Settling down

Reading the preface of James C Scott’s book Against the Grain, I realised that it promises to live up to my expectations. Scott disentangles the timelines of settled agriculture, which is only possible with domesticated crops and livestock. The process of domestication was spread over millenia in the region between the Tigris and the Euphrates, starting around 8000BCE. Domestication was an essential step on the way to settling in a fixed location.

Establishing crop-fields attracted species that were later domesticated.

Establishing permanent crop-fields attracted wildlife such as ducks and other fowl that could, like fire or food crops, also be domesticated. Scott argues that the process of domestication is reciprocal, since humans adapted in subtle ways to the livestock they wanted to keep.

There is a lot of detail to absorb, so it will be a while before I return to discussing his analysis of the history of the region that later became Mesopotamia and Sumeria. Scott is published by Yale University Press.

Hand to mouth

Pic by Sven Rosborn: public domain.
Tollund man, photographed in 1950 by Sven Rosborn. Public domain.

Meet Tollund man, whose body was recovered from a peat bog in Denmark in 1950. His face is one of a handful to have survived down the centuries from an age when finding food in Europe was a constant struggle. The cadaver was so well preserved in the sphagnum moss that scientists have had an opportunity to investigate Tollund man’s last meal.

This was a rough gruel made from seeds and grain, including barley, flax and common knotweed. There is no way of knowing whether Tollund man ate as frequently as once a day, but every last morsel of food came from his immediate surroundings.

There was no question of exotic or imported food reaching such a humble soul. This may strike us as strange since we live in a world where foods of all descriptions travel halfway round the world. We need to recognise that Tollund man had marginal existence rather than a sustainable diet. How he survived is a mystery to us in the twenty first century, but we are about to relearn the skill set or perish in the attempt. The plants Tollund man harvested can still be found at certain times during the year and these harvests will reclaim their relevance to our times, probably within our lifetimes.

We should not think of Tollund man as a survivor in a hostile environment that has long since been domesticated but recognise that this former denizen of the wild prehistoric lowlands has a lesson for us. Regardless of how he met his end, Tollund man lived by foraging and had skills that we are likely to need once more.

What makes an English breakfast?

The first shipment of Danish bacon arrived in October 1847. Through the nineteenth century, Denmark used to export wheat to Britain, but North America’s railway network reached the east coast in the 1840s and generated a tidal wave of cheap grain across Europe. Like the rest of its European neighbours, Denmark was unable to compete with transatlantic prices and turned instead to converting American grain into eggs, dairy products and bacon. At this time, the whey left over from cheesemaking was fed to pigs, who can put on 100 grams a day to their body weight.

Throughout the nineteenth century, Danish agriculture underwent a transformation in which livestock cooperatives flourished, especially those raising pigs. In 1887, Germany banned imports of Danish pigs and bacon, which pushed the cooperatives to increase the volumes of bacon shipped to the UK. It is worth remembering that without universal refrigeration, pigmeat had to travel as salt pork or bacon.

Time travel for food

The process of sealing food into a glass jar or a can and boiling the sealed units has been used for over two centuries. In 1812 French revolutionary Nicolas Appert published a user’s manual to the process, called The Art Of Preserving for Several Years Animal and Vegetable Substances. The process is often referred to eponymously as Appertisation and the food is literally cooked in the can (or bottle).

Appert was making and selling bottled vegetables and other foodstuffs in Paris, during the dark days of the terror and Robespierre. Ever since the French revolution, canned food has sustained earnest adventurers atop the highest mountain peaks, in the depths of the oceans, not forgetting orbiting space stations.

Although first published in French, within months English translations were being studied in England and the technique was applied to preserve food for long sea voyages. A French naval captain complained that this was a French military secret which had been smuggled across the Channel and was now being used against its inventors.

The reality was in fact more mundane. English engineer Bryan Donkin ran a workshop in Bermondsey, London and was looking for an additional manufacturing activity to stay in business. Donkin licensed Appert’s process from a travelling commercial agent who went by the name Peter Durand in England and Pierre Durand in France. Donkin set to work filling tinplate canisters with food, only to find that he had missed something out.

Donkin summoned Durand, who called Appert away from the wreckage of his house and workshop to visit Donkin in Bermondsey during 1814. The problem was simple enough: the food was not being sealed in its cans until it had cooled down, by which time there was a risk of spoilage.

By the time Appert left England, Durand had a fully working filling line and Appert had seen at first hand just how effective tinplate canisters were for storing food. The quality of tinplate available in France was nowhere near as good as the tinplate Donkin was buying. Nevertheless, by paying over the odds for tinplate, Appert started to use metal packaging for his products.

Originally from the Champagne region of France, Appert was used to packing food in heavy glass jars. These were not well-received by the French navy, on the grounds of breakage, and needed more attention when sealing the jars and keeping out the air. Appert spent the rest of his life experimenting with canned and bottled food until he reached the age of 91, dying in poverty and obscurity during 1841.

Read a short story about Nicolas Appert

Glass of water

Thank you for your input. Clearly there is a little bit more to this scenario than meets the eye. Since you are (hypothetically) working in a bar, drinks are your core business and source of income. You can opt to overlook the cost to the business, which is, let’s face it, not a huge sum.

You could risk being taken for a hard-nosed bar steward and make up a price for the service of filling a glass from the tap. Your guest might have medication to take and need a swig of water to help it on its way. In that case, it could be seen as unfriendly.

Point blank refusal could lead to a scene, but might be necessary. In France, a law passed in 1967 backs bar owners who do not want to compromise their core business. A bar earns its keep from selling drinks in whatever form they come.

Had the fictitious customer gone to a restaurant in France and ordered a meal, the establishment would be expected to provide a place setting, which would include a carafe of water and bread. This is because the meal forms the core business and the place setting is part of the service.

Amber light for greens

UK fresh produce wholesalers were among the first adopters of end-to-end database-driven stock management. In the early 90s, when multiple retailers were rolling out electronic Point Of Sale systems, overnight there was enough reliable data to drive ordering and procurement systems.

To maintain year-round availability of core inventory, wholesalers needed to be very granular in what constitutes an SKU. By the standards of the day, the databases they developed were ahead of their time. By around 1994, one wholesaler was tracking product grades by (16-bit) colour, calibration range, farmgate and dockside Brix, crop/season dates, with regional adjustments for weather bringing seasons forward or holding them back.

The SKUs were effectively large matrices, with a very long tail of incremental detail that went far beyond grower details and crop varieties. The database effectively became the business and was stored in triplicate on hard drives that were lodged in rotation with the bank: one active, two off-site, rotated daily.

With a global reach, shiploads of third country fresh produce were being sold while the goods were still on the water. Title remained with the consignee until after the ship had docked and unloaded.

For third country fresh produce, the transition from the Common European Tariff to the UK Global Tariff is a detail for which the variables are knowable in advance. For third country produce, the UK already has the PEACH system (Procedure for Electronic Application for Certificates) which is run by DEFRA. Visit where you can download a spreadsheet that maps CN numbers on to plant varieties and gives handling details for importers. The back end of PEACH is currently plumbed into TARIC-3, so a UK-based replacement  is doubtless in hand.

Import duty on imported fresh produce can be agreed on the  basis of a Method 4 valuation, agreed by HMRC ( EU-grown fresh produce should be transferable to this method when the time comes, as the need arises.