Ed Ward's Blog Leaves Europe After 20 Years and Returns To The U.S., Another Foreign Country. Currently, This Blog Is In Transition.
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
Food From Home, Crowd-Sourced
Coming soon? Nope: it's here. And, like many another business of this sort, it 's a bit controversial.
One side of the argument says, you moved here, now eat like they do here. The other says, I'm too set in my ways to change now. I'm on neither side, but I did decide I had to check the place out. After all, I like foreign food of all sorts.
Located in a former gay underwear shop on the edge of the Écusson here in Montpellier, the English Corner Shop is actually run by Judi and Chuck, two Silicon Valley refugees who wound up over in Provence at a high-tech incubator that flopped. They decided they liked France and about a year ago wound up in Montpellier, somewhere on the city's outskirts, and hatched the idea of an expat food shop.
They've been open about a week at this point, and in the couple of hours I spent there talking with them, a bunch of people, French, British, and American, came in and out, and left clutching one or another thing saying "I've been looking for this for ages." If so, they haven't been looking very hard: the Internet is filled with expat groceries of the virtual sort, all vending pretty much the same things. The difference here is you don't have to pay their exorbitant shipping fees: you just walk in and there it is. But it's much the same stuff as you find on the internet, as if there were a single wholesaler. In fact, it reminded me of a weird supermarket that existed briefly in Berlin called Expat Shopping, which also had outlets around Holland and a few other places. It folded because, I'm told, it was engaging in nefarious practices. But it was the same sort of thing, heavy on processed food, lots of candies and cookies and other such things. In fact, in Germany there was a single wholesaler, according to a journalist I knew who had done some research: it was a subsidiary of an American corn-processing business, which is why the goods on sale (many of which, I used to joke, were the foods we'd left home to get away from) were heavily tilted towards sweets, and all the Mexican groceries came from Old El Paso.
A glance around the Corner Shop's shelves will reveal some familiar faces: Oreos, PG Tips tea, Kettle Chips, and Doritos. They had, to my delight, Grape Nuts, albeit at €5 a box. Still, come berry season, I'll be there for some. There's also Shredded Wheat (both regular, at €6, and bite-sized at €6.20), Dorito's salsa (€3.50, extra hot only), Tabasco sauce at €2.60 (which may be more than it is at the supermarket; I'll have to check), and Old El Paso refried beans at €3 a can, which is a lot, but they're not bad. The "Mexican" selection is odd, albeit not as odd as at my local supermarket, where "taco" and "fajita" kits in boxes are available. There's powdered fajita mix, whatever that is, for instance, but no taco sauce or canned enchilada sauce, and, come to think of it, no corn or flour tortillas. The latter, of course, are easy to make; the former not so much.
Still, if you're criticizing the stock, you're criticizing the customers: the entire stock-list was created by Chuck and Judi leaving cards around town at places where expats gather asking for stocking suggestions, and the call also went out on The Languedoc Page, among other websites. The entire store was, as they say these days, crowd-sourced. All of which makes me wonder about the contributors. The vast majority of Anglophones here are British, and the British consume an awesome amount of sugar each year. This explains all the candy and cookies (but not the Duncan Hines cake mix), and it may explain the presence in the freezers of a lot of products made from something called Quorn, which I gather is an imitation meat. (I always say if you're going to be a vegetarian, be a vegetarian, and stop with the imitation meat, already, although that said, there was a brand of veggie-burgers I used to buy in Germany that were awesome). There's also frozen steak-and-mushroom pie, ground lamb, and back bacon. In the cooler, there's Doctor Pepper and Canada Dry ginger ale and lots of kinds of Lucozade. No beer yet, although there was a clamor for that by the Brits, you better believe, and it's coming.
The picture that emerges is of people who seem to like the sunshine here, but would rather eat like they were still home in Leeds, but this is probably unfair. I like to change what I eat on a day-to-day basis, cooking Indian, Chinese, American, French, and Italian most frequently. I've noticed in Germany and France, people of a certain age aren't nearly as adventurous, although younger people are. Much of the crowd-sourced goods speak of nostalgia (although for me, non-sugary cereal is always good news), and yes, they have lots of Heinz Baked Beans, that British breakfast standard. Unlike Italian or Chinese or Indian food, though, American-British-Australian food doesn't have the gourmet cachet among young Europeans. It would be nice to change that, but, I fear, futile.
I wish Judi and Chuck lots of luck. They're friendly, smart people, and I hope their place does better than some of the others which have started up in the area. One mistake others have made is opening in small towns. It could just be that Montpellier is cosmopolitan enough to support a venture like this, and, as the regional hub, expats having business at the Préfecture or elsewhere will stop by before heading back home. If you're in the area and have a stocking suggestion, let them know. I suggested cornmeal and corn tortillas, two things I smuggle back from Texas every time I go, but now that I think of it, I'd like to see Pickapeppa brown and red sauce there, too. ("Everything we got, we got the hot version of," Chuck confessed. "That's what people miss.") I'm sure I'll think of other things, too. And I'll be back.
English Corner Shop, 12 rue Four des Flammes, 34000 Montpellier. Open noon-7pm Tue.-Sat. Tel: 06 21 31 59 71.