Here in rural Burgundy you know where your food comes from. You see your vegetables and fruit growing, often in your own garden. In the field behind our house white Charolais cows suckle their calves or enjoy the attentions of a self-satisfied-looking bull. Local shops and market stalls offer tempting pâtés, terrines and other charcuterie, a bewildering variety of cheeses, and delectable tarts and cakes without an E number in sight. All this and wine too! It seems perverse, therefore, for expats and their visitors to crave the tastes of home; but some of us do.Many expats have access to an inexhaustible supply of the best of British. But many items that are commonplace in regions frequented by Brits are unobtainable here in the Morvan. I had not realised how important a taste of home could be until an English family came to stay in Charity Cottage last summer. Charity Cottage? Click on www.charity-cottage.org.uk; visitors donate to Combat Stress, which helps war veterans whose injuries are not visible. Post traumatic stress disorder is not glamorous, but there is a lot of it about, as you will learn if you visit the Combat Stress website.
Well, our visitors’ car was laden with tomato ketchup, HP sauce, bacon, sausages, baked beans and Weetabix. I am glad to say they sampled the local grub too, but on their first visit to France the familiar food was like a comfort blanket to them.
I cook happily with local ingredients. Some things I do miss, however. The absence of bog-standard cheddar cheese, with its strong flavour, makes “proper”cauliflower cheese difficult to achieve. I improvise with Comté, but…Dedicated foodies do not dip their sponge fingers in Hartley’s lemon jelly when concocting a dinner-party dessert. Well, I do, but jellies are found (if at all) on the Exotic Foods shelf of the local supermarket at £1 or more a packet. Crumpets are unheard of here. A kind friend supplied a recipe, but faffing about with yeast and a griddle is no fun. Crème anglaise is an imposter: it is not custard as we know it, the pinkish powder that turns yellow when mixed with milk and goes so well with apple or rhubarb.
French cookspeak is littered with faux amis, terms that are the same in both French and English but have different meanings. Un muffin is a cupcake. Beware of discussing processed food that contains preservatives – un préservatif is a condom. Le bacon is thin, lean ham. If I fancy a bacon sandwich, poitrine approximates roughly to streaky bacon, but it would be nice to have the real thing once in a while.
I believe I am responsible for (guilty of?) introducing authentic Indian and Chinese food to our commune. Thereby, as the Bard says, hangs a tale. I was not posh or pushy enough for Oxbridge, so I read French at Liverpool, a city with had innumerable Chinese and Indian eateries. The university catering was dire, but biriani or chow mein could be had for half a crown. Later, John and I had a Singapore Chinese lodger who introduced us to dim sum in London’s Chinatown and passed on his mother’s recipes to me. And we frequented the local Indian restaurant, whose genial owner shared his best recipes. A few gravy-spattered cookbooks, a plentiful supply of authentic ingredients…you get the picture.
Well, I still have the cookbooks, but the ingredients are another story. There is soy sauce on the Exotic Foods shelf of the local supermarket; but I have to make my own bootleg hoisin sauce. I make and freeze my own pancakes (flour, boiling water, much kneading, pairs of pancakes sandwiched together with oil, fried and peeled carefully apart) to accompany crispy duck. I bet expats in Paris and the Dordogne have access to an inexhaustible supply of hoisin sauce and ready-made pancakes…
France has a tradition of spicy North African and West Indian cuisine thanks to her overseas possessions past and present. It is, however, a long time since the French had a foothold in the subcontinent, and what is sold as curry powder here comes in wee glass spice jars and tastes of nothing much. The nearest “Indian” restaurant is two hours’ drive away and its cuisine is toned down to suit local tastes. So visiting Brits are asked to bring me – in addition to crumpets and jellies – turmeric and cumin, chili and coriander, fenugreek and cardamom, with jars of Patak’s reliable curry pastes and tandoori spice as a back-up. This year, however, visiting Brits have been thin on the ground; Charity Cottage has welcomed several other nationalities, but nobody with access to the Taste of Home. No crumpets, jellies or curry ingredients were forthcoming.
Then, quite by chance, I found a year-round source of supply of the tastes of home. I write for the Daily Telegraph Expat section in return for publicity for Charity Cottage. The online version of the DT is peppered with pop-up publicity; and among them was an ad for the British Corner Shop.
I emailed to ask whether they sold crumpets. A friendly lady called Rebecca assured me that yes, they did. They could not supply my curry ingredients – you need an Asian grocer for that – but they did the entire Patak range of pastes and pickles. One thing led to another, and instead of weeding the garden I browsed the web. Reader, I succumbed; which is why John enjoyed crumpets for tea yesterday, and I have invited our neighbours for an Indian feast.
Together with husband John, Rosemary Border Rabson emigrated to the Morvan in rural Burgundy in 2005, where few other Brits have ventured. Rosy's chief preoccupation is Charity Cottage, a holiday cottage which she runs in aid of Combat Stress. The holiday cottage, in their garden at Maré le Bas in the Morvan, has its own website, www.charity-cottage.org.uk which has links to Combat Stress. They are taking bookings for 2014. Every penny goes to Combat Stress www.combatstress.org.uk