Nottingham Vignettes – Part 2 1/2

(posted by Alan)

As a guest writer who hasn’t written anything in almost a week, I’m feeling a terrible pressure to write something before it’s midweek again. And, since the weekend was very much a blur that would be of little interest to anyone else, let alone myself, I’ve had trouble thinking about anything that could be vaguely construed as worthy of ‘local writing’. But, scraping the barrel a bit, I have come up with some locally-influenced musings of mine.

Before going off to the Arboretum Park on Saturday for Nottingham Pride, which, by the way, was very pleasant, very much like a friendly village fete, I was wandering aimlessly around town trying to decide if I ought to get my hair cut or not. I do need one, but didn’t get one as I wasn’t keen on the idea of having my back and neck itch while I tried to walk fetchingly amongst the crowds at Pride. I was rather surprised to see a large advertising board bearing the South African flag on the pavement on Chapel Bar (leading off Upper Parliament street towards Market Square), opposite Fat Cats (nice chilled out place, food reasonable and perfectly acceptable). It pointed towards a rather run-down shopping arcade, saying that the ‘South African Shop’ could be found on the second floor. Shops devoted to South African products are relatively common in London for the reason that this rather old joke is funny:

An Englishman, an Aussie and a South African are in a bar one night, having a beer. All of a   sudden the South African downs his beer, throws his glass in the air, pulls out a gun and shoots the glass to pieces and says: “In Sath Efrika our glasses are so cheap that we don’t need to drink from the same one twice.”

The Aussie, obviously impressed by this , drinks his beer, throws his glass into the air, pulls out his gun and shoots the glass to pieces and says: “Well mate, in ‘Straaaaailia we have so much sand to make the glasses that we don’t need to drink out of the same glass twice either.”

The Englishman, cool as a cucumber, picks up his beer and drinks it, throws his glass into the air, pulls out his gun, shoots the South African and the Australian and then says: “In London we have so many f***ing South Africans and Aussies that we don’t need to drink with the same ones twice.”

Now, I’m not really the sort of expat who has any huge desire to hang around others of my ilk or, for that matter, has a hankering for South African products. But, this being Nottingham, I’d not have thought there were enough of us here to create the necessary demand for a South African shop, so I was intrigued.

Dingy entrance, shops selling second-hand CDs and various Goth paraphernalia, several empty shops with paper peeling from the windows, an escalator that wasn’t working, etc. Yep, this wasn’t going to be an upmarket shopping experience.

I peered through the windows of the shop and was amazed to find that it was a good approximation of the typical down-market café (pronounced ‘caff-ee’) one finds on the wrong side of the tracks in every South African town. No crappy South African newspapers or magazines, unfortunately, and no fridge with a tray of sad samoosas and large ‘Russian’ sausages to be fried with slap chips. But, although the person running the place wasn’t Greek, Portuguese or Indian, she was a large black woman who looked just right for the place. And, there they were! All those delicacies one allegedly misses from home were on the sparsely-packed shelves: Mrs Balls’s chutney, Peck’s Anchovette fishpaste, Castle beer, tins of Milo, Ouma’s rusks, Peppermint Crisps, mealie-meal, etc. Oh, by the way, long before your British palates were colonised by the Italians and you suddenly thought that nothing could be trendier than polenta, we’d been eating mealie-meal in hundreds of different ways. No poof term like ‘polenta’ for us, thank you – we just call it pap.

I looked through that window, hard and long but did I go in? Damn right, I didn’t – it was too depressing for words!

This got me thinking about expats and the way they suddenly develop cravings for foods they know from home. I mean, I can understand why other nationalities (apart from South Africans!) have such places in the UK as the national cuisine must be one of the blandest on earth. Yes, yes, I know that some of the best dining in the world can be had in the UK these days but wander just a little way from any cosmopolitan hub and you are in a culinary wasteland. However, despite that, the British are probably the worst culprits of this kind of thing when one thinks of the proliferation of fish and chips shops and British bars along the Spanish coast. And, what is it with their obsession with having Marmite and Weetabix at breakfast far from Britain’s grey skies? There are lots of South African products and dishes that I miss and look forward to eating when I return home but the thought of having bars and shops devoted to such products away from South Africa seems quite bizarre.

And that then led me to thinking about a related topic dealing with the same subject from quite a different angle. For those of you who have travelled to South Africa or ever eaten in a South African restaurant in the UK, you must think that South African meals often include exotic dishes of kudu, impala, ostrich or crocodile. Well, I can assure you that the average South African has never eaten the flesh of any of those creatures. Not even ostrich (although ostrich biltong is quite common) despite it enjoying a brief moment of fame a few years ago as the next healthy alternative to red meat. So, those ‘typical’ South African menus are not typical at all!

Apparently, you get a similar thing in Australia where restaurants aimed at tourists include kangaroo and duck-billed platypus. Ok, maybe not platypus (an endangered species, isn’t it?), but their typical Ozzie restaurants are also anything but typical.

All that to say, with its own South African shop, Nottingham MUST be on the cutting edge of things!

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