There is an Arabic condiment called zatar, a mixture of dry spices which is delicious on toasted bread sprinkled with olive oil. I buy it in the Edgware Road, an oasis of the Middle East in the gastronomic desert that is London. There are many brands, unpronounceable names punctuated with guttural stops one and all, and consequently choosing the right one – without the luxury of having had a Lebanese, Syrian, or Jordanian grandmother – is not easy. The general principle I follow when choosing my zatar is that the more corrupt the English on the label, the better the taste.
It’s a principle born of my Italian experience, which I’m happy to share. Whenever you’re buying an Italian product exported abroad, be it a bottle of wine or a packet of pasta, take the time to read the English part of the label carefully. If this contains fewer than three grammatical or syntactic errors per sentence, you’re probably being sold something made in Bulgaria and marketed by a bunch of Englishmen in sharp suits.
A very good thing about most Middle Eastern labels is that, besides English, they are printed in several other languages, which allows the discriminating consumer yet greater scope for analysis. The best zatar I ever tasted had a version in Russian, which rendered the ingredient “nuts” by means of the plural form of the word for “metal fastener with threaded hole for securing bolt.” That was hopeful enough, but it was when I got to the Russian for “thyme leaves” that I knew this was the real McCoy. The words had all the grandeur of an Elizabethan stage direction: Exit Timianus.
All of this is very apropos at the moment, as a European Union law coming into effect later this year requires all restaurants to identify on their menus 13 “allergens” in addition to the good old metal fasteners with threaded holes, including milk, celery, and mustard. Multinational restaurant chains, whose menus are as immutable as potted ficus, will not be affected, of course, but try running a real restaurant, where the dishes change daily, with this Damoclean stricture hanging over your head. For if you forget to state on your menu that your chocolate truffles contain milk, or that the green stalk protruding dangerously from the Bloody Mary bound for Table 5 is indeed celery, this preposterous law will shut you down as surely as if you’d lit up a fat Havana in a maternity ward.
Naturally, packaged foods will be made to follow suit, so we can look forward to a new Babel of broken English, crawling with celeriac stalkers and awash in milking particulars. Unlike the imaginative and evocative work of Italian and Arabic language terrorists, however, this new savagery will be quite useless as the litmus test of genuineness I have so long and successfully relied upon, because all such package labeling will now be compulsory and universal.
Exit Timianus, never to return. Exeunt omnes.
Andrei Navrozov, born in Moscow, lives in Palermo and is European editor for Chronicles. The former publisher of the Yale Lit, he is a widely published author and translator. His Italian Carousel: Scenes of Internal Exile was published by Peter Owen Publishers.