Foot and mouth

Wales 1 SMALL

Before she died in 2012, we used to make annual visits to a dear friend, whom I had known since my childhood, in South Wales. She used to live in London, but when she retired, she moved to a village in the Brecon Beacons, near the River Usk. We stayed in her cottage but were encouraged to leave her in peace from after breakfast until about four in the afternoon. We did not mind this because there is plenty to explore in the area and often the weather was good at the times of the year that we visited her.

In 2001, disaster hit Wales in the form of a vicious outbreak of foot and mouth disease. In order to prevent its spread, all footpaths and many open spaces were closed to visitors. This and the appalling rain that fell relentlessly during our visit, restricted what we could do while we were allowing our guest a few hours relief from her guests. We drove around the countryside not particularly having much fun.

One day, we arrived at a small town with a name I am unable to pronounce correctly:  Llanwrtyd Wells. It was lunch time. We parked outside a hotel near the town centre. The floor of the lobby was covered with a grubby, well-worn carpet. We were shown into an unattractive dining room. Our hopes for having a decent meal fell as we surveyed the room’s dingy uninviting décor. The sight of incessant rain falling outside did little to enhance the dreary mood that this unappealing room was inducing.

The hotel’s owner brought us menus. We asked what he recommended. He said “steaks” and showed us the large range of meats listed in the menu. We asked his advice about which steak to choose. Then, he did something that transformed the dingy place for us.

He gave us a ‘tutorial’ about the relative merits of different kinds of beefsteak and their tastes. The least tasty, in his opinion, was the costliest cut, fillet steak. Sirloin steak was, he advised us, tastier and cheaper than fillet. However, he considered that the tastiest cut was rib-eye. He explained that the latter was marbled with fine streaks of fat, and it was this that gives it its superior taste. We ordered it and discovered he was right. He regretted that he was unable to serve the local, and in his view far superior, Black Mountain beef. This was because of the problems connected with the foot and mouth outbreak.

Whenever I buy steak, I look for rib-eye first, and if this is not available, I go for sirloin. Whenever I think of beefsteak, I always remember that dreary eatery in Llanwrtyd Wells and its helpful landlord. For a long time, I could not remember in which town in Wales, we were given our tutorial about steaks. Recently, I discovered some photographs I had taken there almost twenty years ago. In one of them, there was a pub sign that read “Neuadd Arms Hotel”. Seeing this helped me discover where we had been.

Mad cow

we don’t see ev’rything

that we consume:

might be germs with any bite

 

Bovine_500

From time to time, the United Kingdom is subject to agricultural diseases that need to be accompanied by nation-wide restrictions to limit spreading. A frequently occurring example of this is so-called foot-and-mouth disease. During such epidemics, those not involved in agricultural activities, such as hikers and tourists, are confined to roads, told to keep out of fields where traces of the disease may be lying.

During one outbreak of foot-and-mouth, we were spending a holiday in Wales. Wherever we went, we saw signs and barriers that prevented free movement across the countryside. What with the incessant rain, it made our trip rather dreary. We stopped for lunch in an ugly little town in central Wales. The most attractive looking eatery was a dowdy pub, devoid of any architectural merit. We sat down in its ageing dining room, trying to avert our eyes from the peeling wallpaper and a horrible worn carpet that badly needed to be replaced. Things looked up when the inn-keeper arrived to take our food order. We were attracted to beef steaks. There was a bewildering range of options for this on the menu.  Our host patiently explained the differences between the different types of beefsteak, explaining how the tastiness of the meat itself was related to its fat content and distribution within the cut. Fillet steak, for example, has little fat, not much taste without sauces, but wonderful texture. He recommended rib-eye as being the cut with just the right amount and distribution of fat to be tasty on its own. He was quite right, we discovered in that unattractive dining room in rainy Wales.

bovine

Some years later, Mad Cow disease (Bovine spongiform encephalopathy) became a concern in the UK. One evening, when we were going to a theatre near St Martins Lane in London, there were large headlines about the disease on the front page of the latest issue of the Evening Standard newspaper. Before the performance, we entered a branch of McDonalds for a quick snack. Almost everyone in the café was eating beef burgers, despite the headlines on the newspapers that some of the customers were reading!

Shortly after this, we went on a driving trip through France. In one small town, we walked passed a small restaurant with a sign hanging in its glass-fronted door. It read (in French): “We might be mad, but our beef is not.”

While the Mad Cow scare was at its height, we were invited to stay with some friends in Belgium. We had stayed with them often before. We asked them what they would like us to bring from London. They said they would love a home-made curry, enough for about twelve people. Although I am married to an Indian, it is I who makes the meat curries in our family. I prepared and cooked a huge lamb curry. As it is only a few hours’ drive between London and Belgium and the curry would have to be re-heated before being served, we thought it safe to transport the casserole containing it without refrigeration.

There were more security checks than usual at the English end of the Channel Tunnel. After our car had been examined, and the engine checked for hidden items including explosives, we were asked if we were carrying any meat products across the English Channel. We mentioned that we were transporting a casserole of cooked lamb curry. The security officials looked puzzled, told us not to move, and then walked away towards an office. One of them returned, and asked:

“It’s lamb, not beef is it?”

We confirmed that it was not beef.

“And thoroughly cooked?”

“Yes.”

“Well, what with all those spices, we’ll let you take it through the tunnel.”

Nobody asked us about meat when we arrived in France. We drove through a bath containing disinfected, and then headed for our destination.