PITTSFIELD -- The imported-foods emporium Brits ‘R’ US on North Street recently celebrated its first anniversary with a festive red, white and blue cake. While fans of British foods loyally beat a path to its door (and website) to savor everyday foodstuffs unfamiliar to American palates, a personal trip down culinary memory lane may assist the unenlightened.
Pass life-size cutouts of Prince William and Kate, Harry Potter, Doctor Who and his Dalek nemesis to enter this haven of British pride. Expatriate owner Alan Greaves from Sheffield, England, and his American wife, Gloria, are only too happy to help explain the merchandise.
"I got fed up with having to drive to Boston or New York or even up to Canada to get this stuff," Greaves said during a tour of the well-stocked store. "I figured there had to be other people around here like me."
He also carries Irish, Aus tralian and South African specialties along with Indian products. These days, curry is the most popular food in the United Kingdom, he explained.
Shelves of cookies waiting for a nice cup of tea include McVitie’s Jaffa Cakes ($5.95), the soft spongy base topped with an orange jelly patty draped in dark (but not bitter) chocolate. Crawford’s Garibaldi Biscuits ($2.95) are not-too-sweet, crisp break-apart flat rectangles studded with chewy currants, once sold in America as "Sunshine Raisin Biscuits," Greaves said.
In the Jammie Dodgers ($3.45), jam peeks through a heart-shaped opening in the shortbread-style sandwich, while Fox’s Crunch Creams ($3.99) are just that -- crunchy and creamy cookie sandwiches with a touch of ginger.
On the savory side, Shar wood’s Prawn Crackers ($4.45) are melt-in-your-mouth puffy chips with a hint of shrimp flavor in its crunch, typically accompanying Chinese takeout food in the U.K.
A traditional English Pork Pie ($5.55) from Buffalo, N.Y. (U.K. meat products can’t be imported) offers a dense, flaky crust and gelatin-wrapped, seasoned pink filling, best enjoyed at room temperature.
Heinz Beans ($1.89) are perfect on toast, the vegetarian British recipe appearing lighter in salt and sugar than most in the states.
The sweet, fruity blend of crunchy veggies and tangy sauce made Branston Original Pickle ($3.95) my father’s favorite companion to aged cheddar cheese. By contrast, Shippam’s Salmon Spread ($2.99) graced dainty tea sandwiches, the fishy paste paired with thin cucumber slices and crust-free bread.
Heinz Spotted Dick Pudding ($4.95) is a heavy, moist sponge pudding filled with raisins and innuendo, best served warm (follow the heating instructions carefully) doused in smooth Ambrosia Devon Custard ($3.49).
In Britain, ubiquitous "sweetie shops" overflow with jarred candy sold by the ounce and with prepackaged treats. Fry’s Turkish Delight is a fragrant rose-flavored jelly patty wrapped in chocolate, inspired by Arabian Lokum and evoking images of belly dancers offering the sweet on satin pillows.
According to Greaves, the imported Cadbury Fruit & Nut Chocolate Bar ($2.95) -- famed for its slogan, "Everyone’s a Fruit and Nut Case" -- tastes vastly better than the Hershey-made brand sold in the U.S. You’ll have to buy them both to decide for yourself.
The traditional "99" dessert consists of a crumbly Cadbury Flake chocolate stick stuck in a scoop of vanilla ice cream, topped with raspberry sauce for an extra treat. Greaves fondly recalled the "ice cream wars" when rival vans tried to outdo each other in "99" indulgence.
With a deceptively simple old country recipe of sugar, condensed milk and butter, Lee’s Scottish Tablet is a delicious grainy textured bar that dissolves in the mouth.
My personal favorite remains a beloved bottle of fizzy orange-hued soda, Barr’s IRN-BRU ($2.50). Invented in 1901 in my Glasgow hometown and considered "Scotland’s other national drink," it’s not actually "made frae girders" -- iron construction beams -- though it does contain a trace of real iron, which led to the saying, and still packs a sweet punch of nostalgia.