a relationship, breaks again. The food that I want to devour in front of the sofa isn’t Tartiflette (as truly magnificent as it is), it isn’t the crustiest French baguette and salted butter, it isn’t even a Mille-feuille stacked as high as the Yellow Pages. The comfort food that I crave whilst living abroad is reminiscent of being a greedy kid growing up in the West Country.
I want cheddar cheese and Branston’s pickle sandwiches, Monster Munch, Heinz Cream of Tomato soup with floating hunks of white-sliced bread, a deep bowl of Bird’s Eye Custard with drowned slices of banana and builder’s tea with enough Digestives to soak up the entire mug. I don’t even crave the more lovingly prepared Indian delicacies which reflect my half-Gujarati heritage — what I want is nostalgia. The taste of nostalgia is what expats long for on days where the meaning of “home” is something far less familiar than what it used to be.
Food delivery for corner-shop treats such as Twiglets and Cadbury Flakes seems to be a lucrative market, with more and more expat-targeted online grocery stores popping up by the month. Companies such as British Corner Shop have the no nonsense tagline, “British Food, Delivered Worldwide” and have over 31,000 reviews from grateful nomadic folk from Blighty. In Chamonix, where I live, I am part of an expats-in-Chamonix Facebook group where the most commented-on thread is not where to buy the best ski jacket or what the snow report is saying, but who would like dibs in the next order of British sausages. After all, the English crime writer and poet, Dorothy L. Sayers did once say, “Sunday morning in an English family and no sausages? God bless my soul, what’s the world coming to, eh?”
It is no surprise that food elicits such powerful memories that haunt the homesick parts of our tummy brains. Food is the thing that touches all our senses at once. The smell of a toasting crumpet hits you first, it’s the smell of crisp Sunday mornings in autumn, complete with teapot and newspaper. Then you register what it looks like as your assess your preference of toastiness — mine is the colour of fallen leaves just as they turn from ochre to russet. Next you hear the crispy-squelchy-squeak as your teeth bite though the upper-crust into the spongey core. Following that comes the warmth of melted butter as it drips through the porous breakfast treat and onto your chin. Finally, you’re rewarded with the taste — sweet like warmed milk, salty (hopefully) depending on your choice of butter, nutty, yeasty and ever so slightly soapy from the aftertaste of baking soda. What a crumpet really tastes like though is weekend morning snuggles in crumpled sheets.
So as the food of our past resurfaces time and time again in the form of bittersweet memories, the question of “do you need anything?” is more than practical. It’s a question that asks, “can I bring you back comfort, fond memories of your first home, your guilty pleasure?” It asks, “can I be your fabricated family whilst we’re away from our own?” There is an unmistakable joy to feeding people which feels all the more rewarding when you have crossed channels to hunt and gather from the Tesco Express that’s just around the corner from your parent’s house.
As I pop the kettle on and reach into my 5kg stash of Yorkshire Tea teabags, which will be mixed with my now-favoured European UHT milk and French Florentine biscuit, I am reminded of two things. Change is good. The taste of home is a lifelong memory.