Remaining cordial: or, things I miss about Britain no. 6

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.







About scepticalexpat

British 30something wannabe academic, moving to Chicago for three years in August 2010.
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16 Responses to Remaining cordial: or, things I miss about Britain no. 6

  1. Chris Brooke says:

    The Bonnie Doon winery just to the south of San Francisco used to do a bottle that tastes exactly like alcoholic Ribena. Can’t remember what it was called, I’m afraid (and they’ll be baffled if you phone up and ask for the one that tastes like Ribena, as they’re American, and don’t know what it tastes like). But I went for a tasting there a few years ago, and pissed myself laughing after the first sip.

    • Brilliant! We will have to try and go there if we make it to California next summer.

      • Adam S says:

        I’m guessing it would be one of their grenache or grenache blends (grenache quite often tastes like Ribena). Likely Le Cigare Volant but also possibly Clos de Gilroy.

        Glad to hear you are actively considering a California trip!

      • Well… we are definitely going to Portland, and then it’s just a question of what exactly we do around that. But more California would be good!

  2. awindram says:

    Blackcurrant just isn’t very well known in the US so it’ll be hard to find a local equivalent of ribena.. The growing of it was banned in the early C20th because …checks Wikipedia… they were considered a threat to the logging industry. Apparently, they are a vector for white pine blister rust. It’s only in the last decade or so that states have started lifting the ban. I’m thinking it could be the new, fashionable fruit to take the US by storm a la acai.

    Personally, I’d love it if elderflower cordial was more common here.

  3. one of the J's says:

    Alas – sounds like I need to make a Ribena-laden trip soon! At least you didn’t make the fatal error of trying to ask for ‘squash’ in the supermarket, and going on to explain (as the helpful guy led me towards the vegetables…) ‘you know, you pour a little bit in the bottom of a glass, and then dilute it with water’. He clearly thought British food was even worse than he’d ever suspected…

    • Yeah – I wanted to link to a Yahoo Answer that said, in response to ‘where can you buy cordial in America’, ‘OMG that sounds really gross. What is wrong with those people.’ But I couldn’t find it second time round…

  4. David says:

    You might want to try the local Indian Pakistani store, they will often have a small british section, I was in one today and they had the ribena, lucozade salad cream etc. I even found my local supermarket here in SoCalif has a very small british section with belvoir elderflower cordial and oxo cubes. Also Fresh and Easy (Tesco’s US subsidiary is local) they carry apple and blackcurrant. Not sure when they might be opening stores in mid west.

    • Thanks, good tip – there is an area with Indian restaurants and shops not far from here, which I may make it along to one day! I have a friend of a friend who works for Fresh and Easy and I think the midwest is a while off, but I might be misremembering what she said.

  5. Ryan says:

    I saw a bottle of Ribena in my local Publix grocery store earlier tonight and iirc it was ~$6.50. I’d guess there are at least as many British expats in Chicago as in Orlando, maybe you can get your local grocery store to start stocking it at a more reasonable price than those websites you listed?

    • Just saw this – hmm, it hadn’t really occurred to me to ask a store to start stocking it. I have managed to secure two bottles from holiday travellers, but maybe that’s the way to go next time I run low.

  6. awindram says:

    A “Fresh and Easy” (Tesco’s attempt at breaking the US) has opened near me, they stock Ribena. Don’t know if they’re just a West Coast thing at the moment.

  7. Loothi says:

    Ah! Glad to see someone else has discovered this strange absence of cordial. I have to make do with tiny bottles of Roses Lime cordial in the drink mixing aisle at my local grocery. Ah Ribena. Ah HOT Ribena.

  8. Emma says:

    Fairway Market (NYC) stocks it. If you have NYC/JN friend, make a request….

  9. Emma says:

    NJ. Sorry about that!

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