Austerity and Abundance Special:
Chic chefs know that the best food is not expensive
I have just finished writing a book called Supper For A Song, to be published in October. It is, in a nutshell, about eating well for less. However, the words frugal, cheap, credit-crunch, austerity, budget, own-label, thrift are absolutely not what the book is about, indeed, they are banned from its pages.
My book is about bounty, plenty, good food, good ingredients and buying the best. The best certainly doesn’t always mean the most expensive; think hocks, shanks, belly, breast, trotters, skirt. And roots, shoots and leaves have always been a part of my culinary grammar. It’s about doing less with less and sometimes more with less and eschewing conspicuous extravagance or consumption.
Culinary chic – recessionary culinary chic, that is – is the most creative kind of cooking there is. It is not just about showing how little you’ve spent, it’s about how creative a cook you can be, and about the trouble you have taken. It is no longer acceptable merely to shop for the most extravagant ingredients and put them on a plate-a style of eating and entertaining that the previous decade of excess applauded. You know, the dinner where the San Daniele or Pata Negra is served hand-deep on great platters with ripe figs or Ogen melons, followed, perhaps, by a whole wild sea bass or salmon, a cheeseboard taking in the A to nearly Z of everything from Appleby’s Cheshire to Vacherin Mont d’Or. The incessant discussion of how it all got from pasture to plate.
The dinner parties and entertaining of the last decade have been as much about showing off our recently acquired foodie knowledge and our buying of extravagant ingredients as anything else. People have been terrorised by cheffy food to the point at which they didn’t dare serve the ordinary, everyday good food that they used to buy and used to know how to cook. The smart restaurant entered the home kitchen, but we weren’t very comfortable with it: it meant pressure, too much faffing about, too much money and altogether didn’t feel much like home.
In the little less than a year it’s taken to send food prices for even the most bog-standard staples skyward and for the recession to bite us back, we have had to go back to what we once knew best – to cooking for even special occasions without spending our entire week’s food budget. Conspicuous consumption has become a form of vulgarity. Now we don’t talk labels and luxury foods so much as how little we have spent and how slowly we have cooked it. We are becoming wallet-wise in the kitchen.
While the world doesn’t exactly await or need yet another cookbook, I am optimistic that the words “prescient” and “zeitgeist” may still apply to Supper For A Song. I have actually lived it and cooked the book since last summer in the west of Ireland and I have never had such fun, given more splendid lunches, suppers, dinners and weekends, nor had so many compliments, foodily speaking, while no longer feeling queasily uneasy about the gaping hole in my pocket.
“Something Out Of Nothing” became a way of life and a chapter in the book, but the hair shirt was definitely off. I truly believe I learned to cook and eat better and that none of the recipients, the friends and family at my table, started Chinese Whispers about what a cheapskate I was or went home hungry. In fact, I have had more requests for the recipes than ever before. “Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the crunch is the cookbook industry,” suggested Rebecca Seal in the Observer in March. So, far from curbing our food spending power, we are being led back into the kitchen with the tools that many of the baby-boomer and below generations were never armed with, cookbooks for our times. This same article declared that sales of basic raw ingredients are soaring as shoppers cut their bills by giving up ready meals, and that sales of Sunday roasts are up 44 per cent this year in one of the larger supermarket chains, likewise recipe cards for a basic beef stew which resulted in a 2,000 per cent increase in sales. The food sector is the only one in retail that is growing, albeit at a snail’s pace.
But there is work to be done and lessons to be learned. We don’t know what to do with the snout-to-tail cuts, how to recycle left-overs, look in the fridge and the larder for tonight and tomorrow’s dinner, reincarnate, réchauffer, reinvent and not waste. We have to learn to cook the cuts and comestibles that our parents and grandparents loved and lived on and to wean our children off ready-made heat-and-eat culture.
I predict an eating revolution. People are having to reinvent their whole way of life in the economic downturn, and food is the one thing in our lives that lends itself best to this kind of radical overhaul and reinvention. We can economise and do it better, whoever we are, however we live. Think of it like this: food and cooking is the one activity the whole family can, should and sometimes does join in together. It is not a luxury, it is a necessity. Somewhere in the backs of the minds of even the worst of worst cooks, deeply rooted in the DNA is the knowledge, the desire to provide for the table, to nurture their family with good food, make the best of what they can afford. Even if we used to cheat, skimp, and be lazy, it will now cost us dearer. We have to learn to do things differently and within our diminished means. Cooking is IN. So is staying in – it has become the new going out.
It also seems to have struck a chord with the teens-to-thirties who until the recession were happy to spend £60-£70 on dinner out, but have now switched camp to order a take-out Indian, Chinese or pizza. Old habits don’t die hard, they shift with the tide, now they go for a £20 pizza. And line up the DVDs and tinnies for a night-out in. This information comes courtesy of the Detroit-based Domino’s Pizza delivery chain, which is experiencing an upturn that flies totally in the face of what’s happening to the restaurant business. However, that said, there has never been a better time to eat lunch out in a top restaurant, from here to Paris to New York. Richard Corrigan’s brilliant new restaurant, Corrigan’s, in London, offers a set lunch, two courses, with a carafe of wine, for £19.50. Many well-known, even Michelin-starred restaurants are offering similar deals. As scores of restaurants not offering value for money close, the smart ones rethink. I would like to predict that there will be a new breed of restaurateur who will emerge from the ashes of the recession, knowing that the cynical overcharging that became so much a part of our restaurant culture will be replaced by better food at fairer prices. The customer now expects more and will go further to eat better for less.
I spoke to Gerard Coleman of L’Artisan du Chocolat – for my money the most talented up-market chocolatier in the business – who is buoyant and upbeat enough to say, “Recession? Bring it on!” So here is another extraordinary fact in the fragile, faddy, culinary world. People are buying expensive chocolate, THE most expensive chocolate, and more of it, not less.
We all know what we do when we’re up against the wall, emotionally or fiscally – we buy ourselves a treat. Gerard says that people are buying smaller treats but more of them, and in the world of ganaches and single-estate chocolate, we – I for one – are helpless to resist. There are some things that money just can’t buy; good chocolate will never be one of them.
Unfortunately, waiting in the wings to say “J’accuse” are a new branch of the Food Police who style themselves “The Fat Panel”. It is no coincidence, that such a band of nanny-state warriors should start trying to spoil our fun at a time when we all need it more than ever. Nobody sentient can possibly have avoided everything from Jamie Oliver’s school dinners mission to the five-a-day campaign or the exhortations that arise almost daily to eat less fat, sugar and salt. It is a choice and we make what we will of it. But the newly formed “Fat Panel” has temporarily abandoned its target audience, the morbidly obese, in favour of those of us who are celebrity chefs or cookbook writers.
We have become the corruptors, offering recipes to the masses that contain more than 100 per cent of the recommended daily amount of saturated fat in a single serving. Hellfire. If you actually buy cookery books and occasionally eat in decent restaurants, you are, to my mind, aware of what a balanced diet is and less than likely to be living on deep-fried Mars Bars and buckets of KFC and chips. And if you have bothered to make a pie or even to buy one, get one free, eat one, it doesn’t mean you live on pies alone.
In troubled times we need comfort and it’s not about whether it does our arteries good, it’s about whether it does our souls good. Sometimes it has to be bad to be good. The queasily superior “Fat Panel”, meanwhile, is trying to deter us from pleasure, directing us away from saturated fats to the land of margarine, low-fat polyunsaturated or mono-saturated spreads instead of butter and cream.
“The Fat Panel”, incidentally, receives funding from the UK’s Margarine and Spreads Association. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather feast on proper cream and butter, Jersey where possible, and just do a little less of it than ever let margarine or spreads pass my lips. Pastry without butter or butter and lard? Unthinkable. A tart feeds six people in my house and has only three ounces of butter in it. That is 85g, or less than 15g a person. The moment I start reading about grams of saturated fat ingested per capita I want to give up and go and eat a slice of tart anyway, unless, that is, it is made with a spread or margarine. All of these processed horrors – for processed they are – are made with inferior ingredients which have been whipped and frothed and centrifuged to make more of less, and sport “with 30 per cent olive oil” and such things on their labels while not having a drop or a drip of first cold-pressed olive oil in them that would actually be both delicious and beneficial, in that order.
In my book, there are pies, tarts, cobblers and stews. There is also a “Happy Food” chapter where the recipes are mainly chocolate. But it’s a balanced diet of a book. Wild Alaskan salmon with smoky aubergine polenta and cucumber in cream and tarragon for less than the price of the aforementioned KFC bucket. A rich chocolate cake damp with almonds and Cassis; a pot of Boston baked borlotti beans cooked with lardo and star anise, blackstrap molasses and mustard, among other things, and nothing designed to spell the pinch of paucity or the punch aimed at us by the food police.
No one lives on clotted cream alone and no one need eat badly in a recession if they only know how to shop and to cook. It is no small irony that for the first time in history the rich choose a peasant diet and stay thin and the poor get fat, seriously fat, except in Third World countries. The root of all evil is neither butter and cream nor the recession, it is in being deskilled in the kitchen and turning to industrial, processed foods and ready-mades. It is in not knowing how to stay in and cook on some occasions and stay in and eat pizza and a good apple tart with cream on others.