On Tuesday, I had the great pleasure of interviewing a living legend: Laurent Spanghero. At the start of our session, he told me, ‘People often say I should write a book about my life. If I did, it would be called “My Lives” because I have had so many different careers.’
Spanghero is a name that may be familiar to you from rugby, cassoulet, the European meat industry, food scandals (unfairly, as you will discover if you read the rest of this article) or innovative foods that are 100% organic and 100% vegetarian.
Unfortunately for the Spangheros, the new owners carried on using the family name. When the company was unmasked as the main villain in the great European horsemeat scandal of 2013, Laurent understandably took it rather personally. ‘Our name was dirt,’ he said. Unsurprisingly, the vilified company soon found itself with an empty order book and on the verge of collapse. ’For the honour of our family name, I decided to try to save it. My wife and sons thought I was mad. It was difficult, but I rescued the business and sold it again the following year.’
For many years, Laurent Spanghero was a well-known figure in the wider meat industry. In 1996 he became president of the French meat industry trade association and had to deal with the implications of a new disease that appeared that same year: bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. Four years later, he began a decade as president of the European Livestock and Meat Trades Union, a trade body representing 20,000 meat-based businesses across the continent. But somewhere along the way, he became a flexitarian, and became increasingly absorbed by the question of how our planet is going to provide a balanced diet for a human population that is forecast to reach ten billion by 2050.
My next book is about food and drink in the south of France, and my intention is to give my readers a balanced diet of gastronomy, history, legend and local colour. But I also want to explore what innovations of today might become the traditions of tomorrow. This was the theme of the rest of my discussion with Laurent. In recent years, his research has taken him to many parts of Europe, Africa and the United States, and when he was in his 70s, he founded a start-up company called Nutrinat which uses a combination of germinated pulses and grains to produce foods with a protein content similar to the beef steaks he ate with such gusto in his rugby-playing days.
Laurent Spanghero is a man full of energy and ideas, and it was a great honour to interview him a few days after his 81st birthday.