On regional cheese and milk-maids

2 03 2014

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.

Photo: Flotsam & Jetsam, The Disney Wikia

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.

Amazon: Chocolate Wars

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).

Photograph by: Stuart Davis, via Vancouver Sun

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.

Wikipedia: Limburger cheese

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!

Wikipedia: Clerks

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…

Photo: CompraJamon – Adarga de oro

Let’s face it

17 08 2012

So quite some time ago, I brought to your attention a Digg article about how we’re programmed to quickly recognise human faces, and how this sometimes tricks us to seeing them where they aren’t. Like on Mars…

So check out THIS apparently unmodified photo from Paris on the Mighty Optical Illusions site.


Not quite a big Splash

11 08 2012

So unless you’ve been on Mars for the last week or so (OK – Curiosity, you have an excuse!) you’ll be aware it’s been the summer Olympics in the UK.

Curiosity on Mars.

NASA: Curiosity on Mars.

Despite being on holiday, we were not insulated quite enough, and I ended up watching the highlights from the ladies 10m diving competition. Unbelievable athleticism. Those girls (I think they were girls – no bumps front or back to be really sure!) could spin and twirl at amazing rates before hitting the water. And when they did… hardly a ripple. Amazing control.

London 2012: Brittany Broben of Australia competes in the women’s 10m Platform Diving semi-final

Which reminded me of day 1 of our holiday in Victoria. We couldn’t get into the apartment until mid-afternoon, so we ambled down into town to take a look-see and to kill some time. Of course, this was the Sunday before BC day, and the town was heaving with tourists. Funny how you never consider yourself a tourist. We ended up eating at Milestones down by the harbour, and learned that the crowd was there for the Victoria Symphony Splash.

Victoria Symphony Splash: From the air

Unfortunately we’d already missed most of the music by then, but learned there was a fireworks display later that night. After dinner we walked back up the hill to the apartment, and at around 9pm Mrs E and the sproglets took the car down to watch the fireworks. I heard several loud explosions from up the hill and since the others didn’t return for quite some time, felt assured it had been a wonderful show.

Er… no. Bit of a damp squib really. Possibly literally! Second-born described it as “three fireworks and over in less than a minute”. Now I’m sure that is an exaggeration, but coupled with the later than advertised start, I do wonder whether there had been some technical hitch, rather than an impoverished “firework fund”… especially as it was also celebrating Victoria’s 150th birthday!

Vancouver Sun: Workers erect scaffolding in preparation for Sunday’s Symphony Splash concert at the Inner Harbour.

When did we become so bored?

4 08 2012

There’s a Roger Waters album: “Amused to Death“. Some thoughtful ideas and music. I liked it, perhaps many wouldn’t. Anyway, the title song, if you’re interested can be found here: 

The album’s general theme is how we’re inexorably killing ourselves as a species. First World War onwards. Modern warfare as a video game. “The bravery of being out of range.” Deep stuff. Not an album for those prone to depression.

Anyway, I happened upon a web article yesterday telling of the imminent Mars landing. Tomorrow in fact. How come that was the first I’d heard? It’s been an eight and a half month mission. 34 weeks of countdown to an amazing thing! Landing a vehicle on another planet, no less. But it’s so “meh” these days that I had to accidentally trip over it on some obscure backwater while meandering through cyberspace. It wasn’t front page news. No regular mention on the nightly news. It’s commonplace, it seems, for us to lob cutting edge technology ($2.5 billion worth!) at another planet these days. We recently (July 20th) celebrated (in a very muted, also meh-like manner) the 43rd anniversary of Man’s first steps on the moon. Some of you may remember it. I was only 5 back in 1969, and it was likely past my bedtime, but I do recommend the excellent Australian film The Dish for an insight (though not strictly historically correct) into the events surrounding that landing. Playing cricket on the “parked” satellite dish is a classic moment.  But that was the moon. That tiny and comparatively close satellite surfers enjoy thanking for our tides. (By the way, did you know the moon is not the Earth’s only satellite?)

We’re talking Mars. It’s a planet! On average it’s about 225 million km away. The moon? A mere 384,400 km. When did we get so complacent? How many of us actually commute to work on aeroplanes these days? Commuting used to be trains or buses in and out of the local city. Now it’s sitting in a chair… in the air! Have we become so used to stories and their visualisation on TV and cinema that we’ve become numb to the magnitude of these achievements? Has the sharing of ideas and concepts – mere stories – become so easy that nothing real has the ability to actually amaze us any more?

As a kid I remember being told apocryphal tales of how the first steam trains were thought impossible to survive as people-carriers due to their massive 15mph speeds. The cyclists in the current Olympics are topping 60kmh! On a bike! Man-powered. Call me easily impressed, but that’s fucking amazing! That’s over the road speed limit in BC towns. On a bike.

The world land speed record is currently held by ThrustSSC, and it topped 1,223kmh (760mph). On wheels. Come on guys… this is not merely “meh”! Concorde had a landing speed of 170mph. More than that, and it flew. This car is almost 5 times faster! A car!

The Mallard steam train (built in Doncaster, Yorkshire… ) is the holder of the official world speed record for steam locomotives at 125.88 mph (202.58 km/h).  Beaten now… by a car at 148mph! Steam-powered! These are amazing things that we as a species have achieved.

As a kid there used to be a TV programme called Record Breakers with Roy Castle (yes – he WAS from Yorkshire too 🙂 ). They used to break records on TV, and the Guinness Book Of Records was there to ratify it. When did it all become boring? When did we start assuming anything and everything was possible, and therefore unremarkable?

Setting foot on the moon. Heart transplants. Any surgery for that matter. Cloning. Genetically modifying plants and animals. Superconductors. Nuclear power. The list is endless… and far from all of it is “sensible”. It’s nonetheless remarkable though!

Let’s remind our kids to open their eyes, and not take everything for granted. At the end of the day we’re just naked apes with a dangerous amount of brainpower. When a kid answers “the supermarket” to the question “where does milk come from”, I see that as a very, very bad sign for our collective future…