Chris Rundle: where beef is from
Beef is worth shouting about
The beef we were offered on the ferry coming back from France last week was from South America. I know this because it was clearly marked up as such on the menu board.
It was edible, but not particularly outstanding. Certainly nowhere near the quality of that subsequently provided by my butcher for lunch on Sunday.
And, to be honest, I should imagine the majority of passengers who queued up to eat it – and British account for the overwhelming preponderance of users of this particular line – must have been rather bemused by the announcement. If they represented a typical cross-section of British consumers they wouldn't have cared particularly where the beef originated from as long as it was reasonably tasty and tender.
But you have to know and understand that this was a French ferry line and the information tag about the beef was merely the lingering fall-out from BSE.
BSE may have been put behind us – though the emergence of a case of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease last week reminds us that its sinister associations have not yet disappeared entirely – but on the continent they continue to remind themselves of some of the darkest days of the British livestock sector.
The origin of nearly every piece of beef is stipulated on menu boards from Calais to Cannes, from Rennes to Reims. No matter what gets served up on the plate, whether it's the stringy beef the French themselves produce or something that seems to have been cut from a gaucho's saddle bag, it won't be British.
It is all a massive delusion, of course, since the French market readily gobbles up every stone, pound and ounce of British cow beef it can lay its hands on for the processing sector, the products of which can be conveniently, legally and satisfactorily described as containing 'Beef from the EU'. Beef exports to France comfortably top £60 million a year but the stigma surrounding anything resembling a prime cut of British beef remains ineradicable. We are now 14 years on from the point where France originally refused to comply with an EU order lifting the export ban on British beef but the taint remains, carefully nurtured in an attempt to create preferential market conditions for French producers.
There are some across the water, however, who regard this as utter folly and who appreciate the fact that British beef is indisputably the best in the world. There was, for instance, the pair of French noblemen who, a few years back, were prepared to go to any lengths to obtain the best and defied the export ban by driving home with prime cuts of bone-in Somerset beef in the boot.
There are enlightened chefs such as Yves-Marie Le Bourdonnec, who runs Le Beef Club steakhouse in Paris and where the 60-day hung British beef could be eaten with a straw.
But the majority of eating-house proprietors know that to put British beef on the menu – and describe it as such – would evoke as much enthusiasm as if they were to serve boned and stuffed rat.
Does it really matter? Probably not. Beef exports to France are climbing steadily and the growth of le fast food and the emergence of a generation less pernickety about matters gastronomic, will probably see British beef rehabilitated in the eyes of the French public within a few years.
What would be refreshing, though, would be to see a more stoutly chauvinistic attitude in the hotel and restaurant sector here, where many establishments still eschew British beef – because they regard it as too expensive.
It's a fairly safe bet, for instance, that anywhere offering you two 'steak meals' for £10 will not have sourced the principal item on the plate from just down the road.
Nothing is more reassuring than a board outside a pub or a note on a menu announcing where the meat on offer has been sourced. But such are the murky dealings which still bedevil the catering sector that the number of establishments which could provide such information remains pitifully small.
That situation could be changed. EBLEX could do worse than to organise a well thought-out 'Eat British Beef' campaign on its own doorstep. It would be a project some of our better-know chefs – always looking to make a bob or two more on the side – could get behind.
And it would certainly be a far more valuable exercise than the current one which has seen British chefs including Taunton-born Dominic Chapman travelling to India like gastronomic missionaries to arrogantly and pointlessly try to promote the dubious delights of British balti cuisine.
Naked truth of protest risk
I am writing this in the middle of a war zone. And you will have to forgive me if communications become difficult in the weeks ahead, though I have trained a flock of carrier pigeons to get my dispatches out if we find ourselves surrounded.
We are currently bracing ourselves for all manner of shenanigans as the badger culling gets underway in the locality – and as someone who recently had a number of chickens converted into Mr and Mrs Brock's supper you can expect to hear me cheer each time I hear a rifle discharged.
Only time will tell whether the promised mass invasion by anti-cull protesters intent on sabotaging the cull will actually materialise and, if it does, whether Plod is sufficiently tooled up to cope with it.
However a confrontation with Avon and Somerset's finest would well be the least of the badger-huggers' concerns. What they really, really don't want to do is to come face to face with outraged West Somerset farmers.
They, you see, have shown themselves to be fearsome and fearless combatants when anyone tries to interfere with the normal course of events in the area – and for them shooting diseased badgers is an activity which falls well within the parameters of normality.
The merest whisper of the word 'saboteur' is enough to light the inextinguishable fuse which leads to an explosion of anger and usually violence. John Hicks, who bravely monitored local stag hunts on behalf of the League Against Cruel Sports regularly turned up at my house bearing all the marks of his latest bruising encounter and his successor Kevin Hill's career as a human punchbag only came to an end when two of his assailants were dealt with firmly by the courts.
Then there was the famous Edward Hemingway – cousin of Ernest – who was one of the first League officials to take up residence locally and who found himself thrown over the sea wall in Minehead after turning up to a hunt ball.
It wasn't his only unfortunate association with the sea: on another occasion he and his wife, both naturists, had their clothes nicked while bathing from a secluded beach just down the coast leaving them, like Adam and Eve, to cover their nakedness with leaves.
I'm not sure whether the members of the pro-badger lobby understand what they could be letting itself in for. But then I don't really expect people who perversely want to 'protect' badgers so they can die slowly and painfully from TB to understand anything, really.