Eating above my pay grade

I can only think of three ways of being able to eat fine food most of the time: being born filthy rich; being fiercely ambitious and earning a pile yourself; and finally- teaching yourself to cook. Mulling over this thought today a quotation floated into my mind from heaven knows what remote corner of my memory.

When the painter was in funds he put mushrooms, fried eggs or tomatoes on top of the cheese; being very young when he evolved this recipe, he often smothered the cheese with fried onions, but this would be too much for most digestions

Recipe for ‘painter’s toasted cheese’ from Elisabeth Ayrton’s “The Cookery of England. Published in 1974.

Michael, if you hadn’t guessed, was Elisabeth’s painter husband, and the book isn’t so much a recipe book but a work of serious historical scholarship covering many centuries of cooking. What I loved about the quotation from the moment I first read the book decades ago, was the tremendous encouragement it gave me, knowing that there existed other people who understood and loved good food but were often reduced to cheese on toast when funds were tight. Most creative people; artists and writers particularly, would understand the challenge. If you love the thought of eating well on a cheese on toast income, you need to roll your sleeves up and get cooking.

Many years later, and with two of our sons working as professional chefs (the other is a fine cook too) I’m all too familiar with the cheffie tricks and shortcuts that make the provision of good enough food, night after night from a small kitchen – almost tolerable. If you want to pay for the kind of dishes you read about in the food porn magazines, you’d better get a better paid job – but it might come as a surprise that the best way of all is to forget about restaurants, because you so often come home thinking to yourself ‘I could have cooked that better for a third of the price’ – and remind yourself that the other 2/3 of the price of a meal out is to pay for the owner’s Porsche and all those well trained staff fussing over you.

Anyway, that’s the conclusion that Madame and me reached when we first moved in together and, every day, passed a classical French restaurant that boasted the sort of dishes I had to look up in my (then new) copy of French Provincial Cooking. Since then, the skills and the knowledge have grown and now growing our own vegetables and cooking all our own food has become a way of life, and when I don’t know how to do something, one of the boys will know exactly how. I have still never tried to cook calves brains, however, and it’s not a bridge I want to cross. I will have a go at most things and occasionally come well and truly unstuck – like I did with the andouillette I bought in a French motorway service station and which tasted and smelt of colon; oh and a raw seafood salad in southeast France that gave me toxic shock and my first encounter with complete fasting as a cure.

What this means, of course, is that the greatest challenges of the present anthropocene age are a bit less frightening to us than they might otherwise be. For instance it wouldn’t break my heart if I never ate another fillet steak because I can’t remember the last time I tasted one. Very occasionally we share a single sirloin steak but circumstances have taught us how to get the best out of the cheapest cuts.

What has changed irrevocably for us is that once we decided that wherever possible we would only eat locally farmed, organic produce our food bill increased and even the cheaper cuts of meat got a whole lot more expensive. That’s the downside I suppose, but the upside is that the flavour really is better. Less can be more it seems – for instance, if you’re a cook, you will almost certainly recall trying to brown chunks of meat before casseroling them – and watching glumly as a copious amount of added water seeps out and broil the chunks to an unsavoury looking grey colour. Supermarket pre-packed meat is especially prone to this and it’s because the processors are allowed to inject up to 10% water into their products – allegedly to make them more acceptable to the customer. So already 10% of your cheap meat is water, and it gets worse when you start to add in the environmental costs of intensive farming which have often been subsidised by the government – i.e. by the taxpayers, you and me. In fact if the environmental costs were added to the total the ‘expensive’ meat would almost certainly be cheaper than the cheap meat from the supermarkets and if you only eat meat occasionally you get the best of all possible worlds, while the world gets the best of all possible inhabitants.

Compare this kind of adulterated industrial meat with the locally produced pork shoulder we bought on Wednesday for a dish including shallots and cider. Browning the meat was a total dream – no fuss and lovely results. The meat in the finished dish hadn’t shrunk to half its original size so we could have probably bought less; bringing the price down again. You just have to be careful how you buy food. Our chosen suppliers get only one chance and if they try it on we don’t go back. We do the research, visit the websites and make some exploratory purchases because not everything with a locally produced label is perfect. Cheese is a particular example and although our local supplier of blue cheese is brilliant, ironically the Cheddar cheeses are very variable and some of them taste extremely mass produced in spite of their price – and Cheddar is only twenty miles away!

But we don’t cook simply in order to help the earth or save loads of money; we cook since we’re greedy and love eating good things – and this is the only way we can do it; the way we’ve had to do it all our lives, because the wealthy parents and highly paid jobs seem to have passed us by. The lifestyle changes that we need to embrace seem to us to be a far better way of being human than the stressful, dog eat dog, and endless slavery of vulture capitalism. Buying locally means we get to know the producers and we are becoming part of a whole new community of shared values. Come on in – the water’s lovely!

More sourdough experiments, bread and butter pudding and Cornish pasties – well, it was raining outside.

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