Brainfood: On the Bosnian menu

We jockeyed to be invited to the French messes, for that was an army that might have lost the War but, by golly, it knew how to maintain its traditional gastronomy
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The Independent Culture
Early in the occupation of Bosnia, the French commanding general took over the best villa in Sarajevo, then flew in a planeload of the sort of food and wine without which no self-respecting Frenchman could possibly command so delicate an operation.

That is all right by me: armies do travel on their bellies and generals do require their creature comforts: indeed, a publisher once seriously suggested to me that the best possible guide to the "quiet, discreet, picturesque, comfortable" hotels of France would simply be a listing of wartime Gestapo headquarters.

Lately, however, I've seen a far more arresting headline: "GIs dream of French rations". Wow! I thought, America's been converted. Next thing you know, Bill and Hillary will do a U-turn on their celebrated sacking of the White House's French chefs.

But apparently the story concerns only MREs, Meals Ready-to-Eat, equivalent to the K-Rations of my own days of military glory - now dubbed Meals Rejected by Everybody. The equivalent French pack has fish pate, lamb stew, ratatouille of chicken, fruit cake, fruit mousse, cheese. I must admit that's a step up on the Yanks' stew (unidentified), processed cheese and hot sauce.

Of course, we are speaking here of rations that can be dropped from the air, that require no preparation - not of the wonderful productions of army cooks, those vast vats and "ovens, portable, field" from which soldiers have long eaten nourishing and disgusting meals. And certainly not of the officers' messes I have known, some of which were staffed with excellent chefs and were fought over with as much panache as though they were enemy positions. (Even then, we jockeyed to be invited to the French messes in just-occupied Berlin, for that was an army that might have lost the War but, by golly, it knew how to maintain its traditional gastronomy.)

No, as to the basics, I bethought me, since No. 4 Son is about to put in a tour of duty there, to inquire of the MoD how our British troops fare in Bosnia. The answer is that we supply rations a day at a time: breakfast of instant oatmeal, bacon and beans; snack of oatmeal block, fruit biscuits, a cheese spread, chocolate; and main meal of chicken-and- mushroom soup, pasta and treacle pudding. No doubt, if you're hungry, it tastes good.

The question, however, is a deeper one. The US Army, as we know, is not given to being second best at anything that keeps its troops happy. Stormin' Norman's army in Kuwait thought of everything: R&R (Rest and Recreation) depots, fully-equipped PXs, retransmitted TV sports broadcasts. And before the first GIs stepped off their transporters in Bosnia, advanced field teams were at work (just over the border in friendly, neo-capitalist Hungary) setting up the Bosnian equivalent.

So now, piqued by French one-upmanship in the rations department, the Pentagon is hard at work on no fewer than 24 separate meals, and the mind boggles at the possibilities: the Kentucky Fried Chicken Pak, the Vegetarian- and-Tofu, the Low Fiber, the Tex-Mex, the San Francisco (everything tastes of sun-dried tomatoes) and so on. Such is progress, and no doubt the French will fight back with vols-au-vent, supreme de volaille with a cheeky little coulis of raspberry, and the like.

But what will happen to our boys? Will we too fall for Ethnic Specials, a Nostalgia-Pak (reconstituted Forte Motorway gunk), or are we made of sterner stuff?

I suppose it is a good thing that the zones of occupation of our international forces are kept well apart. Imagine the fragrant smell of a package of penne alla matriciana drifting across the lines, or watching Thais eating pepper-stuffed crabs. What if rations got mixed up and you got the consignment of meatballs and kasha destined for the Ukrainians? Or a Pakistani curry?

This is fantasy, of course. Being away from a kitchen is a horror; I'd be happy to trade my M&M's (from the US ration) or chewing- gum (from the French ration) or treacle pudding, for some decent red wine.

The only other solution is to get promoted. I well remember the weekend on which, passing from my "civilian" status as an intelligence officer living off the German "local economy" (rats, cats, frozen potatoes), I was invited to a weekend with a family friend, a general in charge of a substantial part of the British Zone. No rations there; wild boar, venison, and one exquisite dish after another. But then the general's wife was French, and they do that sort of thing rather better