Saturday, June 20, 2009

Whilst I feel at home here in Brittany, north-west France, I’m also stranger in a strange land and I feel that I will always have that ambiguity as long as I live here, even after another thirty years. In fact, I am becoming a cultural fossil. What do I mean by that? I’ll always remember the England that I left five years ago and not be so aware of how English life and culture evolves. Memory is also tricked by that wonderful psychological self-defence, where one increasingly only remembers the good bits and the bad bits often fade to grey. The net effect of these two phenomena can be an excess of nostalgia (not to be confused with neuralgia).

So, what do we miss about “Home”? Breakfast back bacon rashers, cheddar cheese, weekend broadsheet newspapers with all their accompanying supplements and brown English beer, served at room temperature in a pint glass. In French supermarkets can often be found a little section or end of aisle marked with Union Jack flags, stacked with things specifically for British residents or holidaymakers. Things like Jacobs Cream Crackers or Carr’s water biscuits: both of these are for cheese (the French always eat cheese—third of a four course meal—with bread). Marmalade, chutney and piccalilli, the list goes on: how the French see their neighbours. Interestingly, marmalade came to us from Portugal, and chutney and piccalilli both came into the English diet from our Indian colonial past.

So how have we adapted to French habits and tastes? In England, cheese would be eaten after dessert but we follow the French now, more logically finishing with dessert, the sweetness killing the last of one’s appetite … and we eat it with bread, not dry biscuits. Charles de Gaulle once asked, “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” So, with such a large choice, why do we want another? Habit, taste, and cheddar is very versatile in the kitchen. Not far from us, an Australian woman buys in milk and makes her own, organic-ally certified, cheddar cheese and our local supermarket also now imports and sells English cheddar, so we can cross that one off the list.

I stock up with beer on occasional trips to England and, alleluia ! bottles have also appeared in the aforementioned Johnny Foreigner section of another local supermarket. It's at a decent price too, as tax on alcohol is much lower in France. Cross that one off too. We’ve got into the habit of asking holidaymakers coming to stay in our gite to bring a Saturday Guardian or Sunday Observer. Which only leaves bacon.

We’ve kept pigs for two years now and have made streaky belly bacon before. Our first pigs were small Kune Kunes (originally from New Zealand) and the loin muscle, which reduces in size as it dries out in the cure, was too small for back bacon. Last year, we had Gloucester Old Spots that killed out at a huge 230 lbs (105 kilos). Just a few weeks ago, we took a portion out of the freezer, removed the loin bones and trimmed off some fat, the put them in the same cure we use for the belly: salt, sugar, black pepper, chopped bay leaves and crushed juniper berries. After a few days, we removed it washed and dried it and then left it in the fridge (in the winter we’d hang cured meat to air outside) for a few days, before borrowing a slicing machine off a neighbour. The result is very tasty if a touch too salty (we’ll knock of a day or so for the next cure).

So we can enjoy our French lives with our English quirks: long live multiculturalism. If you like, you can read an article I wrote for Country Smallholding Magazine about our first year with pigs. Click on the first link under “Magazine Articles” on the right of this web page. My article will open or download (depending how you have your computer configured) as a PDF file.

(This blog was first posted on Not dabbling in Normal, an American blog that I contribute to once a month.)