Old Nick's redemptive tricks

It was not so long ago that learned Europeans held nature's whims in some esteem. Very roughly from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, anyone who was anything had to have a Kunstkammer, or 'cabinet of curiosities'. These precursors of the modern museum ranged from massive collections housed in specially-built rooms in the case of royalty, to a few objects arranged in cupboard-sized showcases in that of middle-class literati.

One of the favourite types of candidate for the cabinets was that of Misgebohrte or deformities. Examples of misshapen fruit and animals born with some defect were avidly scooped up and preserved. What couldn't be stuffed was painted, which is why the Habsburgs collected portraits of bearded women, among other oddities. Strange-looking fruit, therefore, has had its 300 years of fame in European culture.

In a typical case of history-repeating-itself-but-not-quite, the 'curvy cucumber' and 'knobbly carrot' may, as the EU's agriculture commissioner put it, be 'in for a new dawn'. Commission regulations banning misshapen and/or wrongly-sized fruit from being sold have just been partly scrapped, much to the disappointment of Eurosceptics who now have to look for other windmills at which to level their lances.

At face value the regulations seemed mad enough. EC 730/1999, for example, lays down the "marketing standard for carrots". Somewhere amid the legalese, we were told that carrots in any class must be firm but not woody, not forked, and free from secondary roots. Carrots in the Extra Class must be "free from bruises and cracks", although "slight healed cracks" are acceptable for Class 1 graduands. Size mattered, too. In, say, Class 1, "the difference in diameter or weight between the smallest and the largest root in any one package must not be more than 30mm or 200g". A crateful of other fruits, vegetables, and - very aptly - nuts, each had their own regulations. Enough of them to make Kafka blush, in fact.

In the circumstances, the name is unavoidable. The reason Eurosceptics had a field day with the unbent banana regulations is that these were iconic of what many see as a labyrinthine and Byzantine structure far removed from the real everyday lives of the average European citizen.

In the eyes of many, the EU has become a top-heavy, paper-pushing monster, in the loving embrace of which journeymen and women land lucrative and highly-paid jobs by specialising in an arcane knowledge which no one cares about anyway. As it happens, the unkempt kiwi regulations haven't been entirely done away with. They still apply to 10 types of produce which, however, one will be able to sell provided they are clearly labelled. As in 'only to be used finely chopped and mixed with cream' in the case of misshapen strawberries. One wonders whether to call it 'nanny superstate' or 'super nanny state'.

A second, related issue is over-regulation. It appears that, while contemporary society sings the praises of the free market as all-powerful and all-good, it persists in restraining it and not letting it take its course. So, while the EU is basically right about appearance being an important aspect of food quality, it is wrong in assuming that people are too stupid to sort things out themselves. Everyday experience shows us how this works.

At the Vittoriosa market, for example, early morning finds shoppers paying good money for top quality fruit and veg that look, and presumably taste, the part. Later in the morning, one can expect to pay less for what's left, which includes woody, forked carrots rich in secondary roots. Put simply, the market will for the most part fend for itself.

Which is not to say that some degree of consumer protection is not essential. (And EU membership has been pivotal in this respect.) Nor is it entirely fair to blame the 'Brussels bureaucrats', whoever these might be, for the regulatory zeal.

As reported by the BBC, 16 countries in fact voted against scrapping the unlovely lemon regulations. That is, at the national level, some people seem to want more, not less, control. This tendency is quite obvious in Malta, where Utopic notions of 'EU standards' and the need to impose them are commonly bandied about and opposed to the presumably-lax, homegrown varieties (which, in a nod to clichés of southern disorganisation, are often described as 'Latin' or 'Mediterranean').

Thus the EU is seen as the essential, modern antidote to an archaic Mediterraneanism - although this only applies when planning other people's business.

All said and done, the binning of the tatty tomato regulations, albeit partial and rather too tardy for comfort, gives me hope that common sense still lurks in the clearly-signposted, non-slip, and smoke-free corridors of Brussels. The EU is not moving towards a total Orwellian takeover, because nothing is. As long as knobbly carrots and bearded women are born, and as long as we both discard and collect them, we'll be just fine.

Thank goodness that, to abuse Melville's words, the devil still has something to do with every consignment to this planet of earth.

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