I was tipped off to meet a white Hyundai at a French motorway toll rest area at 2.30 p.m. (I would be driving a red Seat, I’d said.) My prearranged deal was for €230 worth of gear. I swung into the car park 20 minutes early and waited nervously. Ten minutes later the Hyundai appeared and parked in a nearby bay. A young blonde woman in Sweaty Betty leggings got out and opened the boot. I got out of my car, sidled over and gave my surname. She found my name on her list and ticked it off. Then she rummaged about among a heap of labelled packages until she found the right one and we did the deal: my €230 in exchange for a hefty carrier bag of sausages and smoked back bacon, all hand-made and cured by her and her partner in Antibes. The weight of meat in the carrier bag was too much for it and the handle snapped.
She was running a sort of county lines operation for sizzler- and bacon butty-addicted UK expats. She and her partner also dealt in Scotch eggs and sausage rolls. I was the runner for a syndicate in the Upper Var. As I completed my transaction, two more UK expats showed up at the rendezvous. They looked like shipwrecked sailors in their flapping, sun-bleached rags, which is the winter uniform of elderly British expats living in the south of France. One of these had journeyed up from Toulon; the other was evasive about his point of origin, but judging by his bashed-up vehicle he’d crossed the Alps via frozen lake and unsurveyed mountain track. Both wore surgical masks.
We gathered at the rear of the Hyundai like bees around a honeypot. The other two customers were cheerful, mauve-faced old geezers from the English upper classes. They probably lived a life of comfort and ease in stone villas with swimming pools and gardeners and 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles. But apart from Jesus there were two things missing from their lives — the British banger and back bacon.
All else can be obtained locally. Many supermarkets in south-east France stock a shelf or two dedicated to the hallowed traditional British products. Our local Spar, for instance, sells Gordon’s gin, Schweppes Indian tonic water, Branston pickle, piccalilli, HP sauce, tomato ketchup, Colman’s English mustard, Worcestershire sauce, Mcvitie’s digestive biscuits, Marmite, Bird’s instant custard, Carr’s water biscuits, Frank Cooper’s thick cut marmalade, Rose’s Lime marmalade, Sarson’s malt vinegar, PG Tips and, glory of glories, Heinz baked beans. I put it to you: what more could one want? After a week or so of healthful, long-winded Provençal cuisine one is crying out for beans on toast heavily doused in Worcestershire sauce.
The other day I saw an elderly French lady pick up a jar of Piccalilli from the supermarket shelf and eye it with fascinated horror. I had just been released from a private French language lesson in which we had been practising vowel sounds. The facial contortions needed to make these comprehensible to French people has been a revelation. No wonder even my bonjours are sometimes received with bafflement: I’ve been saying the word without moving my lips. My French teacher said I mustn’t be afraid to declaim my vowels in a ‘theatrical’ manner. She demonstrated how I must gape like a surprised goldfish for the ‘O’; pucker up for a kiss for the ‘U’; display my rotten teeth for an ‘A’; make a horizontal mouth like Kermit the frog for the ‘E’; and pass a difficult stool for the ‘I’.
Here was my chance. Pouting and gurning like a woman applying lipstick in a mirror, I said proudly to this woman ‘Peek-a-lee-lee,’ and gave a little spasm of piquant ecstasy. ‘’Obb nobb,’ I added, now on a roll and pointing to the more-ish biscuits.
I was paid for the run in breakfast sausages and smoked back bacon. The fridge and freezer is packed out with them. Catriona is a great cook and loves to knock up Provençal dishes: soupe au pistou, chèvre chaud, ratatouille, daube de sanglier. Our friend Michael, who is a member of our pandemic ‘bubble’, is also a first-class cook and he serves up bouillabaisse, brandade de morue, cassoulet and, like a true French peasant, he eats every bit of a chicken including the feet and coxcomb. But now that we’ve got our hands on some, we all heartily agree that a crusty roll with smoked back bacon and melting butter and Sarson’s malt vinegar takes a lot of beating. Liver, bacon and onions likewise. Not to mention bacon, egg, tomato and fried bread. As far as happiness goes, you can stick a fork in me — I’m done.