The Broader Picture: Out of flavour with Brussels

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THIS IS a portrait gallery of endangered species. They are fish packers, chicken farmers, ham curers, olive stuffers, asparagus growers, chocolatiers, even waiters, all of them people whose laborious working methods in the 1990s have changed little since the 1890s. The European Community is watching them. As they come under scrutiny from what the Prince of Wales dubs 'the bacteriological police of Brussels', it becomes increasingly clear that if they can't bring working practices into line with central bureaucracy they will soon vanish for good.

Alain Sembely, who holds a ham in his blackened hands with the dramatic presence of a Shakespearean hero, is one example. In the Jura region of south-east France he smokes his own hams in a 14th-century fumoir, its chimney caked with six centuries of soot from smouldering juniper and pine from the mountain forests. The hams hang from a matrix of wooden poles in a cavern as black as a mine, sometimes for years, to develop a uniquely flavoured, luscious product. But these conditions have some way to go to meet EC guidelines. If he has to modernise his smoking kiln, he says, what's the point in going on?

Many workplaces are being found wanting by the EC. The warehouse in Collioure, near the Spanish border, where an elderly lady spends afternoons stuffing anchovies into olives, is one of the last in the area to survive. The other small businesses there have closed down because they can't afford the cost of the equipment needed to meet stringent new hygiene regulations.

And now EC inspectors have started investigating what they see as exploitation of the labour force. What will become of child-waiters such as the boy with the silver cloche and the serious demeanour of someone much older? And what about the generation past retirement age who work a 14-hour day, unloading fishing boats at Newlyn in Cornwall? Some of them pack, grade and load the lorries from half past five in the morning until eight or nine o'clock at night.

The characters on these pages were photographed by Toby Glanville while on assignments for food magazines. He didn't realise at first that he was recording a vanishing era; it was 'Bobosse' Besson, one of the leading charcutiers of Lyon, who alerted him. (He is the one in a white jacket which wraps him as tightly as any of his saucissons.) Bobosse is not a poor man; he lives in a fine old chateau, guarded by a flock of geese whose livers will one day make pate de foie. But he believes that EC laws will eventually force him out of business.

'Their livings are precarious,' Glanville says. 'Suddenly an official with a Sierra and a suit may arrived at your premises, and he'll say, 'You can't do things this way any more.' He will urge you to spend thousands of pounds on stainless-steel equipment. Many of them only just get by as it is, so, faced with huge costs, they have no choice but to close down.'

Not all the species pictured are endangered. Not the bearded giant with red oilskins and black woolly hat, who is head oysterman at Loch Fyne, the largest producers in Scotland. Nor the keepers of crustaceans in Audierne, in Brittany, where they preserve langoustes alive in viviers (salt-water caverns) before they fetch premium prices from top Paris restaurants.

Familiarity with such good produce does not breed contempt, as it seems to do in factory farming. Glanville's lens seems to relish the evident pride of the Rowan Atkinson lookalike in the bottle hat who affectionately nurses a five-kilo langouste: in Cornwall, the giant with one blue glove and the other red (shades of Macbeth) holds a huge turbot with care, though no more reverently than Roger Sibelle cradles his blue- legged Bresse bird, an aristocrat of the chicken world. In Brechin, Scotland, Graham Malcolm stands beside his slaughtered pig, once virtually a pet.

Who wouldn't trade in the contents of a supermarket delicatessen counter for one of Bobosse's superb saucissons, or swap lorry-loads of broilers for one of Sibelle's beautiful Bresse birds? If the photographer is right, and these are a disappearing breed, let us enjoy the fruits of their labours while we can.

An exhibition of the Food Producers is at the Photographers Gallery, Great Newport Street, London WC2 from 21 Aug-19 Sept.

Comments