Three weeks ago the Guardian newspaper reported an attempt by the British government to shelve publication of the official report from an Inquiry into the country’s 2013 horse meat scandal.
Yesterday, the report was finally published.
The Inquiry, chaired by Professor Chris Elliott of Belfast’s Queens University, had been set up to investigate how horse meat had managed to find its way into a range of processed meat products for sale on supermarket shelves, including burgers and ready meals. Professor Elliott was also expected to make recommendations for action to help prevent a similar scandal happening again.
One reason for the government’s attempt to stifle publication might have been that the report highlights the adverse impact of recent massive cuts to the UK’s food inspectorate and food law enforcement services.
That’s because the government’s so-called austerity programme has led to the dismantling some of the “red tape” that is despised by big business but which has hitherto helped to regulate the quality of the food that we eat. As a result, a huge swathe of key food safety posts have been cut, including trading standards officers, cut by an average 40% since this government took office, environmental health officers and meat hygiene inspectors.
Another reason for the attempted suppression of the report’s publication could well be that the UK government has simultaneously successfully lobbied the European commission to deregulate and even abolish a number of safety checks that until very recently were required to be carried out routinely in UK abattoirs.
Taken together, the cuts to frontline inspection personnel and the deregulation of meat industry safety checks have certainly reduced overheads for those businesses running the slaughter and meat processing industries, but only at the price of far less scrutiny than was the case even before last year’s horse meat scandal.
As a result, the public can be less confident than ever that the meat products they buy are labelled correctly, or even that they are safe to eat. It’s no wonder that the UK government was so keen to forestall publication of Professor Elliott’s report.
Let’s move on to a recipe that I can guarantee is 100% horse-meat free, although in fairness I should warn you that it may contain traces of courgette.
Like other vegetable growers I always find myself with a lot of courgettes this time of year. Back in early June I planted out just one each of three varieties of courgette plants – “all green bush”, “golden zucchini” and “Rondo di Nizza” – on my allotment plot, the Circus Garden, and they have been pretty much in constant production ever since. The courgette glut is such a well-known phenomenon for the vegetable grower that there is even a cook book devoted solely to courgette recipes called “What Will I do with All Those Courgettes?”.
This recipe has been inspired by a holiday in Provence, southern France, from which I returned earlier this week. The Provence region is responsible for many culinary classics, including the tian, upon which this dish is based.
Made in a shallow, earthenware dish (which is also called a tian), a traditional tian is cooked in an oven without the addition of liquid, in order to bring out the intrinsic flavours of the ingredients. The base flavours – in this case tomatoes, courgettes and olives – are intensified through this process. I have deviated from a true tian by gratinising this dish, adding both mozzarella and Parmesan for additional flavour and texture, but I think it is all the better for that.
This is a dish that needs a bit of cooking time but which is simple to prepare and full of rich, deeply satisfying Provençal flavours. Serve with a simple, light salad.
courgette, tomato and olive tian
2 onions, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp dried herbes de Provence (if unavailable use a pinch each of dried thyme, rosemary and tarragon)
2 medium courgettes, cut into fairly thin slices, about the thickness of a pound coin
6 medium tomatoes, cut into fairly thin slices, about the thickness of a pound coin
2 balls vegetarian mozzarella, sliced thinly
12 whole black olives, unpitted
2 tbsp fresh basil, roughly torn or chopped
15 g vegetarian Parmesan, finely grated
1. Heat the oil in a pan over a medium heat. When hot, add the chopped onion and reduce the heat to its lowest setting, stirring occasionally. As the onion begins to soften, after about five minutes, add the sea salt, garlic and herbes de Provence. Continue to cook on the low heat, stirring every so often, for a further 25-30 minutes, or until the onion is meltingly soft and the mixture has a confit-like consistency. Remove from the heat and leave to cool for a few minutes.
2. Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F, gas mark 5).
3. Pour the onion and garlic confit into a shallow ovenproof dish spread it evenly across the base. Now carefully place alternate overlapping layers of courgette, tomato, mozzarella and torn basil leaves at an angle on top of the confit. Finally, push the olives gently into the layered tomato, courgette and mozzarella, and place the tian in the pre-heated oven. Cook for 50 minutes then remove briefly from the oven and sprinkle the grated Parmesan over the top of the tian. Return to the oven for a further 20 minutes, or until the top of the tian is starting to turn golden brown. Leave to cool briefly before serving.