Monday 12 December 2011

Marmite and what's this Radio Four?

By Richard Morley

We all have our rituals. One of mine is to start each Saturday with coffee, toast and Marmite and to listen to either the News Quiz or the Now! Show on BBC radio channel 4. (They alternate.) Both programmes give a satirical slant to British politics. Why should I be interested in British politics when I haven't set foot in the country for five years is a good question, to which the answer is that one can never really escape your home country.

I mean, did you notice the reference to Marmite. In the UK this foodstuff divides the nation. For the uninitiated, it is a dark, salty, almost black, paste made originally from the grunge found at the bottom of brewer's vats. You could almost describe it as industrial waste! And we eat it. No one would ever say, “Well, I sort of like Marmite”. You either love it or hate it. But in the rest of the world that thick, gooey paste is almost universally despised. I remember some French ex-colleagues throw several jars in the trash because they sniffed it and assumed it had gone bad. When we Brits explained it's meant to taste like that the look that passed over their faces was one of relief that they had eventually won the hundred years war, otherwise the perfidious English would be forcing it down their throats as a form of heinous torture. (Much like they do to geese!) My Spanish landlady asked me for a taste once. She's never asked again! It follows then that if you like Marmite you will, probably, be British. The opposite does not apply – it divides the Nation, remember!

All nationalities have their own tastes. US residents in Madrid make this plain with their own store called, openly, “A Taste of America”. Us British tend to be more subtle, so the shop that caters to our food predilections is called, “Things you miss”. This shop sell everything from Frey Bentos Steak and Kidney pies to Sherbet Fountains and Wine gums, Tetley's Teas to Branston Pickle.They don't seem to have updated their website recently, hence the archive link, but you can find the shop in the Calle de Juan de Austria, 11. Nearest Metro is Bilbao.

Spain has a wonderful cuisine. Those of us that live here permanently, as opposed to the ten day holiday-makers on the costas, learn to appreciate and embrace the tastes that the country has to offer, but from time to time it is natural that us guiris want a taste of home. Just last Saturday I was asked if I knew where one could buy porridge. I have no idea as I am not fond of the stuff. Perhaps one of my readers could enlighten us.

But the Spanish are very chauvinistic about their food. For them, all other cuisines are at the least, suspect, and at most, horrible. I have a friend who when visiting Ethiopia, lived on sandwiches and completely missed the delicious, spicy dishes of that country. Another, who while telling me she liked foreign food, back-tracked quickly when I suggested an Indian in Lavapies. And when I first arrived here, just six years ago, a taste of anything British usually came in the form of food parcels sent by concerned relatives.

Parsnips - You can see why one of the assistants in Gold Gourmet calls them "Zanahorias Blancas" or "White carrots".

That, I am happy to relate, has changed, but not by a lot. When I posted last year on Facebook that I had obtained Parsnips I was inundated with requests asking me from where? I have to admit I was of two minds whether to pass on the information. Suppose I went to the shop and found some earlier Brit had cleaned them out Рon my advice? The shop, GoldGourmet, (actually shops Рin the plural, forming as they do a short high street of their own,) can be found at Calle Jos̩ Ortega y Gasset, 85. Don't worry about that address Рit's the cheap end of JOyG. Not anywhere near the Diors, Jimmy Choos, Burberry etc at the posh end. Nearest Metro is Lista (L4).

Much the same happened when I posted about mature cheddar cheese and Branston Pickle. Where, where, where? Were people that desperate?

Branston Pickle and Cheese.

Some of the larger hypermarkets on the outskirts, Carrefour et al, (but not their smaller branches in the centre,) now carry many food items of foreign origin. Since they finally extended line 2 of the metro to Las Rosas, my expeditions in search of British products have taken me to the Carrefour hypermarket there. The nearest metro stop is actually Alsacia and then its a two minute walk. There, recently, I loaded my trolley with English cheeses, Branston Pickle (they had piccalilli, but I didn't buy it), proper English back bacon, (Spain does ham very well, but not bacon,) Marmite, Bovril gravy granules and, amongst other things, it being Christmas, Mr Kipling's Mince Pies. Moving along the aisle a little I picked up a selection of Sharwood's Indian sauces. I have been experimenting with “fusion” food, which I call “Spindian” - Spanish - Indian. My albondigas jalfrezi are delicious! Even my Spanish landlady's kids like it! And Bovril seems to have replaced the Spanish caldo as a hot drink on a cold day. Spanish tastes can change!

Along the same aisle were Filipino and Mexican delights. It just annoys me that I have to travel out of town to buy this stuff from a Carrefour, when my local Carrefour, just thirty metres from my apartment block, does not. It does sell HP baked beans though – another successful change in tastes I have brought to my Spanish family.

But loving Spanish food as I do, most of these items will last quite a while. So I can happily shop locally. But I despair of my local shop-keepers. Gold Gourmet, mentioned above, requires a half-hour walk for me, but there are three vegetable shops just minutes from my home. Shopping in my local market last week I asked Pepe, of Verduras Pepe, if he had Parsnips. (This was a repeat of the conversation I had three years ago which you can read here. ) History repeated itself as he shrugged and replied that, no, he hadn't, but then added that I was the third person who had asked him that day. An Englishman and a German Lady had also been searching for that wonderful vegetable. “So perhaps you will stock them in future”, I enquired. It seemed a market for them was developing within the barrio. “No”, he replied, “There's no demand”.

Ok, perhaps us three do not a “demand” make, but we surely cannot be alone?

But to return to the other half of my Saturday ritual – listening to the BBC's radio 4 programmes.
Should I not be listening to Spanish Radio to improve my listening skills? I should, and I do. Other rituals include always watching the early evening news on TV and occasionally tuning in to COPE radio. (I don't share their politics,but they do speak clearly!) But as a teacher of English it is also necessary to keep my skills in that language current. I am surrounded all day with such English as, “My sister, she work in Barcelona”, or “I am very fluently in English”. If I didn't have regular doses of mellifluous BBC English I might not notice those lapses in grammar and syntax. In fact, out of lessons I don't, so normal have these mistakes become to my ears. My professional life maybe in English, but I live in Spanglish.

Incidentally, the English of visiting British youth could also do with infusions of Radio 4. I was sitting opposite some English youths on the metro recently and could hardly understand a word! And the double negatives in their sentences made me wince.

Perhaps I should return home to teach English there. It seems to be needed. But then I would miss all that wonderful Spanish food and that is something up with which I shall no longer put.

Incidentally, if you live in Madrid and know of places where you can buy your favourite "missed" food or other items, perhaps you would like to tell us where in the comments below. If you are looking for something, you could ask and someone might have the answer.