Hello faithful reader.
I know I’ve been less than engaged of late. I’ve written nary a line for weeks, yet here you still are… indulging my need to write rambling screeds of nonsense, then casting them like so much epistolic (I use the word loosely which I’m sure you’ll have no problem agreeing with) flotsam (or is it jetsam? – I always get them confused) onto the tides of the interwebs.
Years ago I had a friend who worked at Mars – the US confectioner – in Maidenhead, UK (a place name that still makes me smirk with a pubescent love of uncommon words). They’ve branched out over their 100+ year history. First, the younger Mr Mars was estranged from his father and sent off to do what he could with the eponymous bar in the UK. “Not too shabbily”, it turned out. It was tweaked for the British palate, and the rest is confectionery history. Thank the gods Hershey wouldn’t do a deal with him and the UK Mars bar has superior chocolate. Can’t beat the special edition dark chocolate ones in my view. By the way, I heartily recommend Chocolate Wars by Deborah Cadbury (yes THAT Cadbury) for a really interesting look at the rise of the chocolate industry in Europe, the US and obviously the UK. Lindt, Mars, Rowntree, Hershey, Fry’s, Cadbury’s… they’re all in there. Even van Houtte. Great read.
Anyway, I digress. They also branched out into vending machines.
And meat pies and sausages.
And dog food. (Just a coincidence, I’m sure.)
All this just to say that said aforementioned friend once explained to me the difference between “best before” and “eat/consume before” dates on foodstuffs. The former is a date by which the manufacturer has deemed their product will start to be perceived as less than optimum to the consumer. The latter is the date beyond which the subsequent medical well-being of the diner can no longer be guaranteed. Since the former is more a matter of cosmetics, and the current fashion for people to claim allergies to everything from peanuts to shellfish makes the latter a much less well-defined thing to prove, the former is much more widely seen on packaging. The two are also sometimes quietly merged into the much less specific and therefore more defensible “sell by” date.
I was once in a discussion around best before dates, food, and how the length of time on the shelf seemed to vary shop-to-shop. In the UK, people tended (perhaps someone resident on the fair isles could comment if it’s still the case) to treat “best before” as “consume by” in any case, and would get irate if a shop still had items on its shelf that were “past it”, as it were. Obviously large supermarkets would prefer as long a shelf life as possible to avoid having to discard food before it was sold. They’d be pretty well forced to reduce the price as it approached it’s “sell by date” – especially for things like meat or fish. If they were found to still have items on their shelves that were “past it”, reputations could be tattered in the cut-throat high-street supermarket market. Past it food was a phenomenon found only in shonky corner shops – not the large supermarket chains such as Sainsbury’s, Tesco or even good ol’ Morrison’s. So it was common to buy food with several days remaining between date of purchase and the sell by date. I won’t comment here on irradiated food or nitrogen in your bag of salad, just that one didn’t normally find the label date on purchased food to be any time soon.
The notable exception was the venerable Marks & Sparks, who as we all know has been operated since biblical times by St. Michael. Actually, Messrs. Marks and Spencer were a couple of Leeds lads (Loiners) who established a Penny Bazaar in the 1880’s and never looked back. Marks was a Jewish immigrant from Belarus and Spencer was a cashier and shrewd money man. The apparently saintly Michael was actually Simon Marks’ dad. Anyway, back to the yarn: M&S would always have food on the shelf with ridiculously close sell by dates – a few days at most. But this was actually astute marketing…
You see, M&S charge a little more for their food. And, by and large, it’s also a little better. So – they don’t want you hanging on to food past its “best before” date, simply because it has yet to cultivate botulism and is therefore technically still edible. It’s important for their image that you are consuming their foodstuffs whilst they are still in their prime… not merely still technically edible.
So anyway, when we came to live in Canada two big things hit us when food shopping. Firstly there were few items with ANY nutritional information on the packaging (GM soya beans were a big issue in the UK and Europe back in 2001, and scrutinising food labels was a habit)… let alone “best before” dates. Worse though… much worse: you can’t buy alcohol in the supermarkets! But that’s off topic (and BC at least is now actually considering the sale of alcohol in places other than government liquor stores that only open when people can’t use them).
Where was I? Oh yes… labelling. I am pleased to report that it is now pretty common to have food in BC accompanied by at least some vague information about its content. My daughter only yesterday was bemoaning food labelling. She’s studying life sciences (biology and the like) at Waterloo University. She said that she had firmly believed that one shouldn’t eat food if its ingredients list contained items you couldn’t pronounce. I tend to agree. She may even have picked up that idea from something I said when she was younger and “impressionabl-er”. Unfortunately, since her area of study now included lots of long words, this was no longer a sufficient litmus test.
Point? Yes – there is a point. I’m getting there. It may not be particularly sharp, and I don’t guarantee you won’t resent your eventual arrival, but yes, there is a point.
Regulars may recall that since early January, Chez Pachyderm has been in upheaval with the renovation of the kitchen. This basically involved lots of rewiring, re-plumbing of the upstairs bathroom (don’t ask), asbestos, you name it… Several lost souls were returned to the netherworld and I’m unreliably told that House and Home will be featuring us in an upcoming edition of “most frustrating projects”. But it’s all but finished now. A couple of missing shelves and a wobbly wall socket, but otherwise done. Usable at last. So… we went food shopping to stock the wonderful new fridge/freezer. Mrs Elephant unwisely left me with the shopping trolley whilst she went to look for some milk. In her absence, I managed to locate several much more interesting items. Things like prosciutto, Camembert cheese and the like. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to find some Limburger cheese. This is a bit of an in joke because the company I work for has its old (pre-Canon acquisition) headquarters in Venlo, in the Netherlands. This is very close to the German border, and the area is called… you guessed it… Limburg. It is actually a bit stinky (the cheese I mean), and not dissimilar to Port Salut in scent and taste, if you’re familiar with that. Ironically, the cheese itself was from “over the line” in Germany.
The connection is that the first wheel of Camembert I picked up was a day past “the best before”. Old instincts kicked in and I scoffed. Ew… “old” food on the shelf of a major supermarket! (Of course – I was conditioned to treat any date as “eat by” or “will contain deadly bacteria by”, rather than the much more benign reality of “might be slightly less than show-winning status by”). Naturally, I replaced the cheese for some less discerning shopper to catch listeria from and picked up the one beneath it with a much more satisfactory date a few weeks hence. Later in my rounds, I had to rummage through no less than 6 pots of Greek yoghurt to find one dated in the future. This problem was obviously endemic at Save-on Foods! I felt a little like Kevin Smith‘s mum, in her character as “The milk-maid” in Clerks – sifting through every jug of milk looking for the one with the date furthest away!
The joke though, as no doubt you will have long ago predicted, was on me. The third kind of cheese I bought was a new one for me: Adarga de Oro. Spanish apparently. Alabaster white… quite a silky smooth look to it. It’s a blend of cow, goat and sheep’s milk. I tried it today. Lovely. Only as I rewrapped it did I notice the best before date was 25th February… 4 days before I bought it, and 5 before I ate it. As I said – it’s pretty tasty. I wonder how much better it was before it was past its best…