A Spanish Gem

One of the joys of being in a different country is the ongoing voyage of discovery …

It goes without saying that travel will fill a great deal of time in discovering new places and historical sites, but two things that can be discovered on your doorstep are food and drink. Some people rave about Spanish cuisine, especially the cheap tapas often enjoyed at lunchtimes, but experience has found that one needs to select these dishes rather carefully. Generally speaking, cheap is the all-important word, so quality ingredients usually will be in short supply. Personally, I prefer more traditional dishes utilising fresh ingredients especially as there is an abundance of fruit and vegetables available when in season!

However, drink is another matter entirely. Obviously, there are copious amounts of wine available depending upon where you shop, with many Spanish stores only stocking wine from Spain. The wine is marketed by the region from which it originates rather than the more usual way of identifying it by grape. As is the case with all wines, there are good and bad ones, although price is not necessarily an indication of quality. To ensure an acceptable beverage, it is best to select wines that are identified by Denominaciōn de Origen which fairly equates to Appellation d’origine Contrôllée in France and Qualitātswein in Germany. A natural progression from wine is the liqueur, often regarded as a luxury, and one liqueur in Spain is no exception.

Cuarenta y Tres

Nestled within the historic city of Cartagena is a family-owned distillery making the liqueur known as 43 or Cuarenta y Tres! It is so-named as it is made from forty-three separate ingredients combining citrus fruits, herbs and spices all found in the Mediterranean. The exact recipe is a mystery and only three members of the Zamora family know the secret behind the liqueur. The special infusion process yields a rich golden liquid with tastes of honey, vanilla and caramel, although there are many varying descriptions of the actual taste. It is believed that the recipe was discovered by the Romans over 2000 years ago and it is verified that all the ingredients were commonplace in Spain at the time of the Roman Empire.

As with any liqueur, how one drinks it is an individual choice. Personally, I enjoy it served with ice but it needs to be consumed quite quickly before the ice dilutes it! Some enjoy Cuarenta y Tres as a traditional after-dinner drink with coffee whilst it is popular as a longer cocktail drink with the younger generation. One thing is certain though … this drink is a real gem, and with Cartagena being within easy reach, a tour of the distillery with free tasting is on the agenda! As for price, it isn’t exactly cheap and costs more than the likes of Cointreau, which. of course, is imported. The drink undoubtedly plays a very important part in the history and heritage of Spain.


How The Mighty Are Falling

The continuing demise of UK household names …

Looking at many of the traditional High Streets or main shopping areas of British towns will reveal numerous empty shop units struggling to find occupants. This is due, in some ways, to the ever-increasing business taxes demanded by local authorities. Taxes have reached such epidemic proportions that many smaller businesses have been forced to close as they became unprofitable. Councils are so short-sighted that they fail to see that a lower income received from occupied premises is better than no income from vacant shop units! Another major contributing factor for the number of empty shops is the long term dominance of retail conglomerates who have either forced small traders out of business or simply swallowed them up.

The buoyant trading decades of the 70s and 80s provided the shopper with real choice as well as convenience. There were traditional small food supermarkets, butchers, bakers and even candlestick makers! Amidst these were traditional ironmongers, china shops, privately-owned chemists, local tea rooms, haberdashery outlets and a variety of clothing chains. Of course, the major shopping centres also boasted departmental stores, Marks & Spencer, Debenhams and Woolworth to name but a few. Some of these big names still remain but one will struggle to find the variety of shops of yesteryear in a typical town centre. Even some large departmental eg Woolworth and quality furniture eg Maples stores have disappeared into the ether.

A lack of variety undoubtedly means a lack of choice and competitiveness. Sadly, this is the price paid for capitalism where strong players have the clout to squash smaller fry. Contrary to the belief that big is best, it has long been recognised that many big businesses are highly impersonal, lack flexibility, and take the customer for granted. As such, people are voting with their feet and household names such as Tesco and Marks & Spencer are struggling. In simple terms, they have lost their way after stampeding through the last two decades. M&S have regularly declared declining fashion sales, year on year, primarily because they have tried to emulate other more trendy clothes retailers without success. They need to go back to their roots, listen to their customers, and get back to offering well-made quality clothing. The company proudly displayed in-store banners in the 1980s which stated that ‘over 90% of goods were British made’. I doubt if even 5% of what they now sell is sourced in the UK. A trip around any M&S store will reveal considerable tat, especially in the fashion and homeward departments. Ironically, their only long term successes are their food halls and Simply Food outlets.

Although there are about seven major food retailers, the largest by far is Tesco, having become the biggest retailer in the UK and second in the world! The company has back pedalled on several occasions in the last two years or so, launching new discount initiatives and employing various marketing tactics. Much of this has alienated their core customers who, rightly, have been deceived by many of their so-called offers and non-transparent fluctuating prices. The old trickery of new packaging has been used to reduce the weight of countless products, undoubtedly, used by other companies too, but overall instability within Tesco has made the company a prime target. Without trying too hard, Tesco have successfully alienated suppliers, communities and customers alike … finally, it is payback time as suppliers and customers are beginning to dictate terms. It must be asked just how much longer their dominance will last as they continue to lose market share.

Another institution on the brink is the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Anyone who has had the misfortune to watch television abroad will appreciate the sheer professionalism and quality of the BBC, making it the undesputable best broadcaster in the world. A key factor in its overall quality is the lack of advertising which intrudes into programmes on all other channels. On mainstream channels such as ITV and Channel 4, the advertising breaks are regulated, but tune into any of the non-terrestrial channels and you’ll see adverts pop up every few minutes. That is much like most television in mainland Europe, not to mention the United States where it’s not unknown for a commercial break immediately prior to the end programme credits. The BBC is, of course, funded by a licence fee, the price of which has been frozen for about 4 years. There are many critics of this fee due to its cost, but currently it works out at just over £12 a month. This currently provides seven television channels, countless radio stations, and the best online presence of any broadcasting institution. Many of these critics are happy to pay Sky in excess of £50 a month for an array of repeat channels, most of which they will never watch!

So what is contributing to the decline of the BBC? Sadly, there are an increasing number of people who refuse to pay the licence fee, thereby depriving the BBC of much needed income. It is these same people who criticise the broadcaster for lacklustre programming, but in reality they are a contributory cause. If the BBC is to continue being funded in this way, I would suggest the fee is collected as part of any tax liability, meaning that everyone eligible will pay their share. Secondly, the broadcaster is very wasteful with the money entrusted to them. It has become a top-heavy, mis-managed bureaucracy with constant infighting and awash with scandal since the revelations of the late Jimmy Savile. Not only are some of its management grossly overpaid, but they also pay select celebrities stupid money in order to compete with the opposition. A situation has now arisen whereby big names are seen as far more important than talent meaning that only about half their annual budget is actually spent on programmes.

The schedules are full of repeats plus repeats of repeats! It is acknowledged that with the extra channels, it is impossible to fill all the time with new and original programming. It has just been agreed in principle that the youth-orientated BBC3 channel will be closed down and the service made online only. However, they are going to extend the broadcasting hours of the dedicated children’s channels when kids ought to be encouraged to do more practical things rather than watching television! Personally, I think the BBC has missed an opportunity … namely to have a dedicated sports channel and one for showing repeats of classic programmes. This would then keep BBC1 for mainstream entertainment and drama, whilst BBC2 would revert to its original remit of offering alternative and slightly more risqué programming.

In recent years, there has been a constant dumbing down of both content and presentation. Their news output is so biased, politically correct and lacking depth or coverage. The once alternative News Channel now emulates the style of news coverage on BBC1 and scheduled bulletins are simulcast. I fail to see why this is so as the amount of money saved must be marginal. We now see fewer drama productions and innovative documentaries as reality tv is rapidly taking over the BBC. I’m writing this whilst watching the BBC coverage of tennis from Wimbledon. This has always been essential viewing since my childhood and according to their onscreen promotions, the tournament this year can be enjoyed across all media formats. Sadly, this has also proved that bigger is not necessarily better. They must be antagonising countless viewers by switching matches midway from either one channel to another, via the red button facility or online. This never happened a few years ago unless transmission on one channel was coming to an end. Yet more dumbing down …

It is difficult to imagine that the BBC will exist in its present format in 20 years’ time but quite what the future holds is open to debate. As with the likes of Tesco and M&S, the broadcaster needs to return to its core roots and most importantly, listen to their customers ie the viewers! So many large institutions are in danger of imploding which could well signify their permanent demise if they continue to operate as arrogant bureaucracies. Other companies employing similar management tactics should take note!