An Irishman's Diary


TEN years have passed since Euro-Toques, the association of the chefs of Europe, began its campaign against contamination of the foods of Europe by bad law, fast foods and chemical adulteration.

I was at the first Euro-Toque meeting in Brussels and was present the other day in Stockholm at which the presidency passed from Myrtle Allen, the incomparable, the sublime, to Lars Pluto Johannson.

Assaults by fast foods, bad additives and bad law have made it the most incomparably terrible decade for Europe's traditional eating patterns since the second World War. The consolation is that things would have been far, far worse without Euro-Toques.

Chefs are, of course, strange people. To put up with their abominable lives of Turkish-bath heat, finger-amputating knives, wretched pay and invariably insane working hours requires characters of doughty disposition. Chefs, if they were not chefs, would probably make excellent explorers or commandos.

Lulus in Brussels

The cuisines of Europe could in the past decade probably have done with some raw commando knife-work done in the corridors of power in Brussels, where the food commissars have snooped and pried and interfered in matters which should have nothing to do with government.

As the great Myrtle Allen pointed out in her farewell address, it is remarkable how memory - and therefore tradition - fades and vanishes, and centuries of knowledge and wisdom are gone for ever.

Why did the lulus in Brussels think it was any business of theirs to outlaw the Irish practice of selling pork chops with kidneys attached? It might be a small example but it is a good one, for we let it happen without burning down an EU office or two.

And when this parasitical caste of busybodies, who draw sustenance from the curtailed liberties of their subjects, discovered how much they could interfere with our lives and yet remain unmolested, their appetite for meaningless intrusions increased proportionately.

And not just within the European Union - Myrtle Allen reported that the EU laws on food hygiene are devastating the small cheese manufacturers of Switzerland. Other purposeless laws have caused the complete closure of all local abattoirs - and thus the end of local cuts and regional food products - throughout both Portugal and the Netherlands.

Who benefits from all this? The large food combines, of course.

Quirkiness, eccentricity, unorthodoxy, regionality and ancient habit are being swept aside by laws which favour the large against the artisan-supplier. Who wants this, other than the large combines? If market forces were causing the artisan-supplier to go out of business, that would be one thing, but it is not; it is bad government.

Where compromise is fatal

And where we might have expected the firm hand of good government, we did not see it and do not see it. How have the animal feed companies escaped the legal consequences of deciding that what herbivorous cows of Europe needed to bring a shine to their cheeks and a smile to their lips was a secret feast of sheep's spinal column, the one part of an animal which even carnivores leave untouched?

We don't even know the bastards' names.

Even amidst the calamity of that scandal, Myrtle remains upbeat.

In the eternal optimism of the chef who expects to work 20 hours a day before staggering out of her kitchen with several half-amputated fingers and multiple third-degree burns, she sees in the BSE affair the virtue that it has finally awakened people to the truth that to compromise the quality of the raw product will ultimately devastate quantity.

All this is not a hymn of praise over all that is small against all that is big. The modern world lives by the economy of scale, and we all benefit from the workings of successful and honest industry.

Irish Euro-Toques is sponsored by Baileys, whose Young Chef of the Year award has helped revolutionise standards within the Irish catering industry. Europe-wide sponsorship of Euro-Toques was begun recently by the vast Swedish electrical company Electrolux.

Sponsorship of an organisation which is politically committed to the virtuous, the uncompromised, the small, can be risky for a multinational giant, for priorities might not always match.

As it happens, Baileys has probably been the biggest ever commercial benefactor of the small farmers of Ireland, and it has only become the most successful commercially-contrived alcoholic drink in history because it has combined the highest standards with the revolutionary food technology.

Technology has always been the key to food. We like to think that food should be simple, but often enough, that is a mere piety; without the technologies of deliberate killing and controlled heat, we are gathered around the corpse of some beast which has died of old age, and with bloodied faces are gorging on its cooling entrails. This seems quite a resistible prospect.

Food police, bad law

So on the face of it, Electrolux is an appropriate sponsor for Euro-Toques - it manufacturers food-care equipment for home and restaurants under its own name and sudry others, such as Zanussi and AEG. In itself this is not a guarantee of virtue - even the best cooker is no better than the raw material it is expected to transform into food.

But at least Euro-Toques now has the backing of a multinational as it faces the onslaught of finger foods, contamination of raw materials by harmful additives and the criminalisation of the native products of Europe by bad law from the food police in Brussels.

Fast foods will probably find their own level, sooner or later; national governments everywhere are controlling additive contamination; but the third threat we should take seriously indeed. We no longer see pheasants hanging in shop windows because the food police outlawed such practices.

Myrtle told us of an EU law which would have compelled a restaurateur who shoots a pigeon to take it to a poulterer for plucking rather than pluck it himself before serving it in his own restaurant. That consummate idiocy was halted by Myrtle; but it is a sorry day when government bothers its head about such trivia.

Heaven guard and protect Euro-Toques, for it in turn guards some of Europe's great traditions.