Monday, March 20, 2006

Touche pas à mon Marmite!

Two Telegraph bloggers, Richard Spencer in Beijing, and Kate Connelly in Berlin have been writing about the joys of Marmite and the impending disaster of selling it in squeezy tubes. It turns out that Unilever are not going to dance with the devil and stop selling Marmite in its traditional glass jars, but that the plastic jars which look just like the glass ones, but upsidedown, apparently, will be available in addition to glass. For travellers and such.

It's amazing the sentiments that get stirred up at the prospect of some tiny part of English heritage going to the great recycling pile in the sky. This, to me, is obvious though, as it would be to anyone who has lived abroad.

You miss the little things, not the big things. It's the little things that are inconsequential and ordinary at home, but suddenly when you are uprooted and without them become icons of cultural identity and sources of the deepest cravings of both stomach and soul.

Can you imagine not being able to make a decent cup of tea? That the only tea available is Lipton Yellow which tastes like it's the shavings left over from proper tea that have been swept up off the floor and bunged unceremoniously into a bag. The equivalent of a cheap hamburger. That was what I faced in 1989 when I first arrived in France. I was not in Paris and no one drank decent tea. It was tough, I can tell you.

Since being here, I have come to appreciate cheese au lait cru and will only eat pasturised cheese under duress. I had a particularly tough time in the US, then, when I could not afford the tiny slices of camembert and had to be content with 'cheddar'. Actually, I wasn't content at all, and just didn't eat cheese for a year. I didn't mind too much, however, as I was discovering American goodies such as sausage which reminded me of hamburgers I used to eat when I was a teenager. I also got to drink fresh milk again, something I don't do in France as the price is so high. The flavoured crisps were a joy to snack on too, seeing as at that time, in 1998/9 French supermarkets didn't stock flavoured crisps.

I can buy much much more now than I could when I first arrived. However, I still hanker after malt loaf, digestive biscuits, English sausages and a regular supply of mature English Cheddar. To be honest, I also adore English loaves. Not the ones in plastic bags ready sliced, but fresh bread made in places like Sainsbury's with its soft moist 'mie' and firm crust. It makes fantastic toast, sandwiches and bread and butter pudding. French bread is varied and delicious too, don't get me wrong, but is just not the same.

One can love living abroad, but the longer I stay, the more I value my British cultural identity. One can get tired of being foreign, and long for the comforts and ease of old familiar friends. Those in possession of British brands have a heavy responsibility because they provide not just food, but a deeper more visceral sense of identity in their often far-flung consumers. It is a heavy responsibility and not one to be tampered with through faddish marketing whims. As the Marmite crowd demonstrated, we take our food icons very seriously.

Unilever and co., you have been warned!

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