A cultural croissant crisis

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For the last week or so I have been in southern Africa for work. Yes, my job is awesome but trust me this is no jolly trip to another continent. I am working, working and then working some more, evenings and weekends are not exempt. Add to this some very temperamental internet connections and there’s my excuse for not having posted for a couple of weeks (for those of you who noticed my absence and thought my standards slipping).

I was in Swaziland for the first four days and have been in Johannesburg, South Africa since then and I’m out here for just over two weeks in total. In case you think I am exaggerating about the amount of work, it is true, I did fib a bit because I did have Sunday afternoon off and a colleague took me to the zoo and then to the cinema where we saw Women in Gold.

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I picked the film on the basis that Meryl Streep was in it but other than that knew absolutely nothing about the film. Incidentally, it’s a very strange experience to sit down at the cinema with no idea what you are about to see. Anyway, it was about a famous Klimt painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer, also known as the woman in gold but I’m giving the full title too for reasons that are obvious if you watch the film, and the restitution of art stolen by Nazis from Jewish families during the Second World War. Meryl didn’t let me down, it’s a very good film and I’m happy to recommend it to all of you.

Anyway, back to the point I’m trying to make, which is, obviously, about croissants. I am currently staying in a very nice hotel in Johannesburg and, as in all hotels, you can tell if it’s a decent choice because of the breakfast. Whenever I stay anywhere with breakfast included, particularly where there’s a buffet, I try to eat as much as possible to, one, get my money’s worth and, two, potentially avoid the need for lunch enabling extra dosh for dinner time.

The buffet at the Capital Moloko is excellent and I have been approaching it in the strategic way that I approach all buffets. For starters I’ll go for a bowl of muesli, yoghurt and fresh fruit salad with pumpkin seeds scattered on top. Round two and I’m digging into the cooked breakfast items, particularly relishing the bacon which Switzerland deprives me of. Finally, I will conclude with some toast and jam, perhaps a Danish or both. Yes, I do have a three course breakfast and yes, I am aware that I am probably eating my entire daily recommended allowance of calories in one go but I’ve already explained my reasoning.

Yesterday, on my final round of breakfast I selected a lovely fresh looking croissant. I then spied a collection of breakfast accompaniments in little white dishes. One of these was obviously peanut butter, the other was something dark and red I didn’t recognize and the third was a dark brown syrupy liquid that my immersion in Swiss culture taught me must be chocolate.

I had a lightbulb moment and thought I could upgrade my normal croissant to a chocolate supreme version by thickly drizzling, but artistically you understand, the sticky brown liquid all over my croissant. I felt so smug that I’d combined the two in this genius manner and even caught a couple of my fellow diners giving me what I could only assume to be envious glances. I took my croissant creation back to my desk, sat down to bite into this sweet breakfast delight only to discover that the ‘chocolate’ was in fact marmite.

Now don’t get me wrong I like marmite but I also like it thinly spread over buttery toast not dripping in thick clumps off a croissant. Perhaps with full appreciation of what I was eating a croissant and marmite could be a nice savoury option on this French breakfast treat but I cannot begin to explain the shock as I chomped into the pastry expecting a sugary sensation only to be hit by the bitter saltiness of marmite. I understood my fellow diners glances had not been envy so much as incredulity.

I never would have imagined that marmite might actually be popular in some places outside of the UK, so much so that it is easily offered without labeling as though all diners will automatically know exactly what it is. Should I be ashamed that as a British person I didn’t automatically recognise marmite? Has my time in Geneva turned me into a real European?