Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The lure of the unattainable

Yesterday I drove to Dundee, a round trip of just under eighty miles.  I was in Dundee for a rather dull medical appointment but whilst I was there, I dropped into the big Tesco on the edge of the city to stock up on things we cannot buy in Crieff.

My daughter, who is a great fan of manga and anime, loves anything Japanese by association, including Pocky biscuit sticks. You can't get those any place nearer than Edinburgh, but the big Tesco in Dundee does stock Gap biscuit sticks from Thailand, which are a reasonable substitute. It also stocks Tymbark iced green tea from Poland; my kids used to love iced green tea when we lived in Belgium and you can't easily get that in the UK, so we were thrilled when we found it there.

Whilst I was filling my shopping trolley with these treasures, I started to think about all the times I had done this when we were living in various places around Europe. Whenever we move to a new place, I do try very hard to integrate, including eating local food. It is unrealistic and expensive to live in rural Germany, for example, and try to follow a completely British diet (the entire time we lived there, I never found a locally produced curry powder with enough strength). Also, you would miss out on lots of wonderful local delicacies. In Germany I came to love cherry streusel, herrings in dill sauce and Bitburger beer. Oh, and Froop, which is a kind of yoghurt with fruit purée at the bottom. I miss the cherry and lemon varieties of Froop more than I can say since we moved away from Germany. *sob*

The one British thing I really couldn't do without, however, was tea. In Germany, coffee is king. You go out for Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cakes), not tea and biscuits. German supermarkets stock a wondrous variety of fruit and herbal teas but I never found a local brand of tea that was strong enough to make a decent cup. A friend told me that East Friesian was the strongest German type, but it still wasn't strong enough for me: I like builder's tea, the colour of teak oil. So I used to order Yorkshire Tea online, or else get it from the British shop in Cologne whenever we happened to be there.

When we moved to Flanders, we found ourselves within a few miles of Stone Manor, the British shop, so the tea supply was no longer a problem. Had we so desired, we could have lived entirely on British produce, including Curly Wurlys and haggis. I was somewhat downcast to discover however that you cannot get Froop in Belgium. So whenever we went back to Germany, which was fairly often as you could drive to Bad Münstereifel and back in a day quite easily, I used to gorge on Froop, and nip into the Erft Cafe (now sadly defunct) for some cherry streusel.

Once again, we made an effort to try locally available food in Flanders. I'm not sure I am ever going to become a wholehearted fan of Paling in 't Groen (fried eel in bright green sauce), but I am a big fan of bessenjenever, which is berry flavoured gin. I came across it because I asked my Flemish friend Tom what Veerle, the heroine of Silent Saturday would drink, and he suggested bessenjenever. Of course I had to try it in the interests of research(!) and jolly tasty it is, too. I liked it so much that when we moved back to the UK in 2011 I was very dismayed to discover that it is not sold here, anywhere. So now, whenever I go over to Belgium, or our Flemish friends visit us, a bottle of bessenjenever always goes in the suitcase on the Scotland-bound leg of the trip.

NB I am sure my Belgian friends, though too polite to say so, think there is something faintly daft about this. Bessenjenever seems to be a young person's drink judging by the advertising, so I am probably a wild anomaly in their consumer demographic. In my defence, I only moved to Flanders in 2008, so I am still in my Belgian infancy. This may explain why I am also a great fan of the Belgian band Clouseau, whom everybody else in Flanders has known about since 1990...

Above: the perfect combination - Flemish bessenjenever cooled in Scottish snow!
(photo by Marc Vastesaeger)

I'm not sure why I felt moved to blog about this topic! I suppose it's because getting hold of these culinary treasures is about more than getting my hands on my favourite nibbles. 

Sometimes it's about carrying a little piece of somewhere you loved with you - whenever I have a glass of bessenjenever, the smell of it makes me think of Flanders; when we go to the German Christmas market in Edinburgh we love to buy the real German pretzels because it is a taste of our former home. 

I like the sense of occasion, too, when I drive into the city to buy things I can't get locally. I'm not sure quite what is going on there - some kind of frustrated hunter gatherer instinct, perhaps? I don't know why I get such a kick out of this. It's not like I'm the heroine of a post-apocalyptic novel after all, discovering a hidden cache of canned and bottled food in a bombed out town. I'm just driving to Tesco's in Dundee. 

I do love the satisfaction of tracking down something that is not easy to obtain. Iced green tea: the Holy Grail of soft drinks. We all like to feel that we are on a Quest sometimes...

Above: Bessenjenever gets a number of mentions in Silent Saturday

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