MY maternal grandmother was a formidable matriarch born and brought up in Victorian times who ran a thriving pub in the no-man’s-land between a busy city and rich countryside. She had survived both world wars, plus the Great Depression in between, and was a genius at making basic foodstuffs go a very, very long way.
“The only way to make a profit on food is to have small plates, sharp knives, and waste nothing,” she told me time and time again as I helped out in her kitchen from the age of about nine.
Food: back to the future
By this time, World War II was over but Clement Atlee’s Labour Government had been forced to impose food rationing even tighter than during the war years. There were two reasons for this: the country was broke and couldn’t afford to import much food and British farming was on its knees having been wilfully neglected in the 1930s.
As the French say, the more things change the more they stay the same. Apart from the fact that we just won a war then but seem to be losing one now, the scenario is little changed. The country is once again broke, our farmers have been neglected for the past twelve years, and suddenly the Government is worried that our food supplies could run out in the near future.
So I was thinking about my gran and feeling rather smug on Monday when Defra secretary Hilary Benn, a vegetarian, went on the radio and the telly to exhort us into wasting less food – some £10 billions worth a year – and grow more of our own. Britain, you see, only produces 60% of the food we need so the remaining 40% has to be imported at vast expense and at an even greater cost to the environment.
One of the ways to do this, says Benn, is for us to buy more locally grown, seasonable food, a thought that would have had my gran scratching her head: when German U-boats were sinking our freighters in their thousands, she only had locally grown, seasonable foods to cook. And we lived like kings.
Gran was lucky in running pub. It meant that she had a fairly constant supply of rarer-than-gold items like whisky – which she mainly ordered in half or even quarter bottles – and cigarettes, although the letter regularly ran out (as did the beer from time to time).
These small bottles were regularly wrapped in brown paper and kept strictly under the counter. It would be my job, on occasion, to take one such parcel to the side door of the pub and swap it for some other parcel, often wrapped in blood soaked sacking, and tomorrow there would be rabbit or trout on the menu, or better still, jugged hare or even venison.
These were kingly feasts but, at poorer times, gran made pies from pigeon or even rooks’ breasts. The butcher would get a full bottle of whisky at Christmas, and year round we had ample supplies of liver, kidneys, chops, sausages, and a regular roasting joint on Sundays.
Farm labourers, who grew veg in their cottage gardens, not pretty flowers, provided a constant supply of cabbages, sprouts, spuds, carrots, lettuces and the odd fresh egg – they kept chickens, too. For such bundles, a packet of cigarettes would change hands (usually, a packet of 10!) or perhaps the odd free pint.
...buy more locally grown, seasonable food
None of this was ever wasted. There was a stock pot on the go all the time for delicious soups and broths; there were rissoles from left over meats minced with carrots, onions, stale bread toasted in the fire-side oven and herbs; that oven was almost always stuffed with casseroles of the very cheapest cuts of meat cooked to slow perfection overnight; every scrap of leftover cheese was saved to make cheese straws or melted with onions in the frying pan to make a hearty supper dish.
Granny’s kitchen came back to mind again on Wednesday when I found that some of the courgettes in my allotment had grown almost to marrow size. I melted them in olive oil in a cast iron casserole with some of my own shallots, parsley and basil and a load of ripe tomatoes bought cheap on the market just before the stall shut down. From this, I froze four cartons of ratatouille, which bring a touch of sunshine to our dinner table some dark night this coming winter.
My gran did not have a deep freeze. She preserved food a by pickling, salting down or as jams: I still taste her crab apple jelly. Most modern homes will have some sort of freezer capacity but will not have access to a fireside oven for slow cooking. But a slow cooker is cheap and will do almost the same job. And the deep freeze is a marvellous gadget – so long as it is not stuffed full of frozen junk food from the supermarket.
If Hilary Benn really wants us to waste less food, as well as eat a healthier diet, he should have our schools once again teach domestic science – to both boys and girls, for the modern trend is for men to do more if not most of the cooking. And he should outlaw the devil’s own culinary gadget, the microwave oven. That would certainly cut our food consumption: thousands of families, I regret to say, would have to change their ways - or starve to death!