The British never forgot imperial measures in the first place


The writer is the FT’s restaurant critic

This week it was reported that the UK government plans to allow traders to sell their wares in the imperial measurements of pounds and ounces, rather than grammes and kilos. When the move was first mooted in September, Lord David Frost, then minister for implementing Brexit, hailed it as one of the dividends that, he said, would flow from Britain’s departure from the EU.

Because I have lived the life I have, I feel uniquely affected by this, on a variety of levels. But, for brevity’s sake, let me give you just five reasons why I couldn’t give a monkey’s about a putative return to imperial measures.

First, cooking. When it comes to measurement, I envy those who can’t cook. If you’re one of those lucky souls who nourish themselves by piercing the film with a glowing fag end before irradiating your dinner-pod for a couple of minutes in the microwave, your entire experience of measurement is expressed in the line “serves one”.

But consider those of us who have to use recipes involving imperial and metric weights, freely intermixed, along with fluid measurements and the absurd US volumetric system of random cup sizes. Then we cook with Fahrenheit, Celsius, gas marks and blind luck. Frankly, I take the entire business with a pinch of salt (3-4g).

Second, my business. I run a small bakery. It’s not all cupcakes and sourdough. It’s a small artisanal factory with traditions, practices and sometimes, equipment, going back 100 years.

I’ve got a £20,000 oven that takes 80 loaves at a time and talks to my mobile. But my bakers still make a 7-inch cake that’s 5cm high. Why? A young baker knows the difference between a well risen 6cm sponge and one at 3cm that’s basically a thick pancake. But it’s always made in a 7-inch tin that’s been there since just after the first world war, has seen metrication come, and quite possibly go, and, deo volente, will still be a 7-inch cake tin when nuclear Armageddon has rendered such questions moot.

Third, are my trousers (not unrelated to points 1 and 2). My waist size is still something like it used to be back in the day. I mean, it’s nominally expressed in inches, but, without wishing to get all philosophical, that’s a construct, not an empirical measurement.

I am built, I will not lie, to a substantial scale. Much like the 1985 Dodge Diplomat, which became obsolete when the manufacturer could no longer justify the amount it drank. So the number “in inches” is just a representation. If you disagree, consider that the difference between a 24-inch and a 26-inch waist is merely one size up, whereas between 36 inches and 38 inches lies a gaping chasm into which the last of the fashionable and interesting clothes disappear and elastic-waisted “gardening” trousers suddenly spring.

Fourth, my motorcycle. I’m rebuilding a 50-year-old Japanese machine, which has undergone many modifications and repairs over its long and distinguished life, acquiring a comprehensive collection of bolts and widgets of every thread size, pitch angle and major and minor diameter.

There are metric bolts, imperial bolts and bolts from God-knows-what other empires. The tattooed man at the motorcycle garage once spent three days looking for a replacement carburettor screw before telling me, in choked sobs, that the old one had been “custom cut” by some enterprising mechanic.

Finally, consider my vices. I haven’t bought a “pint” since I was an art student, but I’ve consumed lakes of wine in convenient 75cl bottles. I’m not sure I’d drink a measured cocktail but in most of the places I go, the choice is between one full, unmatched vintage Bohemian becherovka goblet or making an evening of it with eight.

There’s probably an obsolete unit of drunkenness but, who, in a very real sense, is counting? I understand, incidentally, that recreational drugs are sold in both grammes and ounces. Though I gather one should expect short weight and not to remonstrate with one’s dealer.

In fact, there’s one final reason that I couldn’t give a toss about imperial measures — and it’s the most important: I am not entirely credulous. At the age of about six, I worked out why the magician at a party wanted so badly that I watch his “other hand”. Boris Johnson, the prime minister, seems to be engaged in a very similar act. Because, let’s face it, we’re not going to do it, are we? We never forgot imperial measurements in the first place, and “re-establishing” them is little more than a cynical sleight of hand.



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