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Custard creams and the British bulldog spirit

Geoff Meade / Feb 2021

Photo: Shutterstock

 

Boris Johnson was a just a young Etonian when Roger George started waving the British flag in Brussels.

But Roger, far from opposing EU membership, was waving that flag for British food which he felt was drastically under-represented in Belgian shops considering that the nation had been in the European Economic Community for nearly a decade by then.

Roger had spotted a gap in the supermarket and he filled it, launching what became “Stonemanor - the British store” from his garage.

His USP? British produce, yes, but especially those quirky nibbly things not available in Belgian supermarkets.

Of course our new EEC partners had not exactly been gagging to try custard creams and baked beans and prawn cocktail-flavoured crisps and would probably gag on them if they did, assuming they had heard of them in the first place, which most hadn’t and still haven’t.

But Roger’s target audience from the very start in May 1982, was, as the Stonemanor website explains, to serve “the large expatriate community in the Brussels area, as well as bringing a little part of the U.K. to Belgium.”

I was one of those deprived expatriates at the time, pining for a taste of home in the form of Heinz salad cream, Mother’s Pride white sliced bread, mushy peas, bottles of fizzy Dandelion and Burdock, Fray Bentos meat pies, Cornish pasties, Yorkshire pudding, Colman’s mustard, clotted cream, scones….

We Brits tried to fit in, really we did, by adopting crevette grise – little prawny things packed into a hollowed-out tomato, buckets of moules-frites, and mayonnaise in place of ketchup..

But there comes a time when a chap just craves a chip butty on square floppy white bread with a mug of English tea and to hell with integration.

And that’s why the street outside Roger’s house in a leafy Brussels suburb used to be lined with cars once a week as expats waited for his metallic gold Volvo estate car to return from Dover laden with British produce he’d picked up on his weekly cross-Channel run.

He’d stock the stuff on his garage shelves, and most of it, including square bread for the toaster, Jaffa cakes, Cadbury’s chocolate, Pot noodles, Mr Kipling cakes and Bisto gravy granules, was sold before he’d had time to get it out of the car.

These days many Belgian supermarkets honour the true spirit of EU membership by carrying at least a few comfort-food favourites from all member states, but only Stonemanor provides for the true Brit whose taste-buds should, but can’t quite, leave the UK.

And when I go there now to stock up on frozen kippers and bottles of Rochester Traditional Ginger Drink (“with the kick of two very angry mules”), it’s clear this has long-since stopped being a supply shop of interest only to Brits looking for comfort food from the old country.

These days it’s become a regular haunt for plenty of Belgians and other nationalities looking for nutritional clues to the workings of the British psyche, as well as furtively buying tubes of Rolo chocolates, lemon curd yoghurt, and Yorkshire Wensleydale cheese with cranberries.

Not forgetting prawn cocktail-flavoured crisps, which are still in stock despite Boris Johnson’s claim in March 2016 that the EU’s attempt to ban them was one reason why he backed Brexit.

There was, of course, no such attempt: the then EU Internal Market Commissioner Martin Bangemann clearly explained to the media that he’d never heard of prawn-cocktail flavoured crisps, implying that if the Brits were crazy enough to want to eat such things, that was up to them…).

There are two large Stonemanor stores now, selling all sorts of British goods, (as well as liquorice allsorts). One shop is in a former farm dairy farm just up the road from where Field-Marshal Montgomery set up his operational headquarters in 1941; the other is just down the road from the site of the Battle of Waterloo.

I’m sure the locations are just a coincidence, but that, and the spectacle of Stonemanor’s magnificent old London taxi with its Union Jack red, white and blue paint job should be enough to warm the cockles of Prime Minister Johnson’s buccaneering heart.

But none of that could save these patriotic stores from Brexit fall-out. The bureaucratic chaos and delays in clearing imports from the UK hit deliveries so badly that for a few days in February the shelves were empty and Stonemanor’s doors closed for the first time in nearly forty years.

Word spread quickly – it was a British own-goal, a “blue-on-blue” disaster.

One of the BBC’s Brussels correspondents, Gavin Lee, broke the news to radio listeners in solemn, Neville Chamberlain tones.

“I’m standing outside the Stonemanor British store…” said Gavin. “This is a place which serves lots of mainly British nationals with a taste of home.

“It’s where I get my custard creams for example……..I’m just going inside and it’s in a sorry state. There’s no custard creams for a start……the shelves are almost completely empty, no digestives, no oatcakes no beans, no meat, no dairy because they have not had a single delivery since Christmas…”

Luckily the crisis eased after a few days and, as I write, Stonemanor is slowly getting back to normal, pulled through the crisis by turning to Ireland for supplies.

Yes, one thousand Cadbury’s creme eggs ordered through Ireland, plus a supply of Irish sausages helped keep the British flag flying over Stonemanor. It always carried some Irish specialities, but the odds are now that more and more of its British produce will be ordered through Ireland to by-pass UK customs rules.

That’s the kind of take-back-control, can-do, Brexity entrepreneurial spirit that the British prime minister will surely applaud.

 

Geoff Meade

Geoff Meade

February 2021

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