Story: My father’s favourite question at tea: “Would you like a forklift truck for that?

Yes. I would like a fork lift truck for butter, and a separate one for jam. And a ridiculously small piece of toast, so that the gigantic blob of butter looks even more enormous, and the huge slosh of jam seems truly mountainous. I would like a helpful, taciturn man standing just outside the door while I eat my breakfast, who will start up his fork lift truck at a moment’s notice, pick up a lovely clod of butter from the waiting vat, and delicately lift it over my piece of toast. It softly slips from the truck’s fork, because it’s been just slightly melted. Otherwise it might stick, and I’d have to help it along with my knife. I hold the toast, my arm weighed down by all that butter, and the man nods, climbs into the second truck and gently dips the fork into a skip full of homemade strawberry jam. (Or honey. He understands which one I want, without having to ask.) It’s trickier now: he has to lift the quivering mass of jam without dropping any on the floor, and then he lowers the fork with wonderful care and slips the sweet, bright mess on top of the butter. I open my mouth wide… and… take… a bite!

Germans understand this very well. It’s definitely a cultural thing. My great grandmother famously used a removal van arrangement: they unpacked barrels of jam for her each morning, and helped her tip them out onto her plate. Our English grandfather mocked her, thinking with relief of those years spent undercover in Austria and Germany: the only times when he came close to slipping up and revealing his Englishness were those interminable breakfasts, when they drank honey from enormous kegs suspended from the ceiling. (In the years of the Wirtschaftswunder, the most exclusive hotels dispensed with toast altogether.)

I was once in Cologne, at the kind of small, grown-up party where everyone stands and eats “nibbles.” That is, in England they would have been nibbles. In Germany, they are gigantic structures, each one around the size of a shed, consisting of whole salamis and round wheels of edam on a bed of cream cheese, all topped with a harvest of tomatoes. Underneath, invisible to the naked eye, is a crumb of delicious dark ryebread, to finish it all off.

I picked one up gingerly in two hands, planting my feet wide apart to keep my balance, and levered it towards my mouth. A polite lady said approvingly, “Das nennt man gut belegt!” Which means: “That’s what we call a shedload of a sandwich!”

I decided that it was time I made a little joke. My German was not yet at Grandpa Brown’s spy standard; in fact it was quite wobbly. But I sallied forth: “My father always asks, would you like a – a – what to you call those big vehicles that transport large amounts of … stuff?”

“A truck?”

“Yes, that’s it, he always asks, would you like a truck for that?”

The lady and her companions laughed politely, a bit puzzled. Outside, a row of lorries pulled up, bringing more provisions.

Only once, I beat those jammy Germans at their own game. It took a great deal of planning. I invited a select few for an English tea party. They were lured by promises of exotically dainty refreshments, as well as Pimms, which they were oddly taken with. First, tea was brought, and they tried diligently to protrude their little fingers while drinking it. Sandwiches arrived: small, triangular, on flimsy bread, and containing nothing but paper thin cucumber and a hint of butter. (As everyone knows, the bread must be cut thinly enough to make it translucent, and you ought to be able to read a newspaper through the slices of cucumber.) They were enchanted by all this fatless fare, and behaved as if they had an audience with the Queen herself. Then I took my chance: I showed them how to eat a scone with clotted cream and jam. I’ll always remember the incredulous look on their faces as they sank helplessly into a mound of sweet opulence. “Das nennt man gut belegt,” I said.

I kept the fork lift guy on late, paying him overtime, so he could use the truck to dig them out of the cream at the end of the tea party.

First published in the Catweazle Magazine

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