For my first visit to Spain my wife and I were lucky enough to be invited over by a friend who had moved over to Alicante in the previous year. He kindly offered to shows us a few locations up and down the Costa Blanca. One thing stuck in my mind from that visit. One day we popped into an English grocers shop and my friend happened to spot a box of cornflakes. These weren't ordinary cornflakes but the fruity ones with added strawberries. What happened next left quite an impression. My friend retired to the car, opened the box of cornflakes and started cupping handfuls of the dry cereal into his mouth with tears of joy coming down his face. He explained these were his favourite brand and that he had not had them for a year or so since he was last in the UK!
Now that I'm a Spanish resident myself I completely understand how he felt. While I never get homesick for England, every now and again, a flavour or a smell can trigger an unusual response in the brain. Like Proust's Madeleines dipped in tea, they can open a neural pathway with surprising efficacy, transporting one back to a different place and time. Sometimes though it happens the other way. One imagines the place and the time which in turn reminds one of the taste or smell which stimulates the craving. I've lost count of the number of times this has happened to me. Typically I'll think of an event like a Christmas celebration, which will remind my of a beverage like ginger wine. Once the flavour and smell of the ginger wine gets in my head I'll be unable to shake it off. I'll trawl around the supermarkets here to see if there is anything similar. Then when inevitably I find that there isn't I'll go online to shop for some, only to be defeated by exorbitant delivery charges. Then I'll hit up YouTube and start typing "how to make ginger wine"...
The first big bump in the road after first moving to Spain was that I found myself living in a remote village that was far, far away from a decent curry house. Not only that but I was really surprised by the paucity of spices used in Spanish cuisine. They just don't do hot and spicy food over here. So a process began of teaching myself how to cook Indian food and sourcing ingredients. I'd brought some dried chillies and coriander seeds with me and surprised myself by successfully planting and growing these. I discovered cardamoms were available through a local health-food shop. Also, I came across a Moroccan bric-à-brac shop which had a small shelf of spices from which I was able to source a few things. Bit by bit I was able to get everything together, and using the invaluable book, 'The Curry Secret' by Kris Dhillon, I was able to recreate the good old-fashioned British Indian restaurant experience in my own home. I shed a tear myself when I cooked my first perfect Chicken Tikka Massala!
This was over fifteen years ago and things have moved on. My local supermarket carries fresh coriander and ginger these days. However there are still many items that obsess my senses from time to time. Fresh cream seems to be unknown here. They only do the UHT stuff or horrible squirty cream. Clotted cream is pure fantasy. I often dream of kippers, smoked mackerel fillets, custard powder, Colman's mustard, instant desserts like Angel Delight, pickled onions, Vesta Chow Mein with crispy noodles, the list is endless! Most of this is crap, processed food, but such is the way my brain is wired, these happen to be the ones that take me back to the past most effectively.
When I moved to Andalusia a decade ago I found the situation little different. There are places near the coast where British and Asian groceries can be sourced. As I don't have a car, and the bus ride would be a round trip of about 25 euros, I rarely bother to make the journey.
Fortunately online purchasing has gradually made the availability of many items possible, though some online retailers either won't ship to Spain or charge a lot for postage. Even Amazon didn't have an online store in Spain until as late as 2011 but now it is possible to order some items through them at a lower cost of delivery than getting them sent from the UK.
A better solution over the years has been to inconvenience friends of mine to bring stuff over when they come to stay. Fortunately I've known many folk with holiday homes here who have volunteered their services as my spice mules, squeezing all sorts of things from poppadoms to tamarind paste into their luggage. My most trusty trafficker, Lynda has brought hundreds of items over for me in the past, but alas she is retiring this year, having made the sensible decision to base herself over here permanently. Respect and many thanks for your years of loyal service!
Really she couldn't have picked a better time to hang up the shopping bag, since this year I've discovered a couple of online Asian grocers specialising in the Spanish market, carrying a much wider range of items than I've ever seen before, and with reasonable delivery charges. For the first time in almost two decades I can order everything from rasmalai to frozen samosas with more spices available than you could shake a cinnamon stick at!
In case these websites are of interest to my fellow ex-pat sensation-seekers, here are the addresses: