Wednesday, 12 May 2021

The continentalisation of the UK

When I was a small child, in the 1960s, people spoke about “The Continent”, meaning mainland Europe. A person, a foodstuff, an attitude, was described as “continental”, in a sligtly disapproving tone,  meaning unusual and a little racy on the one hand, but “not quite what we do around here” on the other.

From an early age, I was fascinated by “The Continent” and all the treasures it might hold, approved-of or not. I blame Caroline and her Friends. For those who’ve never had this delight, Caroline was a bossy little girl accompanied by a menagerie of dogs, cats (domestic and Big) and a lone bear. This motley crew got into all kinds of scrapes, going camping, on ski holidays, or touring around “The Continent” - stuffing themselves with spaghetti or Belgian Frites, hurling Dutch cheeses around or playing Alphorns. I have imitated much of this behaviour throughout the course of my life. 

Some of my earliest food-related memories relate to finding unusual brands and products in slightly obscure places. There was this cafe and health food shop just down the road from us, for example:

Deborah’s was a vegetarian cafe and sold Birchermüsli as well as breakfast products such as Frugrains - which I can still taste - datey.

It wasn’t long, of course, before muesli became big business in the UK, with the launch of Alpen in 1971. Ski yoghurt - another “continental idea” which took a while to catch on, had been launched in the 1960s.

As well as the quirky Deborah’s, I remember the glorious smell of coffee roasting in a shop called Brimson’s in Camberley, and the first time I tried a croissant (from a “Continental” bake shop in Reading) - all very Proustian. Then there were the expeditions to a “delicatessen” in Ascot, mainly so my mum could buy the products she remembered from Canada - Betty Crocker and Aunt Jemima. This wonderful emporium sold exotic cocktail snacks, such as ROKA cheese biscuits. I see the packaging design has hardly changed, although I think they used to come in a tin.

All this continentalisation culminated in a coach trip around Europe, maybe following in Caroline & Co.’s foot- and pawprints. Here, I got to know even more continental culinary delights (and some not so delightful) as well as duvets, dirndls and dobra veče (yes, the tour ventured into what was then Yugoslavia).

I’ve now finally booked a trip back to the UK, the first since we became properly Brexitted. 

I’m hoping that Britain won’t have become decontinentalised as far as food and drink goes, anyway.


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