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2 August 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 3:30pm

There’s nothing posh about worrying about a lack of avocados after Brexit

That British food is now edible is thanks to imported fresh fruit and veg. And it won’t be the Brexiteers who have to go without.

By Otto English

In the summer of 1981, I was sent on a French exchange to Mantes la Jolie in the western suburbs of Paris. Why my parents did this is a bit of a mystery, because I couldn’t speak any French, the family I was staying with couldn’t speak any English and Mantes la Jolie in the early 1980s was anything but “jolie”

The night before my departure, my mum upped the ante, by drilling into me the dangers of French tap water and how I was to go to any lengths to avoid it, in case I might die. But once I encountered French food, poisoned water became the least of my concerns.

From the point of view of a 12-year-old English boy, the family I had been sent to stay with were cave dwellers. They stuck pastries into hot chocolate at breakfast, their bread was the wrong shape, they ate raw meat with uncooked vegetables for their lunch, the prawns they tucked into were still in their shells and more than once I was served a suspicious green fruit – as a starter. I had never seen an avocado before and, after tasting a slither of it, determined that I would never do so again. It was quite clear that the French knew absolutely nothing about food.

Of course, it was all a matter of perspective. It is impossible for anyone who wasn’t alive in early Eighties Britain to understand just how low the culinary bar was. Frozen food was considered exotic. School dinners consisted of lukewarm liver and smash. Breaded pancakes stuffed with cheese were a treat; tinned salmon was a delicacy and if anyone served you a chicken kiev, you were entitled to be more than a little suspicious of their fancy continental ways. People who grew up then may rightly get misty-eyed about choppers (ask your Grandad) or the Bay City Rollers (ask your Nan) but getting wistful for British food of the 1970s and 1980s is a bit like getting nostalgic for polio or the three-day week.

On Monday of this week, Jim Winship, the director of the British Sandwich Association, appeared on Newsnight and explained that a “no-deal” Brexit would impede the import of produce from the EU and spell disaster for an industry where the fresh ingredient is king. The British public buys 4,000,000,000 sandwiches a year and imports much of the avocados, tomatoes and lettuce used to make them from Spain. World Trade Organisation rules would wreak havoc on the industry, as obligatory border checks could cause fresh produce to rot in containers on the wrong side of the Channel. Tory MP Marcus Fysh listened impatiently to all of this, and then dismissed it all as “silly season” guff before suggesting on Twitter that it was all a conspiracy anyway because the CEO of one of the members of the British Sandwich Association was the brother of an Irish government minister.

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Leavers took up the chant that “now Project Fear says we won’t have sandwiches anymore”. Ukip’s Peter Whittle even invented a fake lunch from some stock online photos to drive home the point. There was much talk of middle-class Remoaners being upset because they won’t have avocados alongside crying emojis – you get the picture.

The problem with that is that the avocado is no longer an exotic item – everyone eats them. Sales have increased by over 184 per cent since 2013 with nearly 38,000 tonnes flying off the shelves. Lidl includes them in their everyday range and Iceland has them available pre-sliced. And it’s not just the humble avo; over the last 30 years, the culinary expectations of most British people have undergone an extraordinary revolution. In the Seventies, the only Olive Oil anyone had heard of was Popeye’s girlfriend – nowadays everyone has a bottle of it in their kitchen cupboard. Would even the most diehard Brexiteer really be willing to go back in time and live off a diet of congealed sandwich paste and Findus pancakes for the sake of their sovereignty?

The reckless dismissal of the food industry’s legitimate concerns by Marcus Fysh and others has nothing to do with the cold realities of global trade and everything to do with delivering their precious Brexit. Fysh (who earns £77,379 a year as an MP), Rees-Mogg (a former fund manager as well as an MP), Farage (a former commodities trader) and chums won’t be affected by any of this, of course. Their Brexit strategy is in essence a “let them eat Spam” approach, which will cease to be funny at the moment staple goods, including avocados, start disappearing from the shelves. Will ordinary people accept that? Unlikely, because while the past may well be a foreign country – it is not necessarily one most Britons would be prepared to revisit.

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