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Making a substantial meal of things

Choosing a single object that symbolises the crappiness of life in 2020, when the UK made a complete meal of Covid and Brexit, struck me as impossible. Until I happened on the Scotch Egg, the perfect end-of-days snack.

As the UK went into tiered lockdowns in December, it was decreed that pubs in tier two areas could remain open if they served a ‘substantial meal’ alongside alcohol.

Given how seriously the British take their alcohol, Ministers should have been better prepared when they found themselves being questioned about what exactly constitutes a ‘substantial meal’. One Minister claimed a Scotch Egg would suffice. Another countered that two Scotch Eggs would more usually be served as a starter course, before agreeing with his colleague in another interview straight afterwards.

That was it. Sales of the breadcrumbed, sausage meat-entombed egg snack that was a staple of the British picnic in the 1950s are up 25% according to one manufacturer, as pubs have rushed to stock up on the get-out-of-jail-free carb that allowed them to stay open and meet their regulars’ drinking needs.

The many times that politicians have acted Mein Host and lifted up pints of froth to the light for a photo opportunity with ‘real people’ do not seem to have given them much insight into the institution that is the pub itself. This is established by the Scotch Egg guidance and the Ministerial confusion around it, and suggests that out of touch politicians don’t seem to know what is eaten in pubs, let alone what is said.

Many MPs are jealous of a certain box-fresh wax jacket ex-metals trader who seems at unusual ease in a City lounge bar. This may explain both their openness to his strange notions of sovereignty and lies of Turkish hordes and their intent to push the country off a cliff as a result.

Yet the same attention is not given to more measured pub conversations that take place all around the country at lower decibels, over quick-grilled ciabatta pizzas, Thai curries, lasagne, Sunday Roasts, salads and hot buffalo wings. The jar of pickled eggs, or glass cabinet stuffed with Scotch Eggs a Minister may recall seeing behind a bar in ‘Withnail and I’ is a rare sight nowadays. Unless you’re in a beardy nu-pub in Hackney.

Pub owners know there’s no money in beer anymore. Thanks to successive Governments’ failure to address the inequities of the PubCo system and significant rate rises, landlords simply cannot survive without serving food, and most have invested heavily in their kitchens as a result. They understand their customer’s needs better than the UK’s politicians understand the electorate, it seems.

A Scotch Egg can often be bland, but until the advent of the wrap, samosa or Thai fishcake, it was the ideal accompaniment at wakes and village fêtes. Places where something is needed to soak up the alcohol necessary to navigate an awkward social occasion.

Like so much else in the UK over the last thirty years, the Scotch Egg has undergone a transformation, however, and really isn’t the event standby or pub snack it once was. It has become a fashionable item on a gastropub or bistro menu, where it has been reinvented alongside the prawn cocktail, Black Forest Gateau and other similarly dated British classics.

No, a Scotch Egg may now include chorizo or smoked haddock and might be served with beetroot ketchup, or perched on grilled asparagus. In a sign of how self-confident British cooking has become in recent years — who knows, maybe access to the EU’s skilled people and new ingredients SOMEHOW HELPED? — your gastropub Scotch Egg will be amazing but will share very little with its sad, supermarket equivalent. The gastropub version will cost £12.95 and should hardly be considered a pub snack anymore. Three bags of crisps would fulfil the same sobering role, at half the price, though.

There is another reason why the Scotch Egg should be the object of the year: at the time of writing the UK is set to crash out of the EU with no deal.

Supermarkets and producers have already warned that food prices will increase dramatically, as the UK relies on food imports from the rest of Europe. The cost of a deep-fried Camembert or grilled Halloumi pub meal starter would rise by 55%, according to the London School of Economics.

So, in a bizarre development that seems to sum up 2020 well, what started the year as a gastropub menu item that spoke to the UK’s self-confidence and culinary creativity could end up a regular pub staple once again, as we enter a new and hungrier phase in the UK’s breakdown. Don’t expect the elaborately-cooked version; there will be no chorizo. Just the cheapest sausage meat and egg that UK manufacturers faced with supplies stuck in supply chain hell can lay their hands on.

The UK in 2020, then. Taking back control, one pub snack at a time, as those that govern and indeed live in the country make a meal of everything and anything, from Covid to Brexit. I expect the online petition any day now that demands the placement of two elephantine Scotch Egg bezants on Global Britain’s new coat of arms. Alongside a unicorn, a portaloo, a lorry queue dogging scene and the uniquitous Spitfire.

I have a less sordid vision, however, which involves commissioning a huge Scotch Egg in marble and mounting it on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, providing our uniquely pigeon-crapped take on those shiny monoliths that have appeared in American deserts. Not so much ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ as ‘1951: A Town Centre Pubcrawl.’ At a time when politicians are seemingly furious about the toppling of statues of slave traders, a huge marble Scotch Egg would no doubt be an uncontroversial choice.

I can even see it becoming a major tourist attraction. While visitors to New York City are urged to take a huge bite out of all the Big Apple has to offer, confused tourists tempted to the UK’s capital city could be encouraged to sample a Substantial Meal as part of a rebranding exercise. Nothing says global ambition, nor supports a two-week trudge around the West End surprised by the high prices, like a beer-sponge Scotch Egg.

You may believe a facemask, a chalked rainbow or a vial of vaccine captures 2020 better. I disagree. A tasteless mouth-sized snack is the perfect symbol for a tired nation that needs to line its stomach if it’s not to wake up in a bush in the morning with no keys, a cracked smartphone and a new and persistent cough.

The Scotch Egg: 2020 will give us nothing finer.

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Written by

A pick and mix of words; now online, better packaged and more expensive, like everything post-COVID. The sour cherries are best. The opinions are my own.

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