A Few Notes On Choosing Your Ingredients
For something a little bit different today, I want to talk about buying ingredients. While I wholeheartedly believe that you get what you pay for with food, I can appreciate that we all can’t afford the very best of everything. I’ve recently also been reading some brilliant books on food economy (the one must read I need to push you in the direction of is Guardian restaurant critic Jay Rayner’s A Greedy Man in a Hungry World: How (Almost) Everything You Thought You Knew About Food Is Wrong), which has made me think a bit more about where I shop and where my ingredients come from, but not necessarily in the way you’d think.
Let us start with the basics. When I lived in London I did my weekly shop in my local Waitrose. I picked up last minute items in the Sainsbury’s local I lived above, and I picked up whatever fruit and veg, or spices etc. I knew I could find there when I visited Borough Market to work on my column. I picked up the odd item in any speciality food stores such as Daylesford Organic I happened across while working on features.
Now I live in the middle of the countryside, just outside Canterbury. I still do my weekly shop at Waitrose, picking up odd bits when I’m in the vicinity of other supermarkets. We grow enough vegetables for ourselves here on the farm, which are generally seasonal, and while we do pick up some items in farm shops, this is rare as it is only practical to do so when we’re passing. Our fridge is also full of a lot of things like French butter, cream and bacon which we buy in our local French supermarket and we prefer, but again as in England, going to our local market over there is not always practical.
I used to feel really guilty about how much of my food, especially fresh fruit, vegetables, bread, meat and fish came from the supermarket. I knew that is was not practical, either time wise or financially do do things any differently, but I did not want to publicly admit that my steaks and whole chickens come 3 for £10 in Waitrose. I used to worry that I had to buy fruit and vegetables that were not local or seasonal in order to get a recipe done (for my columns I typically work at least a month ahead of publication). Looking back, I know that feeling like that was crazy, and I was paying too much attention to practically everyone who has ever written about food, myself included.
For a start, up until about 8 months ago I was a student, and while I budgeted a little differently so that I could eat out whenever I wanted, I was still on something resembling a student budget. Now I’m a freelance journalist, a job which at the moment has hardly upped my budget, and I know most of you reading can probably tell me exactly how much money you have to spend on food each week. (On a side note, Lil is fantastic at talking about budgeting for food on her blog Whip Until Fluffy) While I always do believe in buying the best ingredients you can afford, this is different for everyone. You should not be made to feel guilty because you can only afford to buy a supermarkets essential range of dried pasta, rather than a fancy fresh or imported version from an Italian deli. That would be ridiculous. Supermarkets are very necessary to our food economy. It is all very well expelling the virtues of local shops, delis and markets, but these places can be expensive. If supermarkets did not exist, thousands more people in Britain would go hungry. I’m not overlooking all of the problems we have with supermarket food in this country (don’t get me started), but I think I understand now why we need them, and why we should not feel bad about shopping in them. Your local Tesco, Sainsbury’s or Waitrose is democratising food, meaning that everyone can find a version of what they want to eat conveniently, no matter if they live in a big city or not, and to suit their budget.
It was Jay Rayner’s book that helped me understand a lot of this, and another thing it helped me on the way to researching myself is the idea that localism is not always a good thing when it comes to buying food. Take for example where I live in Kent. We have good local produce, but there are some things we grow a particularly large amount of such as apples. We have a lot of Britain’s best vineyards and wineries, and we’re famous for our Kentish cobnuts. We export, or sell a lot of those apples to other parts of the country, which helps our local economy. Our wine is readily available on local menus and in London, but because we produce our own varieties, does that mean we should not buy any French, Spanish, Australian or Californian wines, regardless of how different they are, because we should be buying local? If everyone did that, how would the worlds wine producers be affected? Should no one else outside of Kent be allowed to buy cobnuts, because they are not local to them? Now imagine all of this on a much larger scale, across the whole world. Yes, I still like to buy local Kent strawberries when they are in season, because they’re ripe and fragrant in a way they can’t be if they have to be transported miles by lorry after they are picked. And I do want to support local farmers. But think for a moment. Would buying absolutely everything local (if you even had the budget for it) really be good for the worlds food economy?
Now I’ve hopefully got you thinking, shall I talk about where we should be careful about what we’re buying, and about where it honestly really doesn’t matter?
Fruits & Vegetables
I think here, that while it is nice to support your local suppliers, quality is what really matters. Even if I had all the money in the world, I’d still go for the cheapest version I can manage without compromising on what I’m eating. We grow our own tomatoes every year, which taste divine so I’m very fussy about getting red, plump and very ripe tomatoes. Typically in a supermarket I spend a lot on these. It is somewhere where the more you spend, the quality does go up. But on the other hand, I’ve never found anything wrong with value cucumbers, onions or basic variety carrots. Look your fruit and vegetables over, and especially with fruit think about if it has been picked ripe, or if it would be okay for something to ripen at home. While I do worry about where all the meat and shellfish comes from at the budget supermarkets like Lidl and Aldi for the price they sell them at, I think there is something to be said for that Lidl advert from last year where all the produce was laid out as if it were a farmers market and people could not tell the difference.
Meat is a tricky one. In our freezer right now we have a mix of supermarket cuts and pices from our local butcher. The butcher costs more, and on some items I think the supermarkets do better by way of where quality meets value. I’ll always choose a Waitrose steak over one from our butcher, for example. As with fruit and vegetables, where you live you’ll learn what quality meats you’re happy with to suit your budget. I really think this is an area where you should not try and scrimp, because bad quality meat will never make a nice dish. This is not to say you should not focus on lesser loved and therefore cheaper cuts, or on offal. One thing you should always try to focus on is to buy British, and I really mean it here. Also, buy free range birds, for flavour as well as welfare. Each country has its own food and welfare standards, and buying British means not only are you supporting our farmers, you’re sure about provenance too.
Fish & Seafood
I’m picky about my fish. I like it very fresh if I’m buying it from a counter, and otherwise I just simply won’t buy it. If I had to choose, I’d be able to get whatever I wanted every day from my London fishmongers, Furness Fish in Borough Market. But, the market is in London and most of the time I’m in Kent, so my haul from there is usually limited to fresh salmon fillets they fillet specially for me, vacuum pack and load up in a cool bag with some ice so I can take it on the train home with me. I’ll admit that I’ve been too picky to be able to settle on any local fishmongers; if I’m going to pay out for a fish that has not come from a supermarket, I’m going to buy a fish where when I ask the fishmonger where and when it was caught, he’ll be able to give me an answer.
So where does my fish come from? I typically buy my fish (salmon, trout and cod) in plastic packs from Waitrose, portioned and shrink wrapped in one big freezer friendly packet (M&S are good for these, they also do this with chicken breasts) or from the freezer department in small bags (prawns). I simply don’t have a viable alternative (unlike in France, where the fish counters actually sell better quality than what they have pre-packaged), so I’ve taken the time to choose what I think is the best quality. I always make sure the fish I buy is from a sustainable source, but since my visit to Sudureyri last year, Iceland’s most sustainable fishing village and I really got a look at how they fish, process and distribute their catch, I’m not that bothered where in the world my fish comes from. Besides, especially with seafood it you want it totally local you’d really be limiting what varieties are available too you, and hurting other parts of the world in their exports.
Hands up how many of you, outside of London have a local farm shop or market they can easily get to without additional cost or inconvenience, that you can buy a good range of dairy products (and I’m not just talking cheese here)? Thought not. While I will always extol the virtue of the fruit yogurts, creme fraiche and mozzarella cheese from Neal’s Yard Dairy which I always pick up when I’m in London, I know not all of you are insane enough to spend upwards of £7 on a ball of cheese. I know that that is crazy, and it really is a personal choice. While there is a taste difference, supermarket versions are perfectly good, too.
So what do you need to keep in mind when shopping for milk, cheese, cream and yogurt? I still believe here that you should buy the best you can afford, as you will really taste the difference. British dairy farmers are more in need of our support now than they ever were, so always make sure what you are buying is British (or local to whatever country you live in). However, as I have also said I’m big on not compromising on flavour, and imports and exports exist in a balance so that localism is not always a good thing. With the exception from those beautiful pots from Neal’s Yard, I believe that the French make better creme fraiche, so I always go for that over British. I also believe they make the best butter, far superior for baking so I always buy French unsalted butter, too. Irish is also a good choice if you want to stay a bit closer to home; in America I did not think American butter produced very good results in my baking, so I went for imported Irish and Dutch butter.
Bread & Baked Goods
I think the area where I am most fussy is in the department of bread and baked goods. I don’t like shop brought cakes and biscuits. I never have done, even as a child, and I have always made my own. I do like artisan cakes and bakes, as they are of the same, sometimes better quality (good quality ingredients, and no artificial flavours and preservatives) than I can manage to bake myself, but these are treat items. I know they are expensive. Bread is where I fall off the wagon a bit. The problem is, I know exactly what is in supermarket bread, and if I really think about it I want to make my own loaves, or buy them from a good artisan baker (which is what I do, when time and budget respectively allow). I’d urge you to do so, but I’m not going to pretend that I don’t have a loaves of white and brown bread in the freezer for last minute toast fixes, and I don’t have an unhealthy addiction to supermarket bagels. If you like to eat it, you can afford it and you balance everything out, you should be okay with what you buy and what you eat.
I hope with this slightly different blog post this weekend I’ve given you something to think about the next time you go shopping, or that I’ve been helpful in what ingredient you should be budgeting for, and hopefully made you feel a bit less guilty for shopping in your local supermarket. I’d love to hear all your thoughts on this; I’ll be sure to keep checking back to the comments section.