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The English Food Store
'This is England, and we are English'. Words by Huw Lemmey; Illustration by Alex Christian
Good morning and welcome to Vittles Season 4: Hyper-Regionalism.
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A few years ago, I took one of those holidays beloved by the British: an all inclusive package to Tenerife where you stay at a resort, never stray outside its boundaries except to go home, and do nothing except tan, swim, and rub sunscreen on yourself, like you’re applying layers of paint on your wall. This was a new experience for me ─ usually I would be on a city break, marauding through culture and restaurants, trying to live the life someone who lives in that city would live, hiding my Englishness. Here you’re meant to lean into your Englishness, treating Spanish soil as a kind of embassy.
On the one occasion I ventured outside, I came across a small village that looked like it had been designed as a TV set for Midsommer Murders, replete with several, accurate English pubs, cream tea shops, supermarkets that sold Bisto so restaurants could use it to serve roast dinners in single, massive Yorkshire puddings. I must admit my first thought was shame; shame first at the idea of colonising foreign soil in this way, and all the historical associations that brings, but also shame that Englishness could be reduced down to such a clichéd set of signifiers. ‘Is this all we are?’ are thought to myself.
As Huw Lemmey points out in today’s newsletter, my conflicted feelings are also part of the tension between ‘Englishness’ and ‘foreignness’ that blights the Englishman abroad and particularly in the Spanish regions that act as English enclaves. After all, all immigrants perform their identity in enclaves like this, becoming more of themselves than they would be in their own country (chef and Vittles contributor Joké Bakare once remarked to me how Peckham, where a whole city’s worth of relationships could be compressed into a few streets, could be more Lagos than Lagos). So it is too with food, where cuisines are compressed into litanies. In today’s litany, three paragraphs in, you might, if you are English, feel some stirring music rising behind you, maybe John of Gaunt’s soliloquy in Richard II (‘this sceptered aisle, this store of majesty’), some pride that we’ve managed to build the only cuisine in the world that actually travels, that works even better ‘in diaspora’.
Or maybe you’ll feel shame. But one thing you cannot deny is that this is who we are.
This is England, and we are English, by Huw Lemmey
It’s an unprepossessing place, a small local set within the regimented city blocks of the Eixample neighbourhood of Barcelona; outside, the heat rises off the pavement in summer, the smell of cigarette smoke blown from a passing moped rider hangs in the humidity, and you can almost taste the anchovies and vermut rising to your lips in the Mediterranean air. As you push open the door, the spell is cast; you are Howard Carter gazing upon row and row of canned and pickled treasures. No details of the Island are overlooked; a chipper cashier calls you ‘mate’ and thanks you with a ‘cheers’; a small TV above the counter shows English daytime television: a low budget fly-on-the-wall show where people are evicted from their homes for entertainment. This is the English food store.
In any city with a significant population of migrants, the ‘foreign food store’ is a longstanding fixture, acting as a nexus where different ideas of ‘home’ and ‘abroad’ meet. In English cities, Asian supermarkets, Italian delis and ice cream parlours, Polski skleps and Latin American delis are all a settled part of the established food culture, a legacy of Britain’s imperial past and long history of international migration. For the migrant or ex-pat (a sticky and often racialised distinction) such shops offer a welcome link with not just the foods, but also the memories and traditions of their own cultures, while for others, especially the English, such shops have provided a much-needed connection to a wider selection of food cultures. These stores can function as hubs for an immigrant community, importing vital staples and otherwise unavailable fruit and vegetables to sustain a food culture in diaspora and support a wider network linking producers, such as speciality butchers and fishmongers, with consumers looking to produce the food of their home country in their own homes.
But that’s not the function of the English food store, which is unlike other stores set up by migrant populations. There are no speciality cheeses or cured meats, or bags of imported pulses and spices. What the English shop sells are the unmimicable specificities of English cuisine. Condiments of every type and description: mint sauce and mint jelly; horseradish sauce, cranberry sauce, tartare sauce and seafood sauce; Heinz Salad Cream and Heinz Sandwich Spread; Colman’s English Mustard in a pot, Colman’s English Mustard in a tube, Colman’s English Mustard in a powder. Pickled eggs and pickled walnuts; pickled beetroot and pickled cabbage; pickled onions (large) and pickled onions (silverskin), Pickled Onion Monster Munch. Onion and chicken and turkey and beef and regular Bisto; Patak’s Korma and Tikka Masala sauces; Loyd Grossman’s pasta sauces; Sharwood’s Kung Po and Sweet and Sour sauces. Tins of tomato and minestrone and mulligatawny soup, tins of Spam and John West tuna, tins of beans and tins and spaghetti hoops. Paxo and Oxo and Aunt Bessie’s Yorkies. Pork pies and Pukka Pies; sausages and bacon. And best of all, the desserts: not just ready-made ones like Ambrosia rice pudding and semolina, or spotted dick or swiss roll or ginger sponge pudding, but all the constituent parts: black treacle and golden syrup; the tubs of Borwick’s baking powder; the dark muscovado and light muscovado and demerara sugars; the Atora shredded suet. Earl Grey and PG Tips; Twinings tea and Yorkshire Tea; and Tunnock’s tea cakes; and Tunnock’s caramel wafers and Tunnock’s caramel logs.
A visit to an English food store overseas is a vision of Englishness when the lights come up in a club at the end of the night. You’re staring straight into the flickering, blinding truth. You can’t hide from it. This is it, son: the nation that made you, the food that put flesh on your bones, the custard powder and Angel Delight that built your skeleton strong and the Fray Bentos and black pudding that made you broad.
Following the increase of British workers to Europe during its EU membership era, the English food store has proliferated around the continent, from Prague to Brussels, Berlin to Paris, if you can believe it. Yet it is probably the English shops of Spain, where I live, that are the most visible and most troubling to the English middle-classes: an outpost of all their own anxieties around class, migration and foreignness, projected onto these small grocery stores that dot the country and line the coasts, their jars of chutney and piccalilli slowly broiling in the Mediterranean sun.
For many members of the English middle-classes travelling abroad, among their suitcases, sunscreen and passports they also pack a deeply conflicted relationship with their own Englishness, or worse, the Englishness of their travelling compatriots. It travels with them, undeclared at customs; one can see it in those at the airport who keep their distance from another group of overly loud or talkative fellow travellers, or who wince at the railway ticket kiosk as the man in front, his pink-white legs also enjoying their annual view of the world, repeats the same question over and over, in louder and slower tones, but still in English. The experience is by no means universal; like everything English, it fractures around class and race, although less in horizontal lines than like crazy paving, guilt and shame tessellating across the population. A mention of a visit to the English shop to other English people abroad can instigate a sort of tortured, embarrassed hand-wringing about what the tins of pilchards and custard say about them. Some English people seem almost uniquely anxious about the way they enact not so much their nationality but their nationalness abroad, in a way that would seem to be unimaginable in, say, an Italian. And, like everything that is about Englishness, and that therefore is about class, it manifests perhaps most strongly in their attitude to food – English food and foreign food.
There’s no more sensitive depiction of the English approach to ‘foreign food’ than Raymond Briggs’s 1975 comic book Father Christmas Goes on Holiday. Briggs’s Father Christmas is depicted as an Englishman (of course) with the everyman, lower-middle-class tastes of the time. In the first book, Father Christmas, food is almost ever-present, comforting and undisruptive, from his breakfast (two fried eggs and bacon, cornflakes, marmalade on toast and tea) to his packed lunch (two rounds of cheese and chutney sandwiches packed in an old Oxo tin, a thermos of instant coffee). On holiday, however, Father Christmas finds himself bound up in that old English anxiety. I think, at their core, the white English person simply cannot bring into balance the idea that they are, by their presence in a foreign country, both English and foreign at the same time. Unable to bring these two facts into a harmonious relationship, they are spun into a devastating paroxysm of self-awareness. In France he wishes he “didn’t look so much like a blooming foreigner,” and replaces his straw boater and white T-shirt with a beret and striped shirt, drawing even more attention to his Englishness. Suitably attired, he takes himself to a restaurant where he engages in one of literature’s most memorable meals: snails in cream, lobster in cream, veal kidneys in cream and sauteed potatoes. He returns to his converted sleigh-camper van and there follows a dream sequence that has haunted me since childhood. Sick to his stomach, pale and feverish, he is pursued by his meal, as snails, grinning lobsters and ranks of tiny veal kidneys possessing only eyes and feet march through his terrified unconscious. A huge cow, eyes wide, expresses milk from all her udders, filling the frame with a sickly yellow cream, while simultaneously vomiting fresh cream over Father Christmas’ delirious balding pate. He wakes from this fitful sleep and promptly rushes to the campsite lavatory.
Father Christmas wants to fit in, wants to try the local cuisine, but at the same time is alienated by it. It is constitutionally foreign to him and he craves the digestible comforts of Englishness. Not only does he pack his essentials (cornflakes, marge, ketchup, jam, baked beans) but while eating out he is appalled they have no ketchup, no HP, no Daddy’s Favourite sauce, “no blooming sauce! What a country!”
Briggs’s lower-middle-class Father Christmas might ultimately return to his home comforts, but for the consummate Englishman abroad, E.M. Forster, every encounter with his home country and its food reminds him of the priggish, Victorian values of the upper-middle-class that he abhors but cannot escape. Writing before the war, he recounts catching the boat train home and re-encounters the English culinary malaise when, at breakfast, a waiter asks him “porridge or prunes, sir?”
That cry still rings in my memory. It is an epitome – not, indeed, of English food, but of the forces which drag it into the dirt. It voices the true spirit of gastronomic joylessness. Porridge fills the Englishman up, prunes clear him out, so their functions are opposed. But their spirit is the same: they eschew pleasure and consider delicacy immoral ... then I had a haddock. It was covered with a sort of hard yellow oilskin, as if it had been out in a lifeboat, and its inside gushed salt water when pricked. Sausages and bacon followed this disgusting fish. They, too, had been up all night. Toast like steel, marmalade a scented jelly. And the bill, which I paid dumbly, wondering again why such things have to be. They have to be because this is England, and we are English.
There is an intense anxiety around Englishness in Forster’s account that still emanates from English people, especially from those living in England, around English food abroad. On to the English person in Spain in particular is projected a whole host of national and class anxieties around a pig-headed English chauvinism, a refusal to integrate and a public demonstration of “the worst of British values” – usually coded as working-class values – somehow embarrassing Britain abroad with their food. Following Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, vox pops from Leave voters in English pubs in Spanish seaside resorts filled British TV screens and Twitter feeds, their drinkers and diners becoming a shorthand for working-class turkeys voting for Christmas. Their continued consumption of English food and culture seemed to mark them out as part of the problem of Englishness but an ability to enjoy foreign food, and to merge as seamlessly as Father Christmas into the local population, is a sign of good education and taste, a sign of middle-class appreciation for foreign cultures. I sometimes wonder why, for the English middle-class, to be seen as foreign is such a shameful thing in the first place.
Food, in England, is very rarely about food, and that might be half of the problem. These anxieties are homemade, a reflection of tensions in the Mother Country and especially around Brexit, rather than the very different conflicts as they exist on the ground. Perhaps the strangest sensation on visiting the English shop, having lived in Spain a few years, is discovering not just that I love it, but also that it has changed the way I think of English food. The nature of the English food store makes it strangely unsuitable for cooking from; there are few of the everyday staples, and no vegetables, which can be bought cheaply locally. I would hazard a guess that, if you weren’t to visit the freezers, it would be impossible to produce a meal from the goods on offer. From the packaging and labelling it’s clear that most of these processed foods have their roots in either the bourgeois consumer boom driven by the fruits of Victorian imperialism (neither Tate and Lyle’s Golden Syrup, Borwick’s Baking Powder, nor George Watkin’s Mushroom Ketchup would look out of place in a living museum), or in the post-war period when a drive to produce enough to eat led to a homogenisation of English food.
When non-English friends now ask me why our food is so bad, I explain that it wasn’t. At the start of the twentieth century, for example, Britain had more than 3,500 different farmhouse cheese-makers, but the prospect of war brought a drive to standardisation and centralisation meaning that, following the end of rationing, there were barely 100 cheesemakers left in England, mainly producing five cheeses. Just surviving the war dealt an absolutely devastating body blow to English cuisine that has taken generations to recover from (if it has recovered at all); what emerged in the meantime was a whole market of highly processed, sugary and salty goods with which people could cheaply add to their basic cooking. When my grandfather retrained as a baker in post-war Manchester, he learnt not the art, but the science, of baking: how to produce the most nutritional loaf with the least waste possible. He produced hundreds of absolutely identical 1lb brown loaves, custard pies and Eccles cakes on a weekly basis for the rest of his life, four loaves delivered weekly in freezer bags to my mum each Sunday. They were good, and filling, but hardly produced with élan; it was the pickles, conserves, chutneys and jams, which were vital for flavour, that were the unique tastes of our food growing up, and hence why those are the things that stock the shop.
I have come to love the English shop for many of the same reasons, no doubt, that other migrant communities love their stores; for the memories such foods carry and for the highly specific cravings for childhood, for those weeks when everything has gone wrong and all you really want is a bowl of Bird’s custard and bananas. What’s more, I have come to appreciate this specific type of English cuisine again, too, where intensity is adhered to simplicity, where the highly processed is added to the home-cooked. Perhaps most of all I have enjoyed discovering that friends from all over the world have just as much taste for a sponge pudding or rum nicky, a pickled egg or a toad-in-the-hole as myself. In diaspora, it is easier to see food as food and, with that, English cooking can become a foreign delicacy in its own right.
Huw Lemmey is a novelist and writes essays at huw.substack.com
The illustration is by Alex Christian, a designer and illustrator based in London. You can find more of his work at https://www.alexschristian.com