Burning question

Wildfires across huge areas of southern Europe mean even more bad news for olive oil and table olive packers. It is impossible to predict the full effect on this winter’s prices for olive oil or table olives, but there will be direct consequences. This is not a complete wipe-put story, since established olive trees with deep root systems can recover from fires, although this will take time. Young olive trees are more susceptible to fire damage.

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The immediate impact will be on packers and blenders of olive oil, particularly in Italy: these skilled folk have a network of suppliers for very specific oils with relatively rare qualities. The suppliers of such rarities are spread over the continent, from Gibraltar and north Africa down to the middle east. The trading network is complex and known to a handful of olive oil blending experts.

In a year when the mainstream crop is already looking patchy and fraught, this will mean higher costs for the retailers. In the UK, the multiples are reluctant to let their double digit margins take a hit and will do their level best to make sure that suppliers carry the burden. The situation is, however, beyond horse trading. Bulk olive oil prices will be non-negotiable, where there is product to be had. Looking at the Mediterranean over the next few weeks, the following impacts can be expected. Industrial tomatoes for peeled plum tomato canning lines can be expected to be short, since crop irrigation is being used for firefighting. Chopped tomatoes, passata and tomato paste can be made from almost any variety of tomato and production is not limited to southern Italy. Table olives are under a shadow, with a high risk of localised damage: a lot of olives will have been burnt off the trees. Durum wheat, essential for pasta manufacture, may have escaped the worst of the heat waves, but export tonnages will probably be restricted.

For the latest information on the European forest fires, click here.

Footnote on the protagonists in Time Travel for Food

Leadership is something we all respond to and it takes many forms.

Take a figure from history, such as Napoleon Bonaparte. A product of the ruling elite of his day, Napoleon underwent officer training and was undaunted by meeting calls to define the working structure of a post revolutionary state from scratch. The Codes Civils (sometimes referred to as the Napoleonic Codes) were an object lesson in structuring the edifice of a state at the start of a post-royal era (https://urbanfoodchains.uk/forging-urban-food-chains/). Bonaparte had the outward signs of a civic visionary and expected to lead from the front.

Employing a completely different set of skills, Nicolas Appert perfected the system of sealing food into bottles or cans and cooking it so thoroughly that the product would keep indefinitely. Sometimes referred to eponymously as Appertisation, the process has been used with very few changes, for more than two hundred years. Appert predated fellow Frenchman Louis Pasteur by just over 60 years and would not have predicted the link between heat treatment and killing pathogens that Pasteur would make in years to come.(https://urbanfoodchains.uk/time-travel-for-food-2/)

There are grounds to suppose that the Appertisation process was known to food producers, but not widely practiced in the 1790s. In place of a theoretical explanation for the incontrovertable success of the process, Appert constantly ran tests on batches of food, using bottles and stoppers of all sorts of material: ceramic, glass and metal. As the years progressed, his confidence in the process grew, as he learnt what cooking times different foods needed in a water jacket of boiling water. Nicolas Appert had been raised by an inn keeper working in Chalons-sur-Saone and was a competent chef. His entire working life was focussed on feeding people and by the 1790s Appert was working as a confiseur in a Paris suburb.

A confiseur is someone who cooks off food, usually with boiling water, to make range of “confits” or foods almost cooked to a mush. Confiserie refers to boiled sugar confectionery, while confits are table-ready dishes which can be sweet or savoury and typically capped off with a layer of fat. The aim is to cook off seasonal gluts, although meat-based confits had short shelf lives, since the melted grease did not offer any real protection to the dish. This was the reason for Appert’s interest in sealing his wide-necked bottles, in a bid to extend shelf life. Appert successfully got reliable results, which is why Appertisation is referred to as “Time Travel For Food” on this website.

Appert plied his trade as a confiseur and wholesale grocery from a workshop in rue des Lombards. He was a member of the militant Section des Lombards, who mobilised at moments of crisis during the revolution in Paris. An active Jacobin, Nicolas and his wife Elisabeth supported the revolutionary cause in practical ways, such as holding planning meetings in the workshop.

As readers will learn in the short history of Nicolas Appert, the confiseur was pulled into the Jacobin Terreur, saved only by the fact that Robespierre was executed 36 hours before Appert was due to go to the scaffold. The Appert household survive the latter years of the revolution: Nicolas is awarded an “encouragement” of 12,000 gold coins by Napoleon. This comes with a requirement to publish a manual to Appertisation at his own expense. Appert remained politically active during his life and was elected mayor of Ivry-sur-Seine.

Appert also makes a trip to England in 1814, at the height of the Napoleonic wars. The reason for the trip was for after-sales support for an English engineer who had licenced the process for commercial exploitation. The technology transfer had been overseen by Pierre Durand, a Bordeaux wine merchant turned intellectual property agent. Durand’s leadership style was simply blunt and overbearing. He met his match, however, in Bryan Donkin, his English client.

A highly regarded engineer, Donkin had undertaken  work for the Fourdrinier brothers, Henri and Seely, to make their purchase of a design for a papermaking machine work in a paper mill environment. As his French clients faced bankruptcy and Donkin still had a workshop to keep in production, there was a pause in proceedings during which Donkin tried to stake a claim on what is known today as the Fourdrinier papermaking machine. Resourceful as ever, Donkin contrived to settle the name of the machine on the brothers, but retained control over the crucial detail that allowed him to  sell working papermaking machines in his own name. Since he installed almost 200 machines across Europe, one can suppose that he was commercially successful. It should be added that Donkin also patented the dip pen and a number of nib designs, which generated far greater sales than could be earned from selling a papermaking machine. This management style is close to opportunistic, but shows a high level of resourceful thinking. Bryan Donkin’s grandson, called Bryan after his grandfather, developed and patented the Donkin gas valve, which is more widely known than Donkin senior’s achievements.

Forging urban food chains

France in the closing years of the 18th century was in total chaos. The Terreur (terror) reached its height with the execution of the Jacobin leader Maximilien Robespierre in the summer of 1794. In the years that followed, the Consulate took control led by Napoleon Bonaparte. The young Napoleon set himself the task of clearing away all the old laws and the rag-bag collections of local regulations (“coutumes”).  He replaced them with the “Code Civile” that set out the rules for a constitutional reset.

The code was secular and written in ordinary French. It detailed what was expected of citizens — considering men to be equal before the law, while assigning women the role of dowry-bearers, facilitating the transfer of property and assets between families. Because of the contractual importance of marriage, there were elaborate requirements to ensure that men were legitimate before they could be married. The husband owned his wife’s dowry, but not her paraphenalia.

The code also laid out commercial frameworks and set standards for product liability. For instance, artisans and craftsmen were required to give a ten-year guarantee on their work. When selling land, sellers were obliged to include the oxen teams and equipment needed to work the land. And those acquiring livestock with a farm were required to keep the animals exclusively on that farm, keeping the dung on the holding. It is worth remembering that rural France was heavily  populated in those days, but over the coming century, this was about to change. The Code applied to both town and country, as well as to those on their travels. For example, innkeepers had a legally enforceable duty of care for their guests’ goods and chattels, which extended to those working on the premises, protecting them, too, from light-fingered interlopers.

The March 1804 version of the Code Civile had more than 1800 paragraphs and was the largest version to be put up for adoption. There were prolonged debates about all three circulated versions, each with different numbering and paragraph counts. Some of the articles in the Code Civile still apply to this day, often heavily modified. The administrative commitment to a document-based system put a greater priority on literacy. Deaf or visually challenged citizens who could read had protected access to the provisions of the code unlike non-readers who made their mark to sign off  documents they could not read.

Packing them in

An unmistakeable sign of the impending holiday season turned up this morning in the form of an email from Thierry Jourdan, boss of the family-run cannery La Quiberonnaise in Britanny. Founded in 1921 by Thierry’s grandfather, the fish canning business packs sardines and mackerel landed by local inshore boats as well as taking in yellowfin tuna to pack a range of cans in domestic sizes.

Such canneries were a common sight in seaside towns during the first half of the twentieth century. Today, there are still a number of survivors in what used to be a crowded market. As the fleets dispersed and catches waned, the importance of the tourist trade was recognised by canneries along the French coast. The 1930s saw the establishment of paid summer holidays for French workers: it was the salvation of resourceful canners.

They greeted holidaymakers with open arms and tasteful souvenirs. Local artists are still engaged to create designs for annual editions of elaborately decorated cans of fish, with the promise of a fresh series the next year. Themes range from gently humorous picture postcard subjects to classical offerings that are as likely to end up in an art gallery as a kitchen. Canned fish as an art form has some unexpectedly well-known devotees. Food critic Jean-Luc Petitrenaud always takes a decorated can of sardines for his host whenever he is invited to dinner.

Eggs by rail

pic Bo Jess om, Wikimedia Commons

The common sense, sturdy construction of this wooden egg crate and thousands like it ensured that once the eggs had been wrapped with a layer of crepe paper, they were good for journeys across Europe. France, Holland and Denmark all exported eggs to England in the latter half of the 19th century and on into the 20th.

Shelling out

Members of the public eating oysters and other shellfish generate large volumes of shells, most of which will end up in landfill and incinerators. Local authorities on west coast of France are taking the opportunity to encourage householders to recycle empty shells at local recycling centres. Their work is simplified because the local economy already includes a significant proportion of the nation’s oyster producers.

The adjacent estuaries of the Charente and Bordeaux’s Gironde are the beating heart of France’s ostreiculture sector and generates huge quantities of waste oyster shells. Local processor Ovive converts oyster shells, grinding them down into a poultry industry supplement for laying birds. Operations director Coline Saunier told the local France Bleu news team that the company processes about 3,000 tonnes of oyster shells a year, of which 95% comes from industry professionals.

Oyster ponds at Marennes, on the estuary of the Charente.

Further south, alongside the Gironde estuary, local authorities are using oyster shells to make a special mortar for use on the roads, filling in damaged roadsides. There are no tonnage figures for this use of oyster shells.

The cost of collecting shells from householders in the Charente departement all the year round then, is incremental rather than requiring capital expenditure. Waste contractor Cyclad gathered 71 tonnes in 2021. But as the consumer waste stream grows, so will the time spent sorting and cleaning the shells.

The professional waste stream needs to be sorted to make sure that stray lengths of polypropylene rope, metal fragments or glass are removed before processing the shells. Compared to these fairly basic requirements, the consumer waste stream brings with it an unknowable quantity of ring pulls, party napkins (the stronger felt-like matted ones) lemon slice debris, not to mention plastic cutlery.

A major risk for shell processors is picking up the stainless steel wires used to turn ordinary oysters into easy-open gourmet mouthfuls. The wire is thin and the easy-open components are easily missed on a busy sorting line. While the consumer waste stream is counted in tens of tonnes, the additional sorting requirement can be carried by the revenue earned on the industrial waste stream.

The feasibility of setting up a consumer-specific sorting line in parts of France without an existing industrial user base is a very different proposition. It will be more onerous than adding a modest increment to existing capacity and will be a challenge to future planners.

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Piece of cake

The opening of the Paris – Cherbourg railway in 1846 gave a decisive boost to the development of a group of cake and biscuit factories in Caen. With easy access to Paris Saint Lazare, the rest of the French network was available for the onward shipping of perishable goods  in a timely manner. From Cherbourg, orders could be forwarded to the Channel Islands and ports such as Weymouth on the south coast of England.

By the end of the 19th century, the scene had been set for biscuit maker Lucien Jeannette to buy out his two partners and develop the multi-site business.  The company did not adopt the  Jeannette name until 1927.

Its branding was  founded on the quality  of its regional ingredients, namely Isigny butter and Normandy eggs. Many years later, in the 1960s, the use of cheaper ingredients wreaked havoc with the brand’s standing at the time and was remedied by restoring the original premium line-up.

Operating today with two dozen staff, the firm now sells online from https://www.jeannette1850.com/

Knock, knock…

The French finance ministry announced the other week that it had raided a number of multiple food retailer head  offices and some of their suppliers. In a terse staement dated November 9, the competition authority warned that it is not going to identify the retailers concerned and will not risk compromising the investigation.

In similar raids in the past, inspectors of the Direction Générale de la Concurrence, de la Consommation et de la Répression des Fraudes (DGCCRF) have carried out raids without warning and gathered thousands of invoices and other documents within 12 hours. Known as the “répression des fraudes” the DGCCRF has a justified reputation for being ruthlessly efficient.

What Mona Lisa tells us about sardines

Sardines in the Mediterranean are now smaller and lighter than 20 years ago.  Mona Lisa is a European project which has been studying sardine populations in the region and has established that the average lengths of sardines had fallen from 15 centimetres to 11 and the average weight has nosedived from 30 grams to 10.

Researchers attribute the dramatic decline to a 15% drop in stocks of micro-algae in the bay of Biscay, which has lowered the nutritional value of plankton. The study carried out by the French marine institute Ifremer was able to rule out overfishing and natural predators such as dolphins or tuna. It also established that there was no virus to blame for the dramatic decline.

The  changing composition of plankton was investigated using a controlled sardine population  of 450 fish divided into four groups and fed differing strengths of plankton. This is the largest project of its kind anywhere in the world.

The sardine is one of the most heavily fished species in the world. The high demand from canneries creates a commercial value for sardines within a certain size range. Changing the size of sardine cans would entail substantial costs for retooling packing lines, not to mention major revisions to packing and cooking protocols for the autoclaves.

Four percent is history

Within living memory, a grocery business was considered successful if it earned a margin of three or four percent, but in the late 20th century supermarkets rewrote the rules.

Grocery multiples expect suppliers to have deep pockets and fund special offers at the drop of a hat.

Call it shelf money; marketing assistance; listing fees, the multiples started asking for — and getting — sums in the order of GBP 5000 a year per Stock Keeping Unit (SKU) for listing a product in an agreed number of stores (usually hundreds). Bearing in mind that a large supermarket will stock about 20,000 SKUs, some of which will be furnished by more than one supplier, the country’s major multiples are trousering millions in readies up front, without giving suppliers so much as a cat in hell’s chance of their money back if an SKU is delisted.

There are many ways the multiples can extract whatever money they feel a supplier should cough up: withholding invoice settlements; requiring suppliers to pay for Point Of Sale promotional material; special offers (these are always funded by the supplier); the list is a long one.

So the grocer that used to eke out resources to earn three or four percent has been consigned to history. France’s biggest retailer, Michel-Edouard Leclerc went on the record in October 2007 to say that a hypermarket needs to earn a margin of 25%. I saved the URL*, but Leclerc has deleted the blog post since then, leaving a rather fancy 404 page shown in the picture.

 * http://www.michel-edouard-leclerc.com/blog/m.e.l/archives/2007/10/index.php?date=20071025#000727