Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Britain's Real Food Heroes - Keith Floyd and Mr Tayto



As a healthy lifestyle choice I watch as little television as humanely possible. Unfortunately on two occasions recently I have briefly caught some particularly nauseating material by default. We had the new series of The Apprentice where some deeply disturbed twenty-somethings prostrate themselves with submission and self-loathing in front of an angry businessman - not unlike terrified young teenage prison inmates in front of a leering Mr Big and his National Front skinhead henchmen. Then there was the semi-final of Masterchef where contestants risked a stress coronary to have their experimental dishes critiqued by bloated and loathsome pigs from the national press - the same professional reviewers whose work caters to the demographic that has brought the country to its knees and offered up the suitcase or the coffin for the rest of us left on a water, baked beans and Monster Munch diet.

Conversely a few days ago I was watching a charming edition of Keith Floyd's Floyd On Spain programme set in Majorca. It would appear that most of Keith Floyd's television output currently available on DVD (the seven series on wine, Scandinavia, the Mediterranean, Africa, Italy, South East Asia and Spain) is from the latter half of his career between 1992 and 2001 unlike the earlier BBC series once oft-repeated on satellite television -  Floyd on Fish, Floyd on Food, Floyd on France and Floyd on Britain and Ireland. These transmitted between 1984 and 1988. There was also a Floyd on a Pub Run (1985), Floyd's American Pie (1989), Floyd On Oz (1991), Capital Floyd (2000)  and Floyd's India (2001) along the way. The production values of the sixteen series can leave much to be desired on occasion - and many times the finished food itself doesn't look especially appetising - but the sheer charisma, cheek and cool of the man is still wonderful to behold.

Some amazing moments in hindsight like Floyd cooking up an authentic Roman centurion's pork stew dinner near Hadrian's Wall for a local historian and throwing away the ghastly concoction and the plate itself at first bite, walking into a Welsh rugby club in sporting attire and upending the entire contents of the cooking pot full of cawl on the floor in front of the assembled teams when he fell on his arse and the marvellous way he handled a verbal bashing from a sneering French she-vampire cook over the crappy quality of his own version of piperade. In an earlier post I also referenced the brilliant use of music by The Stranglers throughout and especially the scene in possibly Biarritz where he walked along the beach and replaced a French dirge in the background with Hanging Around by way of a a comedy vinyl scratch. The Stranglers music used in some of the series was mainly Waltzinblack, Peaches and Viva Vlad. Floyd's various autobiographies provide genuinely entertaining reading and, alike George Best, he remains a public figure who instils a genuine feeling of regret and loss that he is no longer here with us. Keith Floyd died in September 2009 while watching a documentary Keith Meets Keith about his life in Avignon France - he was only 65.

On the subject of Best, during the Ulster Troubles of the Seventies there was little for the people of Northern Ireland to be proud of in truth aside from the Manchester United star, Olympian Mary Peters (Freeman of Belfast on this very day) and Mr Tayto the potato crisp legend. What Ulster person could ever forget his contribution to healing and inclusiveness over the course of the conflict as he personally peeled, cut, fried and flavoured hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of packets of crisps at Tayto Castle in County Armagh. Tayto Castle - "Deep in the heart of Ulster's countryside" to directly quote the old blurb on the back of the packet - in fact is a factory beside Tandragee Castle where American soldiers of the 28th Cavalry Squadron, 6th Cavalry Group, 3rd US Army were stationed prior to D-Day.

I finally managed to clarify yesterday that on the island of Ireland there are actually two Tayto brands from two separate companies - the Northern Irish version was founded in 1956 and the Republic of Ireland one earlier still in 1954. During the 2007 General Election in the Republic the Tayto brand ran an advertising campaign with the legendary Mr Tayto as a mock candidate. Apparently several spoiled papers in the Carlow-Kilkenny constituency were altered to a vote for the potato personage himself by some very politically astute swing voters. When the southern Tayto company tried to market their product in England and Wales they encountered difficulties as the Ulster brand owned the legal right to trade under the name in the UK. From a cursory look at both websites it would appear that cheese and onion is the classic flavour of choice in both states. In terms of the branding, the southern Irish Mr Tayto is almost late-Fifties in stylistic appearance while the northern equivalent seems more early Seventies and cartoonlike in form.

Some years ago during the mass grounding of European aviation off the back of Icelandic volcano ash Mr Tayto himself was present at the national airports in Northern Ireland to welcome home the hordes of weary and frustrated passengers with a variety of reviving crunchy treats. Tayto truly is The Taste of Home no less and always will be. I was conversely stranded in Northern Ireland at this time and was only welcomed back to London Heathrow with faces etched with fear, misery and hostility. And that was just the groundstaff.

In light of the recent chaos in Northern Ireland over government compliance with proposed care home closures - magnificently overturned by public outrage and a particularly incisive coverage by the BBC Northern Ireland Stephen Nolan Show on the subject - perhaps the hand of history is upon us again. Alike James Craig and Michael Collins in the early Twenties or Terence O'Neill and Sean Lemass in the mid-Sixties. On an island fractured by financial collapse, recidivist paramilitary threat and sectarian loathing perhaps Mr Tayto and Mr Tayto alone - shaking smokey bacon hands across the border and exchanging multi-flavour variety packs or even cool branded merchandise  - could bring a fresh understanding between the sadly divided peoples of Ireland. It couldn't be any worse than the recent political and economic fucking eejitry in Stormont or the Dail anyway.



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