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Top of the table battle: Tesco-v-the WI for cheapest food

Friday 02 November 2007

Our countryside commentator John Sheard reflects on a strange week for British food when giant supermarket chains escaped Government censure - much to the disgust of many country folk - but also saw the ladies of the WI charging into the battle of the leftovers

ON TUESDAY my wife cooked one of our favourite mid-week meals, a ham hock simmered in the slow cooker for three hours or so with bay leaves and pepper corns, a meal my grandmother used to make for my sister and I in the days of the post-war food rationing which lasted well into the 1950s.

For Wednesday lunch, Val used the leftover strips of ham and the stock to make a thick soup by adding lentils, an odd carrot left in the vegetable rack, and a couple of sticks of celery which had reached their eat-by-date.

Supermarket threat to countryside?

That evening, we were so replete from the soup - a wonderful meal now the colder weather is approaching - that we needed no dinner: a boiled egg and an apple sufficed. So our food bill for the best part of two days was little more than the £2, the cost of the hock and a few extra bits and pieces.

This has seen a roller-coaster week for what I call "proper food." It began with the announcement that organic fruit, milk and vegetables are much healthier (see News, Monday) despite Government doubts and climbed even higher when it was revealed that a Government agency has recruited the ladies of the Women's Institute to teach modern housewives how to cook leftovers.

It nose-dived again on Wednesday when another so-called "independent" enquiry by the Competition Commission patted the major supermarkets on the back for providing cheap food, ignoring years of protests from countryside organisations like the NFU, the CLA, and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, who accuse the superstores of bankrupting farmers and destroying local businesses in small market towns.

This did not surprise me in the slightest: Gordon Brown has always known that if food is cheap, he can chisel out of us more and more taxes to squander on grandiose schemes which almost always fail. But the Tesco story is as stale as week old bread. The leftover revival is quite fascinating because it reveals a link-up between two unlikely partners, the 211,000 members of the Women's Institutes and a somewhat obscure Government quango called WRAP - the Waste and Resources Action Plan.

The WI is Britain's biggest voluntary organisation for women and in recent years it has developed a hard campaigning edge. One of the most recent was a successful drive to get decent payments for dairy farmers, very much a concern of its mainly rural membership. It is certainly not known for being pro-New Labour: a couple of years ago, members notoriously slow hand-clapped Tony Blair at their annual conference.

I freely admit that, until now, I had never heard of WRAP, a Government-backed quango whose job is to persuade people to recycle more to reduce our carbon emissions. But this week, it revealed a staggering statistic: Britons throw away virtually a third of all the food they buy - a monstrous 6.7 million tonnes a year - and the preparation of this wasted food causes more unnecessary carbon emissions than the notorious food packaging industry.

Britons throw away virtually a third of all the food they buy

The WI became famous throughout the land during World War 1, and continued the good work in World War 1, for teaching its members to cook leftover dishes like bubble and squeak, made from mashed potatoes, cabbage and onion; Shepherd's pie from minced cooked lamb; or bread and butter pudding, just that with a little butter, an egg, some sugar and raisons.

Even the haughty French, the world's most boastful culinary nation, use leftovers in scores of classic dishes: French onion soup was invented to use up stale bread and bits of cheese; wine stews came into being to use up the dregs when every household drank local plonk by the litre.

Now, the WI is supplying some of its tried and tested leftover recipes to back the WRAP campaign to cut Britain's wasted food mountain. I wish them luck because, to have leftovers, someone has to cook something in the first place and even my old gran cold have done little with a cold, half-eaten MacDonald's burger.

Must go now. My lunch is ready: a Yorkshire Dales mulligatawny soup made from the leftovers of a home-made beef curry, simmered slowly in chicken stock with potato, pasta, and some of the last runner beans from the allotment. We shall eat that with (admittedly bought) nan bread. And I doubt we shall be having dinner again tonight.

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