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Expats find provisions plum-pudding perfect

Canisters of Walker Shortbread Rounds and Scottish oatmeal are available at The British Aisles in Nashua. Canisters of Walker Shortbread Rounds and Scottish oatmeal are available at The British Aisles in Nashua. (Photos By David Lyon/For The Boston Globe)
By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / November 22, 2009

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NASHUA - When Denise and Gerry Pressinger launched The British Aisles 20 years ago, their dining room table was the warehouse and their living room was filled with fellow British expatriates every Saturday afternoon. “They’d come over to stock up on things they missed from home,’’ Denise recalls. “Silly things, really, like HP Sauce and Heinz beans, all the biscuits, and the pickled onions like they sell in every fish and chips shop in London.’’

What began almost as a hobby has grown into a full-fledged business. Today British Aisles occupies a 13,000-square-foot warehouse at the edge of Nashua and ships jams and pickles, cookies and teas, sauces and condiments to gourmet shops around the country. But the Pressingers have not forgotten the friends and neighbors who are simply hungry for a taste of home. They welcome walk-in customers who are free to grab a wicker basket and wander the warehouse aisles.

One temperature-controlled room is devoted to the category of foods that Hertfordshire-born Gerry says British food makers do best. “They have a real sweet tooth in Britain. That’s why there are so many biscuits - what we call cookies over here - and candy.’’ After a day of packing and lifting boxes, he indulges in a candy bar, often a Cadbury flake.

Just as Americans abroad long for ketchup to douse their fried potatoes, Brits are especially fond of their own taste enhancers.

“British food was historically bland,’’ says Gerry. “So we carry a lot of ancillary items like relishes and sauces to make the food taste nicer.’’ He notes that Indian is the ethnic cuisine of choice for a real burst of spice. British Aisles stocks the shelves accordingly with an exclusive line of Indian cooking sauces and chutneys. One of Denise’s favorites is mango chutney on shepherd’s pie.

Cruising along the broad aisles of the warehouse feels a little like perusing the pantry shelves at Hogwarts School. Which goes better with steak and kidney pie: Fuggle Mustard (with ale) or Arcy Varcy (mustard with ale and horseradish)? Can you make a proper British custard without a canister of Bird’s Custard Powder? Just how bracing is a scone topped with Grapefruit Marmalade with Plymouth Gin?

British Aisles is especially busy this time of year. “At the holidays,’’ says Denise, “expats start pining for their favorite foods.’’ Americans might find it hard to believe that anyone could crave the decidedly acquired taste of Patum Peperium Gentleman’s Relish, a spicy anchovy paste that is purportedly “delicious on hot toast.’’ But colorful tins of cookies and cardboard “stockings’’ covered with candy bars are almost irresistible. The Pressingers are also prepared for a run on plum pudding. “We’ve shipped plum pudding to Alaska, Guam, and even the Marshall Islands,’’ says Gerry. One homesick soul even paid to have a Christmas pudding sent overnight to Hawaii.

Local customers needn’t go to such lengths. The first time we visited British Aisles, we met Nancy Paulsen, who left Lincoln, England in 1958 and settled in Nashua. She was shopping for holiday treats for her grown children. “I love this place,’’ she said as she filled her basket with biscuits and candies. She selected a package of McVitie’s digestive biscuits for herself. “I like to put some real butter on them,’’ she said.

Sounds good, but we rather prefer the “nobbly oaty biscuits’’ called HobNobs.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.

If You Go

The British Aisles
25A Progress Avenue, Nashua

603-881-9511

www.britishaisles.com

Monday-Friday 10 a.m.- 5 p.m., and Saturday 10-2 in November and December.