It’s a Digestive, Jim, but not as we know it
Anti-fat Whitehall functionaries have managed to ruin the British biscuit that even Hitler failed to crush.
My friend Gino bakes cakes for a living. His repertoire covers cheesecake, Tiffin, crumbles and a marvellous little confection that he’s christened The Italian Surprise. It’s a sticky blend of dark chocolate, Amaretto Di Saronno, plump raisins and a fistful of smashed Digestive biscuits. The customers in Gino’s café simply can’t get enough of his Italian Surprises.
Of course, if Dawn Primarolo, ZaNuLabour’s minister of state for public health and chair of the Nutrition Strategy Steering Group of the Food Standards Agency (FSA), got to hear of the existence of these glutinous little bars of pleasure, they’d have been confiscated, outlawed or taxed into oblivion a long time ago; not because they’re obscenely unhealthy, but more because they actually give a lot of pleasure to those who eat them. Let us never forget… a puritan is someone who suffers from the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be having a good time.
So what’s all this confectionery talk leading to? Well, I’m afraid that the Italian Surprise is no more. My friend has ceased its production. Its essential ingredient is the noble Digestive biscuit and it has to be McVities and they must be very fresh. The crunch and texture of the biscuit is the very lynchpin of this gorgeously rich little treat.
Unfortunately, some miserable jobsworth in the FSA has decided that we Brits are turning into a bunch of lard buckets and salt junkies. They’ve decided that our food must be radically re-formulated in order to turn us into healthier citizens. It’s not enough that they mess with our minds; they now want to micro-manage our alimentary canals.
The upshot of all this food hysteria is that McVities has now removed 40 per cent of the saturated fat that used to be in a Digestive. What was once the nation’s favourite biscuit has morphed into a rather pathetic, pale imitation of itself. The Digestive that sustained, nourished and comforted a generation through two world wars and played its part in keeping the home fires burning is no more. The callous tick of a ballpoint pen of some joyless Whitehall functionary has managed to finish off the biscuit that even Hitler failed to crush.
Being of Italian descent and mindful of his profit margin in these difficult times, my friend decided to call the consumer helpline phone number on the packet of faux Digestives that he’d fruitlessly been trying to turn into Italian Surprises. A very helpful and pleasant young lady commiserated with him and apologised, but explained that the food industry was under intense pressure from the government to cut back on salt, sugar and fat levels in all food products produced in the UK. The result was the anaemic Digestive. She was in no doubt that government guidelines were the source of the problem.
Since when have guidelines become law? Why didn’t McVities produce their nasty little recipe alongside the Classic Digestive and call it, say, an Undigestive or an Indigestible? Why couldn’t McVities let the market decide if its ‘healthy’ biccie was a tasty alternative? Why did it have to obey the diktat of some misery guts in the FSA? What threat or arm-twisting did the government use to make the nation’s premier biscuit baker crawl on its corporate belly, desperately trying to please some low-fat mandarin?
Actually, the truth is that these voluntary guidelines are anything but voluntary. The government’s standard practice in these situations is to introduce guidelines and then back it up with an ugly threat of legislation if the food/tobacco/alcohol (delete as appropriate) industry does not kowtow. It’s government by stealth, intimidation, coercion and bullying and does away with the need for all that tedious legislation and accountability.
Unfortunately, it’s not just our favourite biscuit that’s under threat from the fat police. Ham and cheese are the next items to fall within the crosshairs of the FSA’s culinary snipers. They want the salt content reduced in Stilton cheese and British-produced ham. The salt in these products is the vital ingredient that enables them to have a longer shelf life and resist consumers contracting botulism – it’s a natural preservative. The salt also lends both these products their unique flavour.
But hang on a minute! What about salty French Roquefort cheese or Spanish Serrano jamon? Will Whitehall be cracking down on these saline interlopers? Er… in a word, no. You see, those products come from other EU countries so Britain cannot bar their import or marketing within the UK because that would be anti-competitive. So while Whitehall is happy to crucify the British food industry, an industry that’s one of our biggest economic sectors and perhaps the last bastion of UK-based manufacturing, Johnny Foreigner can ship in as much salt, lard and sugar as he likes and load up our supermarket shelves with it. There’s absolutely nothing the muesli munchers can do about it.
So there you have it. Central government does its best to destroy probably the only healthy sector left in our economy, leaving certain products that might fall under the steely gaze of the next Obesity Czar to be manufactured abroad. For example, HP Sauce is just one British favourite that must live in gastronomic exile and is now produced in the relative safety of the Netherlands. Sadly, our baked bean canners and tomato soup producers are still based in the UK and anyone who’s tasted either of these British staples will know how vile and insipid they’ve become, now that government has forced the removal of most of the salt and sugar content from these bastions of our store cupboards.
Perhaps the answer to all this nonsense is to take the production of all tasty and traditional foodstuffs that may offend the tofu brigade to an offshore location. Alternatively, Gordon Brown’s meddlesome government could try treating us like grown-ups and let us to make up our own minds… and he might save quite a few British jobs in the process.
Mark Sparrow is a freelance journalist based in Bath, England.