For decades, Britons abroad in Belgium always knew where to find their home treats: the Stonemanor store. It was stacked with creature comfort foods from mushy peas to Stilton cheese and from Yorkshire pudding to Mr Kipling cakes. But earlier this year, vital supply lines stopped, leaving Brits in Belgium facing a crisis.
Boris Johnson was just a young Etonian when Roger George started waving the British flag in Brussels.
But far from opposing European Union membership, Roger was waving that flag for British food. He felt his home country’s cuisines was drastically under-represented in Belgian shops, considering it had been in the then European Economic Community (EEC) for nearly a decade at the time.
Roger spotted a gap in the supermarket and he filled it. He launched what became ‘Stonemanor - the British store’ from his garage. His USP? British produce, yes, but especially those quirky, nibbly things that can’t be found in Belgian supermarkets.
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 when he started in May 1982, Roger’s mission 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 UK 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, Fray Bentos meat pies, Yorkshire pudding, thick-cut marmalade and clotted cream and scones.
We Brits tried to fit in here, really, we did. We adopted crevette grise, 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.
Nutritional clues to the British psyche
There are two large Stonemanor stores now, selling all sorts of British goods, including, indeed, liquorice allsorts. One shop is in a former 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 those links with legendary European confrontations, combined with 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, Brexiteering heart.
However, Stonemanor has long since ceased to be a supply shop of interest only to misty-eyed Brits looking for comfort food from the old country.
That certainly was how it started. It’s now a regular haunt for large numbers of Belgians and other nationalities looking for nutritional clues to the British psyche while experimenting for themselves with Rolo chocolates, lemon curd, Cornish pasties and custard creams.
The last time I was there to stock up on frozen kippers and bottles of Rochester Dickensian-Recipe Ginger (“with the kick of two very angry mules”), was early this year. It was just as shelves were emptying amid bureaucratic chaos as Brexit destabilised cross-channel mushy pea supply lines.
One of the BBC’s Brussels correspondents, Gavin Lee, broke the news to British 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 (baked) beans, no meat, no dairy because they have not had a single delivery since Christmas…”
For four days, Stonemanor was forced to close for the first time in nearly 40 years. It only reopened after turning to Ireland for food supplies to bypass UK customs paperwork triggered by Brexit.
Initially, a supply of Irish sausages helped keep the British flag flying over Stonemanor. One thousand Cadbury’s Creme eggs were ordered through Ireland too, amid predictions that things would soon get back to normal.
Irish is new normal
Now, just back in Brussels after months on a small European island where Brexit is just a funny, far-off word signifying little or nothing, I find we are far from back to normal.
Day One of return: we go for a full English breakfast to a Brussels brasserie. Afterwards, I congratulate the host on some exceptionally tasty sausages. He grins and says: “Ah, maybe that’s because now we’re only getting them from Ireland…”
Day Two of return: a visit to a small shop in the EU quarter which sells a small variety of quirky national foodstuffs from the UK and elsewhere. It’s where I buy my frozen English kippers. This time I couldn’t find them. When I asked where they were, the chap behind the counter said with a wry grin: “Have you heard of Brexit?” Then he cheered me up with his new supply of Irish kippers, and very good they are too.
Day Four of return: a big Belgian supermarket turns up a couple of new anti-Brexit newcomers. One is “Fruitfield (since 1853) Old Time Irish Fine Cut marmalade” instead of “Frank Cooper’s Fine Cut Oxford marmalade (since 1874)”. The other is my favourite: the Irish version of my good old English can of Batchelors mushy peas.
I couldn’t resist digging out an old tin of the English version for comparison. The mostly-blue label on the English can declares the peas to be “one of your five-a-day” and carries a heart-shaped Union Jack proudly declaring “British Grown and Packed”. The English label also boasts: “Nothing beats the flavour of British peas”.
The replacement Irish version, also made by Batchelors, states on the appropriately all-green label that the peas inside are “an Irish favourite” and also “the ultimate fish and chip companion”. Disappointingly, there’s nothing on the Irish label saying: “Nothing beats the flavour of Irish peas”.
Both tins declare the contents to contain three servings, although the English version contains 330 grams compared with 420 grams in the Irish can – presumably reflecting statistical evidence about portion size differences.
I will end by saying that none of the above amounts to a complaint: far from it. Indeed, I look forward to more foody conversions to Ireland’s finest. However, for the moment I notice that my tea bags remain stubbornly Yorkshire and my pasties Cornish.