Thursday, 25 May 2017

£1-a-day Food Challenge 2017: Day 1

So this evening sees the end of Day 1 of my £1-a-day Food Challenge and so far, I'm surviving reasonably happily on my iron rations. Just have to see if I can keep it going! What I notice already is that the food itself is great but that some of the portion sizes are quite meagre. It hasn't been too noticeable today but I am conscious of it. And I remind myself that I only have to do this for five or six days. If I were to be living with scaled-back portions all the time, it would be a very different story. Sobering. 

Anyway, here, for anyone who may be interested, are my Day 1 details and the recipes I've devised from scratch or tweaked to fit the stringent budget. 

Breakfast is smaller than usual, but not very different from what I usually eat except that the milk to make the porridge is heavily watered down and I usually have a teaspoon of maple syrup on it instead of this new-to-me preserve, dandelion honey. (See my previous post for details.)

I often make apple purée for breakfast - I don't really like raw apple - and thought it wouldn't be too much of a problem to include a portion on the £1-a-day meal plans but even with the cheapest apples I could find (65p for a bag of seven at Aldi on their Super Six offer), it works out at 9p for a tiny bowlful. Later in the year when there are windfalls a-plenty in the garden and hedgerows, it will, of course, be free. In fact, doing the challenge now in May, I found that most fruit, unless it had been foraged and frozen last year, or grown for free like rhubarb, had to be eliminated because it was just too expensive to include. A bit of a shock as, normally, I eat a lot of fruit. Probably too much actually.

To make the apple purée, wash but do not peel or core the apples. Cut them up roughly and place in a pan with enough water almost to cover. In less frugal circumstances I often snip off an inch or so of vanilla pod, split it down the middle to expose the tiny fragrant seeds and add it to the apples as they cook which gives the resulting purée a delicious, creamy vanilla flavour but vanilla pods are off limits for this week.

Bring to the boil and simmer until really soft - about an hour. Then tip the contents (fruit, juice, skins, stalks, pips and everything) into a mouli placed over a bowl and turn the handle to press out the purée. The purée freezes well if you want to make a big batch and freeze some. I made this batch using 11 apples from Aldi's Super Six offer - a bag of 7 apples for 65p. It made 11 small portions so it comes out at 9p each.

Although I have managed to include a few Earl Grey tea bags in my budget, I had to switch to Aldi's own brand instead of Waitrose's. I have to say that it's the first completely unsatisfactory ingredient swap I've made. It tastes awful. If it's not made with floor-sweepings, it might as well be. I am supplementing it with fresh mint tea made from bright green, Moroccan mint in the garden.

I do like mint tea but it's not the same as my beloved, usual Earl Grey. Anyway at least it doesn't taste like the dregs at the bottom of a floor-washing bucket which can't easily be said for Aldi's offering on the tea front. Enough said but this will be one item I most certainly won't be buying long term.

Grain for grinding. Exactly as it came out of the combine harvester last August so it needs a bit of picking over to remove chaff, small stones and the odd dead insect but I love it - grown only yards from my front door and a free gift to boot.
Grain milled into flour, sifted and ready for baking.
The thrifty seeded roll recipe is a variation on one I often make. The ingredients are as follows:

1tsp yeast ("Dove's Farm" from Waitrose) 2p
270g wholemeal flour (ground at home from sack of grain given to me by my neighbour farmer last autumn) 
230g strong white bread flour (Lidl) 12p
1tsp salt 1p
8g skimmed milk powder ("Marvel" from Waitrose) 9p
10ml sunflower oil (Aldi) 1p
50g brown linseeds ("Tree of Life" from Waitrose) 14p
380ml water (plain or mixed with whey from drained yoghurt)

Total cost for 12 rolls 39p ie 3p each.

I make the dough in my automatic bread-maker on the wholemeal dough programme and then divide it into 12 rolls, place on a baking sheet lined with non-stick baking paper and bake at 195 C for 14-15 minutes. Once cooked, shunt the rolls off the baking sheet, onto a wire rack to cool. 

Normally I make these with an even 50/50 split between wholemeal flour and white, a mixture of seeds such as millet, poppy and sesame, more skimmed milk powder and 30ml not 10ml of a nutty British rapeseed oil . I've stuck with linseeds because they're filling, nutritious and the cheapest seed option and I like their hidden nutty taste. Obviously you could omit the milk powder entirely but it does improve the texture of the bread and provides an extra shot of protein and vitamins which is grist to my mill this week.

I know it's a weakness but if I am to carry on functioning reasonably sweetly for the latter part of the day, I need something to eat and drink around 4.00 o'clock in the afternoon. And not a celery stick or a handful of healthy chia seeds either, I am afraid. So one of the particular challenges of these £1-a-day meal plans was that I had to factor that in, which wasn't easy. As you'll see, I've hunkered down around wholemeal-based recipes which haven't cost me anything for the wholemeal flour and are relatively light on other ingredients. It has made for slightly unseasonal menus - today has been the hottest day of the year so far in the UK - almost 30 C here in Oxfordshire - so it feels slightly incongruous to be eating a toasted muffin more appropriate for a cold winter's afternoon, but no matter. The rose-hip and crab apple jelly is a 2013 vintage. Not quite as old as my basil and cress seeds but nonetheless venerable! Because the fruit was foraged for free, I've costed it out just for the amount of jam sugar used, so it's pretty cheap for a reasonably generous serving, which is good because there's not much slack available for any butter. 

The recipe for thrifty English muffins is another variation on an existing theme. The dough is very sloppy and sticky so if you are making it by hand you might well want to reduce the liquid to make it more workable. The high fluid content is what gives the muffins their loose, light texture though. I make the dough in my bread-maker on the pizza dough setting.

For a batch of ten muffins you need:

a starter made with one eighth of a teaspoon of yeast ("Dove's Farm" from Waitrose) and 180g strong white bread flour (Lidl) mixed with 170ml water and left covered for a couple of hours 9p
1 tsp yeast ("Dove's Farm" from Waitrose) 4p
206g wholemeal flour (home-ground as above) 
14g cornflour (Waitrose) 4p
1 tsp salt 1p
20g demerara sugar (Aldi) 3p
30ml sunflower oil (Aldi) 3p
140ml whole milk  (from 4pt bottle Aldi) 6p
c34ml water (or whey from drained yoghurt)
30g ground rice to dust the outsides of the muffins ("Whitworths" from Waitrose) 4p

Total cost for 10 muffins 43p ie 4p each.

Shape the dough as best you can (it's sticky!) into ten balls, dust them in ground rice (which helps with handling the sticky dough) and bake in non-stick muffin rings on a baking sheet lined with non-stick baking paper at 180 C for c 25 minutes. 

Lift off the muffin rings (carefully - they're hot!) and as before, shunt the muffins off the tin to cool on a wire rack. 

When not on the £1-a-day food challenge I would use 174ml milk instead of milk diluted with water / whey and I usually use an organic sunflower margarine such as Biona rather than the oil.

Carrot and lentil soup with cumin and coconut milk

c 1litre homemade vegetable stock (using trimmings from any vegetables you've saved, a few sprigs of herbs eg rosemary, thyme, lovage, bay leaf, 2 tsps salt and 2 pints water) 2p
12ml sunflower oil (Aldi) 1p
2 small red onions (140g), peeled and chopped (Aldi) 9p
770g carrots, peeled and grated coarsely (Aldi) 32p
140g red lentils (Lidl) 21p
half a tsp cumin seeds toasted in a dry pan and ground (Waitrose) 5p
pinch black pepper
large tin of reduced fat coconut milk (Aldi) 79p
fresh parsley (from garden)

Total cost £1.49. Makes 6 portions costing 25p each.

To make:
Sweat the onions and grated carrot in the sunflower oil in the base of the pressure cooker. Season with the cumin and black pepper. Add the stock, lentils and coconut milk, bring to the boil and cook under pressure for 7 minutes. Release the pressure and allow to cool a bit before whizzing to a purée in a blender. Thin with extra water if necessary. Serve sprinkled with a bit of chopped parsley and dill.

In less frugal circumstances I would use more carrots - up to a kilo, quite a bit more seasoning - up to 2 tsps of cumin and plenty of black pepper. I would also use olive oil, not sunflower, to sweat the vegetables in.

So my total costs for Day 1 amount to 93p. That includes "extras" which are not strictly necessary but which I felt would make the challenge more realistically sustainable. They may be small but they have a disproportionately cheering psychological effect, especially my end-of-the-day, small, twopenny square of Scottish tablet with a cup of the unspeakable, Aldi Earl Grey tea! 

E x

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

£1-a-day Food Challenge 2017: Counting down

My £1-a-day food challenge takes off in a couple of days. I've decided to run it from Thursday to Tuesday, across the weekend even though it's a Bank Holiday one. I am looking forward to it actually, if that doesn't sound a funny thing to say. Having invested a lot of time and thought and planning in the project, I want now to see if it will work in practice.

I am afraid it may be a bit boring to read, so my apologies in advance, if that's the case, but I am intending to post at the end of each day (or beginning of the following one) with a summary of my meal plan, the costs involved and recipes that I've devised or altered, to fit, or get round the demands of the challenge as well as any reflections as I go along. That is in part a kind of accountability exercise that I think will help to motivate me sticking to it, if the going gets, er, hungry! I'm also keen to record the minutiae of the challenge on a day to day level for my own retrospective reading and analysis.

So the first of these daily posts will be at the end of the week. I am also planning to do a kind of round-up post after the end of the challenge, with a collection of tips and tricks for future reference both for myself, should I be so rash as to undertake a repeat exercise, and in case anyone else might find them useful, either on a similar challenge or just generally. Thereafter normal, intermittent blogging service will resume!

Meanwhile, my preparations have been focussed this last week on ...

... some foraging...

Not for nettles which, as you will know if you read my Cucina povera post, were unceremoniously evicted before I could get to them, but for dandelions.

I always knew you could eat the leaves - they're good added with other wild green leaves to soup as their strong flavour gets muted by the heat and other ingredients but raw and travelling solo, they're quite bitter, so a few go a long way in salad.

There 's a lovely passage about a dandelion leaf salad in Serge Krebs' novel, "Aux Mains de l'Ennemi", (In Enemy Hands"), in which an English and a German soldier, Edward and Hans, strike up an unlikely friendship when they inadvertently cross one another's path behind the trenches in northern France. Edward, is wounded in the initial encounter and the pair lie up for a while in the strange territory of no-man's land, finding shelter in the abandoned farmhouses that litter the landscape. Food is scarce and they have to live off whatever they can find, mostly "pommes flétries" (withered apples) and dried up, old onions. After some days of this fare, Hans suggests collecting dandelion leaves for "une salade de pissenlits", which still grow in profusion, despite the ravages of artillery bombardment. Edward is very suspicious as to the edibility of dandelion leaves but Hans assures him that "les Français s'en raffolent" ("the French enjoy them") and that "ils sont pleins de vitamines".

Anyway, there's nothing else to hand so they pick a big bagful and hit on the bright idea of raiding the kitchen cupboards of the abandoned mill where they're holed up, for the sour dregs of a bottle of vinegar to dress the bitter leaves. On its own, the vinegar makes the leaves barely palatable but one idea leads to another and incurring very considerable risk for the sake of their precious salad, they leave the relative safety of their hiding place and manage to get hold of a bottle of oil from the cellar of another abandoned farmhouse. The bottle is almost empty and the oil that is left is turning rancid but there's enough to dress the leaves along with the vinegar and they feast incongruously but triumphantly on the results. I think you would need to be pretty hungry to enjoy this - I am hoping I will not find myself in that scenario this coming week! - but there's something very appealing about the foraged meal and the delight with which it is eaten. Bitter and tough though the leaves must have been despite the make-shift dressing, in the circumstances, the salad is a defiant and stylish solution to "ventres crispés par la faim" ("stomachs cramped with hunger").

Sorry - I am digressing; back to real life! While, as I say, I knew that the leaves were edible and also that you can eat the root of the plant - in hard times people have made a kind of ersatz coffee from dandelion root - I didn't know that you can also eat the flowers, but, to my surprise, I learn that you can.

I usually have a spoonful of maple syrup on my everyday porridge. I adore maple syrup and have to ration myself as, even away from a £1-a-day food challenge, pure maple syrup is very expensive. Even a single teaspoonful was off limits for the challenge however, so I toyed with possible alternatives - a teaspoon of soft brown sugar from Aldi would be OK, as would a teaspoonful of Aldi honey, which is ridiculously cheap compared with the price of honey elsewhere. And then I came across the idea of "cramaillotte" or "dandelion honey".

"Cramaillotte" is not a true honey, as made by honeybees, but something that tastes most disconcertingly like it, made from dandelion flowers, sugar and some citrus fruit. I was almost too late - the lawn and flower-beds have been covered in bright yellow dandelion flowers (hurray for lazy gardening!) and I thought it would be an easy matter to pick plenty. But dandelions only flower with their glorious, yellow, pom-pom heads for three days and then the golden petals turn, to the characteristic puffy seed-heads and when I went out into the garden, full of optimism, I found a sea of fluffy clocks and not nearly so many golden heads as there had been only a few days previously. I moved fast and gathered all I could find and added a few more from a bank down the lane that seemed reasonably clear of the possibility of contamination, either from traffic or dogs. There were just enough flower-heads to have a go at this recipe if I scaled back the quantities to ⅓ of the orginal. Phew!

"Cramaillotte" originates in the Franche-Comté region of Eastern France. There's not much you can teach traditional French countryfolk about thrift (my mother always tells me that it is our French peasant ancestry that encourages any thrifty family tendencies!) and this recipe is a good example of that. It's extremely good and the funny thing is that "cramaillotte" tastes exactly like real honey, even though it isn't, if you see what I mean. If you are reading this and there are still dandelions out there in your garden to gather, I encourage you to lose no time in so doing! You will not regret it.

For the recipe, I had to use the ingredients I already had in the house, as I didn't want to lose any time, having picked the flowers, so while I had a lemon (which I used in full), I had no oranges. I did however have some dried orange-peel shapes, left over from making orange-peel-bunting last year so I added some of those to the mixture. That's why the orange peel is in those little shapes in the pic with holes for threading string through.

I didn't have any of the "sucre gélifiant" (jam sugar with pectin) that the recipe asked for, either. I do use jam sugar when I make preserves - I find it takes the stress out of getting stuff to set - but I realise that it is a great deal more expensive than plain sugar so perhaps it was just as well that the cupboard was bare, as it would have pushed my budget to accommodate it. I did have ordinary granulated sugar though, so that's what I used and it's worked fine. The cost of the whole batch, (using granulated sugar from Aldi (22p), a lemon from Aldi on their Super Six Offer (7p) and the leftover dried orange peel (0p) ) worked out at 29p for around 330g. That means a teaspoonful costs less than a halfpenny, 0.43p to be precise.

The finished product is like a runny honey - it would be difficult to spread it on toast and for it to stay there perhaps but it's perfect for my everyday porridge on the challenge - more fragrant than soft brown sugar, considerably more flavoursome than Aldi's (amazingly cheap) real honey and every bit as good as any good quality, wildflower honey. I guess it would be amazing on some Breton style crêpes made with buckwheat flour or on Belgian waffles ... I'll try that next week perhaps!

The name "cramaillotte" has a quaint and convoluted pedigree. It comes from "cramaillot", a country name in la Franche-Comté for dandelions. "Cramaillot" is itself a diminutive of "cramail", an old form of the word "crémaillère" - a technical term for a notched, metal piece, or rack in a mechanism that meshes into a gear wheel. It refers to the toothed leaves that distinguish the dandelion leaves. Of course, although I'd never thought about it before, dandelion in English is simply an anglicisation of "dent de lion", (lion's tooth), which also refers to the jagged leaves and the same thing applies in German where the word for dandelion is "Löwenzahn" (lion's tooth). The other common French name for dandelion is "pissenlit" which refers, unkindly and exaggeratedly, to the diuretic properties of dandelion. Diuretic qualities apart, I believe dandelion honey was originally made to combat symptoms of "mal de la gorge", but never mind whether you have a sore throat or not, this is just delicious in its own right, so, as I say, if you have any dandelions out there for the picking...

... some searching...

We discovered that one of the bantams had disappeared and gone into broody hiding one evening so a massive hen-hunt had to be launched before night-fall in order to deprive Mr Fox of a takeaway chicken. Eventually after hunting high and low, we found her ... sitting on top of 14 lovely fresh eggs! The eggs are a bit smudged and grubby from having been laid among the goose-grass and comfrey but they're all fresh - I tested them in a jug of water - so I have some unexpected extra ammunition in the way of ingredients should I need it over the coming days. The main relief is finding the bantam, not the eggs, although she wasn't exactly pleased to be found and restored to a cosy nest box with only miserable old, ceramic, dummy eggs in place of her own clutch.

... some growing...

Even if you only have a windowsill, you can grow herbs from seed or cuttings in pots in a relatively short time, for negligible or no cost. My very-frugal-basil-plant is a case in point. He started as a single stem from a pot of basil from Aldi. I followed the instructions here and was amazed that they worked. It's much quicker to get to harvesting than growing from seed although it's taken about a month to get from cutting a single stem from the parent plant to this.

I also have a load of basil seedlings in the greenhouse, grown from very ancient, vintage seed packets dating from 2009. A surprising number of the seeds have germinated but, of course, even though they were planted over a month ago, starting from seed, they are nowhere near harvesting in quantity yet.

In addition I have dabbled with planting chervil, dill, Greek oregano, lovage, chives and caraway. All going quite nicely but not really useable yet in the kitchen. The oregano and lovage I planted because I thought earlier in the Spring that they hadn't survived the winter in their normal habitats but I was wrong - there's a happy forest of both so while the wee chaps in the greenhouse are too tiny to use, their longer established cousins in the flowerbeds are most certainly not. I've always used oregano in my cooking but I am new to using lovage - it has quite a strong celery-type flavour and is very good in stock to provide a celery component without using any celery, if you see what I mean, so it's proving a bit of a frugal friend.

I have also been growing the remnants of a slightly less ancient, but still vintage, (2010 as opposed to 2009!), previously opened packet of cress seeds in an even shorter time-frame. Who says growing mustard and cress is just for children? And despite their antique status, like the ancient basil, they've, more or less, all germinated which I've regarded as a freebie bonus. I've been saving these ugly old trays that mushrooms in the supermarket are packed in. D kindly cut them down, as the sides were too high to allow easy harvesting and they've made perfect cress-growing trays.

A few pieces of kitchen roll folded up as a base, a liberal sprinkling of seeds, regular watering and voilà! Fresh salad on tap, packed with vitamin C and minerals! I've got several trays on the go in succession so that supply will keep up with demand.

... some basic cooking ahead...

Making homemade vegetable stock for example, from the peelings and trimmings of vegetables left over from other cooking and herbs.

I've found that a tightly-lidded plastic container in the fridge keeps such vegetable trimmings fresh and useable for two or three days if I can't make the stock straightaway and the finished product is well worth the effort for adding a depth of flavour to otherwise plain dishes. As it's made from herbs growing in the garden and stuff that would otherwise go straight in the compost bucket, it is also effectively free, apart from the salt. I cook it for 20 minutes under pressure in my pressure cooker, before cooling and straining. What I don't immediately need, I freeze in washed-out, old 450ml yoghurt containers.

... and some creative hooky distraction!

More of this once normal service resumes hopefully!

E x

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Shopping - No Small Change

What are your preferred food-shopping habits? Are you a devotee of On-Line-delivered-to-your-door supermarket shopping or do you prefer to shop in person, in a bricks and mortar store? Are you loyal to one particular supermarket brand or do you vary your allegiance? Do you buy in bulk from cash-and-carry stores like Costco or their On-Line equivalents? Do you make use of the increasing number of budget supermarket stores in the UK such as Aldi and Lidl? Do you shop at a local market, farmer's or other? Do you bypass supermarkets and buy direct from suppliers, either in person or On-Line?

For most of us, the answers to these questions are largely dictated by the simple constraints of geographical convenience, available time, the nature and extent of our storage facilities and our budget as well as personal preferences.

Shopping has changed as an activity almost out of all recognition, in my lifetime. When I was a small child, growing up in the late sixties / early seventies, in a leafy suburb of North-West London, there were no big supermarkets within easy reach. Especially as my mother then didn't drive and shopping had to be done on foot, with assorted scratchy baskets and string bags in tow. Carrier bags were not then, as again now, freely offered to contain your goods. We didn't have a big freezer at home - only that little freezing compartment you used to get at the top of your below-the-counter fridge - it held an ice cube tray, a brick of frozen chopped spinach and maybe another brick of Walls' Neapolitan ice cream and nothing else. The fridge itself, (minus the space taken up by the freezing compartment), was pretty limited in capacity too. There was a walk-in larder though and plenty of cupboards for storing non-perishable foods. My mother, brought up under rationing in wartime Britain, regarded these cupboards as her insurance against prolonged siege or famine and you could have lived for months, even years, off her hoard of tins, bottled fruit and dry goods. You still can, actually! It's become something of a family joke.

Extracting stuff from these cupboards was, and still is, not a task for the faint-hearted. My mother is quite short (barely over 5') and these cupboards are both deep and lofty, so it always falls to my father, who is now not far off eighty, to climb an ancient, rickety stepladder, and rummage about in search of whatever it is that my mother is after. The required item is always at the back and only extracted after a small avalanche of cantilevered boxes and cartons heads south, which is sometimes headed off at the pass and sometimes isn't. My father surveyed this task and its attendant perils with limited enthusiasm fifty years ago and he hasn't got any keener on it since! Understandably so!

To supplement the withstand-a-siege-cupboards and the daily delivery of milk in tall, glass bottles from Harry, the milkman, my mother shopped little and often.

from "Shopping with Mother" by  M E Gagg; illustrated by Harry Wingfield,
(London: Ladybird Books Ltd, 1958)
Each expedition was a series of old-fashioned encounters: at Mr Baron's, the greengrocer's, the butcher's, Mr Sanders, whose shop floor was strewn with a thick layer of sawdust and where you handed over your money at a separate kiosk at the back of the shop, (for eminently sensible hygiene reasons, so that the person handling the meat didn't handle money as well), and at an independent small grocery, endearingly named, Pat-a-Cake's.

from "Shopping with Mother" by  M E Gagg; illustrated by Harry Wingfield, 
(London: Ladybird Books Ltd, 1958)
As a child, I used to find these shopping expeditions rather a bore - the walk was quite long for a small child and I hated helping to carry those cumbersome string bags stuffed with dirty potatoes in flimsy, brown, paper bags and heavy, green cabbages that bumped my legs all the way home. Making patterns with the toes of my sandals in the sawdust of Mr Sanders' shop while my mother bought lamb's liver, or steak and kidney, was a small compensation. Very occasionally, we were allowed to go into the sweet shop, Pratt's, and spend our pocket money on vivid, glassy lollipops, pastel-coloured flying-saucers made from rice paper, or small paper bags of sherbet lemons and pear drops, weighed out by the ounce, from big glass jars. Now, despite all the wonders of modern food supply, I look back fondly at that time and wish for it again, dirty potatoes, bumpy cabbages, scratchy baskets, cumbersome string bags and all.

Alcoholic beverages, (usually Amontillado sherry or gin, not wine), came from what my father still refers to as "the wine merchant". Shopping there was done by him, not my mother, on a Saturday morning. Sometimes, I would go with him and sniff the intriguing smells of cork, wood shavings and the faint whiff of yeasty beer that distinguished the shop. For a weekend treat, he and I might also make our way up to the independent baker, Elizabeth's, in the summer, and buy a sponge cake, sandwiched with raspberry jam and genuine, fresh cream for tea. I felt an affinity with Elizabeth's because of the name.

Shopping then was an experience straight out of the Ladybird book, "Shopping With Mother", a book I loved as a very small child. And while I never had long, fair plaits like Susan (more's the pity!), I did have a miniature shopping basket, very like hers, and my mother looked not at all unlike Susan's!

from "Shopping with Mother" by  M E Gagg; illustrated by Harry Wingfield, 
(London: Ladybird Books Ltd, 1958)
Shopping today is totally different. There are very few independent butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers who have survived the competition brought by the big supermarkets with their economies of scale and production. Such as there are, tend to be specialists of some kind and expensive for using every day. The choice available to us in the big supermarkets in the developed world is unbelievably wide. Take olive oil for example. In the early 1970s, olive oil BP (sic) was something you bought at Boots The Chemists in small, medicinal-size bottles. Go into any supermarket today and the range of olive oil on sale is huge - Italian, Greek, Spanish? Extra-virgin, green and peppery, mild? Single estate, blended? 500ml? A litre? No problem. It's all there. And the same applies to many other goods.

The Internet has brought supermarkets and faraway suppliers otherwise out of reach to the tips of our fingers, as we sit at home. Most supermarkets sell a good deal more than food. You can pick up clothes, bedding, kitchen equipment and more, along with your groceries in the glories of the one-stop shop. I know I am old-fashioned here, but I do not like this growing tendency. It's most convenient to be able to pick up a bottle of wine along with the ingredients for supper and non-food, but kitchen-related, stuff I can cope with, but I do not like being confronted with lawnmowers and chain-saws when I am buying milk and potatoes!

Apart from the lawnmowers-cheek-by-jowl-with-milk-and-potatoes issue, these changes are positive - far more convenient and they offer a much wider landscape for culinary creativity and I am deeply grateful for both. Working full time, six days a week, means my shopping time is limited. I don't have time to shop as my non-working mother did.  But I still hanker after those days and given half a chance, I'd snap them up again.

As I mentioned in my initial post about this £1-a-day Food Challenge, my shopping habits have changed radically over the last few weeks. I am delighted at what the changes have brought about and food-shopping has become, for the time being anyway, a bit of an adventure.

The shift has had to take place in advance of the project itself in order to make sure that instead of the normal brands I buy of basics such as flour, sugar, tea, rice, oil, etc, etc I have replaced them with significantly cheaper ones so that when I come to use them in the challenge itself, I am not inadvertently blowing my budget.

The swapping over process has inevitably taken some time and quite a lot of patient searching and sourcing and I'm glad I started it early. My go-to source of help on the quest for cheap buys has been which is a quick and easy tool for comparing prices across all the standard UK supermarkets. It didn't take more than a few minutes of doing price comparisons to realise that I have been paying way over the odds for a huge number of items. A very large proportion of what I have been buying from Ocado or Waitrose can be had for a fraction of the price elsewhere. Not everything, but a lot. I realise that I have got a bit sloppy about food-shopping and have got set in ways which, while convenient, are actually costing me a great deal of unnecessary money.

Of course, one has to be clear about whether one is comparing apples with apples or apples with pears, figuratively speaking. Soft brown sugar, for example, varies quite a bit, not just in price but in texture and flavour and I greatly prefer Waitrose's soft light brown muscovado sugar to cheaper soft brown sugar brands which don't seem to have the deep aromatic flavour of the Waitrose muscovado. But a red onion is a red onion is a red onion, if you see what I mean.

Anyway, I have been slashing my Ocado order by two thirds and have been sourcing most of my other stuff from Aldi.

It's two miles further away than Waitrose but in the scheme of things it's a comparable trip so there's no real extra cost in travelling. It's been a revelation shopping there. A basket of goods that would have cost me £35 or more in Waitrose, has come out at little over £15 at Aldi and the shopping experience itself has been slick and straightforward. There are no frills and the range of goods on sale is much smaller but all the basics are there, for a fraction of the price. I find it best to go with a balance of clear planning and a defined list of what I want but with enough flexibility to be open to picking up something in this week's special deals that maybe wasn't on the list. Some items are on the shelves this week but they won't be next week so you need to have a bit more flexibility than you would at the other big supermarkets, where there's a predictable consistency of what's on offer.

I've found that a lot of Aldi's stuff is British sourced which I like. Their vegetables are particularly good - tomatoes to die for and really fresh, bright spinach, for example. Soya milk, porridge oats, tinned tomatoes, rice, olive oil - things I buy a lot of - are fine and very much less than the price of my usual ones. You can't buy white bread flour there though, nor many individual herbs and spices. I haven't braved their meat or fish yet - we don't eat a lot of meat and when we do, I want it to be free range which, understandably for a budget store, Aldi doesn't offer nearly so much of. But all in all it's been a very positive shift and one that I shan't be reversing any time soon.

Some things I wanted to use in the £1-a-day food challenge I have had to look further afield for. Dried pulses for example. Lazy old me, I've never bothered to soak and cook dried beans and have always preferred the convenience of tins but dried beans work out much cheaper than tinned ones so were perfect for my budget meal plans. You can't get these in Aldi and actually Sainsbury's turned out to be the best cheap source, along with Lidl for lentils. The nearest Lidl to me is twenty miles away so I had to ask a kind friend with a local Lidl to get those for me. Lidl also came up with the prize for the cheapest white bread flour - 75p for 1.5kg. It's not as good as the Canadian Extra Strong flour I get from Waitrose, but mixed, approximately 50/50, with home-ground wholemeal, it's fine.

Oatmeal proved more problematic. It ought, I felt, to be a cheap foodstuff but a) it isn't as cheap as porridge oats b) it isn't nearly as ubiquitous. In the end I had to speculate to accumulate and had to order 5kg bags of medium and pinhead oatmeal from which halved the price per 100g compared to the standard supermarket one.

I had to top the order up with other stuff in order to qualify for the free delivery charge, which doesn't kick in until you spend £30, which was a nuisance, but it's all stuff that will keep and I will use.  This highlighted one of the big pinch points of the poverty trap - in order to access the cheapest deals, such as these, you need capital to lay out, up front. You will save in the long run but you need ready cash initially and that's difficult on a restricted income that, after all, has to cover items other than food such as rent, clothing, utilities etc. My father-in-law helped set up a local credit union to provide very low interest loans for people in this situation, a few years back and I've really appreciated afresh what a practical everyday difference such a facility makes.

I notice that the use-by dates on these bags of oatmeal are the end of January / early February next year and although I expect that, stored carefully, they'll be fine for a while after that, I do hope nobody goes off porridge in a hurry, or my bargain oatmeal won't be quite such a bargain after all!

E x

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

£1-a-day Food Challenge - Above or Below the Line?

So, the end of May and the start of my £1 a day food challenge, inspired by The Hunger Project's campaign is not that far away. One of the questions that has been bothering me is whether my stint of living on £1 a day for food and drink will really qualify as living "below the line" and, if not, does that invalidate the whole idea?

The conclusion I've come to is, "No, it won't qualify as "living below the line," because there's a lot more to living below the poverty line than simply having a restricted food budget to draw on for a few days ie limited access, (or no access at all), to clean running water, limited fuel and very basic cooking facilities, no refrigeration or freezing facilities, constrained access to food supply sources, few, if any, On-Line resources etc etc and I can't transplant myself completely into such a context. So, although I shall not be spending more than £1 a day on food or drink for the five or six days of my project, my existence will be a whole different ball game from that of someone for whom it's a daily, inescapable reality, and for whom it has been like that for a long time. Does that then invalidate the whole idea?

Well, no, I don't think it does. It does mean that I must be very cautious about any instinct to feel that I know what such a reality would be like on the inside track, just because I have limited my expenditure on food and drink to £1 a day. I don't know and I can't know. I am on the outside track and I mustn't ever think otherwise. Checking one's privilege is no idle sound-bite with this.

On the other hand, if the result of living life on £1 a day, inspires me to give generously to hunger-relieving charities and pulls me up short on my cooking and eating habits, leading to less waste and more respect for the food I eat and those who work to provide it, as well as encouraging me to be more self-sufficient in the way I use and husband resources, that is, I believe, a good thing. Food waste in the lands of plenty is one of the reasons that those in the lands of scarcity go short.

I have to accept that the context I live in, is just that. For the impact of the challenge to have lasting effect that will shape my future behaviours and choices irrevocably, I feel there is actually some merit in the experience being anchored in, rather than detached from, my own daily reality. The challenge for me, in that sense, is not intended to be an isolated, alien bubble, but the beginning of something that, I hope, will live on and grow and evolve over time. A trivial, insignificant contribution maybe, but better than doing nothing at all and, as Mahatma Gandhi said, "We must become the change we wish to see in the world."

It's very easy to become bogged down by the sheer scale of world problems and feel there's no point in even trying to respond to them, so intractable are they and so little are we, or our efforts, but of one thing we can be sure, if we all do nothing because of that, nothing will change. I also happen to believe that one of the most powerful forces, perhaps the most powerful force, on this earth, in the 21st C, is the power that rests with consumer choice. And that rests in the hands, not of governments or leaders, but in the ordinary hands and ordinary lives of ordinary people. The everyday consumer choices I make; the everyday consumer choices you make; the everyday consumer choices we all make; shape and influence much more than perhaps we realise.

So, to answer the question I posed myself, no, I don't think my £1 a day food challenge really qualifies as "living below the line" although that's where the idea came from. But neither is the whole thing invalid or a waste of time because of that.

The parameters that I've set myself are a compromise which is in one sense unsatisfactory, from a purist point of view. Compromise is always unsatisfactory, from a purist point of view. But because that compromise roots the experience into my ongoing context, I hope the effects will survive, at least in part, long after the five or six days of the project have ended.

So I shall stick to my budget and my carefully costed meal plans but I shall also use those resources around me that are free to me - things growing in my garden and the hedgerows (not much at the moment, it has to be said), the sack of left-over grain given to me, after my farmer neighbour's harvest was finished last year and any eggs that my bantams see fit to lay, although if you think I shall be living off fresh eggs every day, sadly, I shan't be. Having been laying prolifically, up until Easter, the bantams have now all gone broody and there's nary an egg in sight, so at the current rate, unless they start laying again soon, the project will be entirely eggless, other than the few I have used in a couple of things I've already cooked and frozen.

This is one of the broody bantams who shows not the slightest sign of abandoning her post in the cosy nest-box, despite having been sitting on nothing for over a fortnight and only emerging to eat and drink. She has a habit of doing this and is nicknamed "Little Brown Brooder" as a result. Not exactly innovative in the naming stakes, I grant you, but an accurate description, nonetheless!

I've tried humming the old 1920s song to her:

"Chick, chick, chick, chick, chicken, lay a little egg for me!
Chick, chick, chick, chick, chicken, I want one for my tea!
Oh, I haven't had an egg since Easter and now it's half past three,
so, chick, chick, chick, chick, chicken, lay a little egg for me!"

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London (Image used with permission)
But so far, without success. "Not a chance!" she says!

That's OK though - in the past I would simply have bought a box or two of free-range eggs to plug the gap, but free-range eggs are relatively expensive to buy and certainly beyond the £1 a day budget. Learning to live within the limits, not just of a very stringent food budget, but within the rhythms of the seasons and of natural production cycles is part of what the challenge is about.

I am, however, persisting in talking nicely to my rhubarb patch every day - it's taking a long time to regenerate itself after my depredations on it earlier this Spring and I would very much like it to help me out at the end of the month. Anyone have any magic suggestions as to what might encourage it? I've been watering it, as well as talking to it, but it doesn't seem to be doing a lot of good. There's a lot of comfrey, growing in, taking over the garden so I am wondering whether I ought to make some of that comfrey tea fertiliser. Anyone got any experience of that?

The very-frugal-basil-plant is, unlike the rhubarb, growing apace.

I have pinched out the central pair of leaves at the top now and while it's a long way off providing enough foliage to make a batch of pesto, it will certainly provide a few happy leaves for adding flavour and interest to my thrifty meal plans. A fact which gives me a totally disproportionate sense of satisfaction.

E x

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Cucina Povera

Lots of good causes now seem to have their own official day in the calendar. Sunday 28th May 2017 is this year's World Hunger Day. Alongside raising awareness, and encouragement to give to hunger-relieving charities, such as The Hunger Project, past years have included throwing out the challenge to "Live Below The Line" for five days. "Living Below The Line", if you're not already aware of it, means living below the extreme poverty line of subsisting on no more than £1 (or the equivalent in other currency) for all food and drink per day and it is a shocking fact that over a billion people do this, not for five days for a challenge, but every day for real. It got me thinking.

As you will probably know, if you've dipped into these pages before, I love cooking. I get withdrawal symptoms on holiday, if I am away from a kitchen for too long. I find it therapeutic, soul-nurturing, calming and energising all at the same time. I am lucky not to have to subsist on a food and drink budget of £1 per day. I am extremely grateful that I earn enough to fund my creative kitchen experiments (and to drink unlimited cups of tea while I undertake them). My days are lit up by grinding flour from a sack of leftover grain, given to me by my farmer neighbour, to prepare everyday bread for lunch, (I succumbed to buying a grain-mill last autumn), boiling up crab-apples for jars of translucent jelly, baking gingerbread, or submitting fresh vegetables to steam under pressure to make fennel and asparagus soup for supper. Cooking is my life-blood and life without its creative possibilities would seem sadly colourless. But this challenge got me thinking, as I say.

It's reminded me that this cooking habit of mine is not a right, it is a huge blessing; and I wanted to do something to acknowledge that. What about taking on the challenge? To begin with, the idea seemed fairly simple; yes it would be challenging but it didn't look impossible. Of course, I knew meals would need to be mostly vegetarian - no expensive meat* or fish. Wine wouldn't figure, nor would out of season fresh fruit or vegetables but I had a sort of vague idea that by steering towards the more frugal regions of my culinary repertoire, it might not be too difficult.

*D offered to shoot a couple of pigeons, a rabbit, or even a squirrel for casseroling, (an idea that every local farmer for miles around would most surely encourage me to take up, if they knew about it), but I am afraid I drew the line at this. I am aware that this immediately betrays my privileged status. If I genuinely had to subsist every day on only £1 a day, I am sure I would have to overcome my squeamishness at the idea of skinning and gutting this kind of free, wild food but for now it's just a step too far. Apologies to more rigorous souls, if they feel this is a cop out!

Anyway I've decided to give the challenge a go. Having decided, I've begun to do some homework to see whether my initial hunch about it not being too difficult was correct. Here are ten things I've discovered so far:

1 I was completely wrong about it "not being too difficult".

2 While I was right about meat and fish being off the menu, a lot of the fairly simple vegetarian things I cook were out of the question too. I discovered, as I began work on costing out recipes, many of them that I thought were straightforward and inexpensive, that virtually everything blew my budget. We're not talking vast sums here. Meals that I thought were cheap, were cheap but just not cheap enough. Because that £1 per day budget has to cover everything. Not just one meal. I could come up with supper costing a £1 a head, no problem, but what about leaving some slack for breakfast? Or lunch?

3 I've realised very quickly that this challenge isn't just about cooking, but about the thrifty sourcing of ingredients. I do most of my shopping via a once-a-week Ocado order which suits my cooking and the time I have available for shopping which isn't a lot generally. I top this up with the odd periodic foray for fresh vegetables or fruit from a supermarket or the farm shop down the road. None of this will work on the challenge. My shopping habits will change, have already changed, radically.

4 My attitude to left-overs has changed overnight. I am not talking here about the two portions of soup left in the pot after four generous bowlfuls have been filled for supper, nor the few stray roast potatoes that no one quite had room for, nor even the roast chicken carcass that I often boil up with onions and herbs for stock, I am talking here about left-overs that I would normally put in the compost bucket outside the back door, without a second thought - trimmings from vegetables, tea bags dipped for a few seconds in a mug and then discarded, orange or grapefruit peel; even things I would normally pour down the drain such as the milk that clings to the glass in an empty bottle before rinsing out, or the water at the bottom of the pan after steaming vegetables, these things are no longer to be discarded without considered thought. They've all suddenly acquired new significance; new potential and new value.

5 My perspective on the food landscape outside the house has also changed. I've always enjoyed foraging for blackberries, sloes, elderflowers or other wild foods as well as growing a certain amount of food in the garden but I've done it in a rather dilettante fashion. Because I enjoyed it not because I had to. Suddenly I've begun to see things differently. That huge clump of nettles, growing under the horse-chestnut tree in a corner of the garden, was no longer a pernicious invasion of weeds but a steaming tureen of dark green, vitamin-packed soup waiting to happen and when D, in a fit of over-enthusiastic gardening, hacked them all down unexpectedly, I was seriously dismayed. "You've ruined my nettle soup!," I wailed tragically."But you don't like nettle soup!" he claimed plaintively. He's right; I don't like nettle soup much but it's May and the range of food for free in the garden and elsewhere is limited and I suddenly realise I need all the help I can get. Changes your perspective no end when you have to make something almost out of nothing.

6 Consciousness of the ingredients I often use has changed too - I use a lot of spices in my baking, for example. In Medieval times these were very expensive ingredients only used by the very wealthy and in judicious quantities. They are actually still some of the most expensive commodities, by weight, sold in the world, but I don't use them like that. I throw a spoonful of cinnamon and another of nutmeg into my weekend slow-cooked porridge with abandon; I add ginger, allspice, cloves and aniseed freely to my gingerbread; I scatter cardamom pods into a mortar, to flavour sweet bread, as if they were dandelion seeds; I snip up vanilla pods happily to flavour everything from apple purée to custard. I ought to be more thoughtful. Likewise with sugar although, of course, sugar is now cheap as chips. Again, our Medieval forbears used sugar very differently from ourselves - it was regarded as a flavouring rather than an ingredient used in bulk. Today, using too much sugar is frowned on for health reasons rather than money-saving ones, but maybe the Medieval approach that used it with respect might be useful.

7 I've realised that there are two main ways to approach the challenge. The first and simplest is to go out and buy what you can for the five days, using the budget of £5 and living exclusively off that. The second is to use a wider range of ingredients than you could buy in one shopping expedition costing £5, but to cost out meticulously each ingredient and make sure that each day's food comes within the limit. I've chosen to follow the second approach because, in reality, if I were living on such a budget all the time, I would, of course, use things in my larder or fridge that I hadn't necessarily bought that week and I want to be able to be more creative than the first approach will allow me to be. That's necessitated some careful and time-consuming preparation in order to swap cheaper ingredients in my larder and fridge for their usual equivalents, in order to make sure that I will be able to use them, even if only in small quantities, when it gets to the end of the month. Every single penny counts, with this!

8 Cooking, for me, is usually a solitary activity. I like being by myself in the kitchen, pottering with this and that with only my family of wooden spoons for company.  I have a secret almost mystical relationship with these spoons, known only to me and to them and which causes peril for the unwary. Woe betide anyone, for example, who thinks casually and unthinkingly to borrow the vintage (1987) chilli con carne spoon to stir a pudding, or who confuses the long-handled, slightly twisted spoon, bought years ago in a market in Sansepolcro, and used only for custard, with the vegetarian risotto spoon, that used to be the identical twin of the chilli con carne one, but now has its own totally unique identity. Sorry, I digress!

Some of my wooden spoon friends.
But approaching this project, I've realised that my solitary cooking habits are a privilege and that kitchen interdependency and kitchen community are crucial ways of making the most of resources. Buying in bulk seriously lowers the cost of ingredients but without vast storage facilities and in the absence of a large family to feed, bulk-buying is not very economical. Sharing bulk ingredients with a few friends, also taken with the project, however is a different matter. Similarly, pooling access to sources of cheap ingredients can help too.

9 Investigating the challenge has proved to be like setting off an unexpected firework sending sparks arcing in different directions. It's made me think afresh about how much I take for granted in the food I cook and eat and made me question a whole raft of assumptions I had acquired without really being aware of it. It's made me see the simplest ingredients in new ways and with new respect. While in many ways, reaching one's fifties is a bit depressing, I find myself comforted, even elated by what years of cooking experience has taught me and wanting to develop some of that further as I head towards retirement years, (which are on the now visible horizon), with rather less income but hopefully rather more time to play with. The whole thing has taken me by surprise in the way that it's engaged my imagination and heart as well as my mind.

10 Making the most of ingredients and being canny with what food you buy, grow or forage for is deeply ingrained in many rural societies. Some have made it an art form even though it has been a necessity for survival. That is particularly the case in southern Italy where la cucina povera or "peasant cooking" has a deeply creative and vivid heritage. That should not mask the fact that poverty there was a very serious problem for significant parts of of the 19th and 20th Cs. People knew genuine hunger and it wasn't easy to combat it. Having said that, the southern Italians responded to the challenge with a colourful verve and flair, whose legacy now populates some of the most stylish restaurants across the world. Calabrian or Puglian cooks of the early 20th C would laugh to see their humble, eked out dishes of pulses, saltless bread and simple vegetables that they prepared in farmhouse kitchens, often with only the most basic cooking equipment, now studiously replicated by Michelin-starred chefs, in state of the art kitchens but sic transit gloria etc etc.

In taking up the Living Below The Line challenge I want to embrace the verve and creativity that distinguishes "cucina povera". Anyone can exist on bread and water for five days and easily meet the technical requirements of the challenge but I want to see if I can't do it with a bit more creativity and fun. I also want to do it without giving in to buying processed food. It's a sad fact that often processed food is cheaper than food, prepared from scratch, at home. The watchword of "cucina povera" is "cucina buona in tempi brutti" - "good cooking in hard times" - I like that. It feels real and unvarnished but also defiant and courageous. It will define what I buy, cook and eat over the coming days.

My aims are threefold:

Firstly, to donate a generous sum reflecting what I might well otherwise have spent on food and drink to The Hunger Project and my local food-bank, to help people who, unlike me, are genuinely battling the pangs of hunger because there simply isn't enough food to go round.

Secondly, to reevaluate my own approach to cooking, at least in part, and cultivate more permanently less wasteful / indiscriminate kitchen habits, which, I fear, have crept in over the years.

Thirdly, to discover how far ingenuity will stretch against, what has to be said, is a very stringent framework.

Will I feel hungry? Probably - I am a greedy soul! 

Will I feel more self-sufficient? Quite possibly. 

Will I go back, once the challenge is over, to shopping / eating as I did before? Quite possibly not.

Will I appreciate what is on my plate day by day, rather more? Definitely.

Fancy coming along for the ride? Or even giving the challenge a whirl yourself?

I shall post a kind of sporadic kitchen diary over the next while which will include some of my preparations, my meal plans and the recipes that I've used or adapted, as well as some reflections along the way, in case anyone is interested, and because I think I will find it interesting to look back on. I aim to start the challenge in earnest around 28th May, maybe a bit earlier depending on work etc

Wish me luck!

A very frugal basil plant grown from a cutting taken from a supermarket plant bought ages ago.
E x