I ruined a dress researching this post. Which is to say, if I had been in Britain I would never have been fiddling about prising the (non-replaceable) top off a cardboard can of (supposedly) frozen but (actually) liquid grape juice concentrate, which I proceeded to spill all down a long flowery dress, across the worktop/counter and down the drawers onto the kitchen floor. Pale blue splashes remain on the dress despite furious scrubbing, and the floor is still a little bit sticky where I am putting off getting down on my knees again at 31 weeks pregnant.
Why am I bothering you with this less than riveting domestic catastrophe? Because it all goes to show that America is immeasurably worse off without proper cordial to buy and drink.
You can get cordial here – at a price. Currently a 1 litre bottle of Ribena can be acquired for $17.50, including shipping, from British Food Depot, which says it has the cheapest available online. Poppy’s Pantry, which is so coy about its shipping rates that I can’t be bothered to try and find them out, exclaims that ‘this delightful English drink can’t be found to buy in USA stores which makes Ribena a rare, luxury drink to have in your fridge and share with your friends.’
But why so rare? I thought for a while that I was just missing something. Ribena itself might not be available. And that made me sad, because Ribena has a very special place in my heart: I grew up drinking it; my grandparents always had a bottle available, too; when I left home and went to university, I regularly bought a bottle with the gold foil you had to peel off round the lid, and the glass with little berries dimpled in. (I know, I know, the bottles don’t come like that any more.) If you’re ill, you can drink it hot from a mug, with a squeeze of lemon and a cinnamon stick dunked in. If it’s the height of summer, you should add ice at the end, not before you dilute it with water, otherwise the cordial clings to the ice cubes. For a special treat, you can have fizzy Ribena, or strawberry Ribena. The colour of Ribena – that dark purplish pink-red – is just about my favourite colour. Yes, it has a lot of sugar, but you can just make it weaker if you worry about that kind of thing. I even have a fondness for the advertising: Ribena berries bouncing around the countryside and pouring themselves lemming-style into bottles.
Obviously, there are alternative cordials: how could one grow up in Britain and not associate nasty orange squash with school or church hall events of every kind? Or Robinsons with Wimbledon? Or Vimto and dandelion and burdock with proper Lancashire people, which my family never really were. And rose hip syrup, which apparently I went crazy for before I could talk.
So, OK, I thought: no Ribena here in America, but there must be some kind of native cordial. Something even (whisper it) better – like those posh Belvoir bottles with the handwritten-style labels you can get in Waitrose, or the metal canisters of grenadine or bright green peppermint syrup that I used to insist on buying on every trip to France.
But I am here to tell you that there really, really is not. J (who understands, and has turned into something of an international Ribena courier to her expat friends and relations) had suggested to me that a can of frozen fruit juice concentrate might work as a stand-in. But the grape juice I tried was not very nice – instead of that pleasing viscosity that creates little patterns in one’s glass of Ribena there were purple dregs at the bottom of the glass. And then the grape-juice-everywhere disaster made it seem, shall we say, less than convenient to use on a daily basis.
Of course, you can buy diluted bottles of made-up drinks (not Ribena, of course). If you have a car and an enormous house and like paying to buy huge plastic bottles that are mainly full of water, and which you then throw away. You can probably guess from my scornful tone that I have not researched this option extensively.
No. Instead, I have procured a nice bottle of lingonberry cordial from Schaumburg IKEA, pictured above, but its level is decreasing daily, and it’s going to be a long wait for our next British visitor with a bottle of Ribena stashed in their luggage.