Restaurant reviewer Jay Rayner, writing in the Observer, today, launches a scathing attack on the economy food industry (it’s a puff piece for an upcoming TV programme on the subject, that he’s in). Read it here.
Personally, I think Rayner has got it wrong. Yes, the economy food market does contain a lot of crap, but I think he has no grasp at all of the realities of being poor and having not much of a budget for food. I’m poor, that does not mean I’m an addled fuckwit – I know exactly what sort of food I’m buying, and it sure as hell is NOT the rubbish Rayner thinks I’m buying.
I agree with much of what Jay Rayner says, speaking as someone who is, officially, on the poverty line (I am unable to work, and depend entirely on benefits, for those of you new to my blog). He’s not particularly au fait with the economics of poverty, though – he seems to equate “poor” with “stupid and ill-informed”, and by Christ I resent that. I don’t doubt what he says is true in some cases, I dispute that it translates into real-world food-buying habits for every poor person; not for anyone with a brain, anyway.
When he says “To remove the pig skin from a budget pork sausage and lift the meat content from 40% to 54% costs 0.7p per sausage.”, it may be true – I have only his word for it – he reveals that he doesn’t really have a cast-iron grasp of the economics of food production. Were I an economy-sausage producer, that figure would fill me with horror – 0.7p per sausage, when they’re turned out by the million, represents a huge amount of money, and would inevitably result in what the buying public sees as an unacceptable price hike for what is still a pretty dire product.
Eating cheaply is a subject I have written about at some length here – see links at the end – to a very positive response – and I know that Rayner, just dipping his toe into the subject, is out of his depth.
Some economy products are worth buying – both Sainsbury’s and Tesco do economy frying steak (Sainsbury’s, as I’ve written elsewhere, has the edge on quality), for example, which is better quality than their stewing steak; it’s more expensive, but the stewing steak is shin – tastes good, but unless you have a fetish for connective tissue, it needs a lot of preparation, and there’s quite a lot of waste. Their diced casserole steak is very cheap, and truly dismal. I have a pan of beef stew, based on the frying steak, along with whole shallots, chunky-cut carrots, swede and celery, plus potatoes, sitting in my fridge right now (OK, I confess, it’s a pan of scouse, albeit upmarket scouse!). The meat cost me £3.45, and I’ll get 4-5 meals out of it. That’s what eating cheaply is about, not eating shitty 2p sausages from Asda. Remember those?
Likewise, economy canned tomatoes are an excellent product – at 37p a 400g can they’re the equal of their branded, more cosmetically perfect, cousins at 98p. Same for baked beans – who cares, at 29p a 400g can, if some of the beans are broken? Not me. Just because a product is cheap, it does NOT automatically mean it’s rubbish, which is what Rayner seems convinced of.
My advice is to avoid – with a few laudable exceptions – the very bottom end of the market, and focus on the mid-range; buy better and eat a little less. I doubt there’s a single person (and I’m not talking of the fringes of society here), in Britain, who doesn’t consume far more protein than they need. So eat 2 decent sausages, instead of three rubbish ones; pad out meat with lots of veggies and/or pulses, and don’t forget the humble spud (please, unless you’re seriously cash-strapped, don’t buy economy spuds, they’re truly awful – go for Maris Piper, King Edwards, Desiree – potatoes that will have minimal waste and will actually taste good; Edwards and Maris Piper cost £1.99 for 2.5 kg, Desiree a little more, but Sainsbury’s Basics spuds are £1.98 for 5kg, and the price really does reflect the quality).
Reducing your intake of animal protein will benefit your food budget enormously, and also your health, as a no-cost bonus. You don’t have to be a veggie, just eat sensibly. And be aware that a cheap sausage, even if it’s 0.7p more expensive, is still crap.
For me, a decent sausage will have around 75-80% meat (including fat). More than that and you start to lose the typical British sausage character (a sausage is supposed to contain rusk or breadcrumbs), and start to move into wurst territory, or the likes of fresh chorizo, where the meat content is at, or close to, 100%.
I do like a very meaty sausage, like Toulouse, but they’ll be casseroled with cannellini beans, or maybe borlotti, with lots of garlic. A fried, high-meat-content sausage is, for me, an unpleasant experience. A lean or, for pity’s sake, a fat-free, sausage is an abomination! Oh, and natural casings are a must – you really don’t want to know how artificial casings are made!
Above all, though, and no matter what your food budget, ALWAYS READ THE LABEL! Make sure you get value for money.
For example, products loaded with water are always labelled with the fact if they’re from a reputable source (but fresh meat can have up to 10% added water, without it having to be declared). And if it’s not from a reputable source, or not labelled, why are you buying it? (A couple of years ago, a turkey crown from a local butcher released so much water when roasted that it stewed – I estimated that it must have been about 30% added water – a good argument for avoiding local suppliers and/or unpackaged meat; it was a freebie, so complaining would have been churlish, but it was still unutterably awful).
Packaged fresh meat, as in a supermarket, should be labelled as 100% of whatever it is – if it’s not, don’t buy it. A classic example of this is a salt beef joint sold by Sainsbury’s which is about 20% added water (I tried to confirm this figure, but it’s no longer on their website; I’m confident I’m right, though), because it’s been injected with brine, not dry-salted, as it should be. They make no secret of it, the water content is listed on the label. This may have been factored into the price – I have no way of knowing – so I don’t buy it, even though I like salt beef.
Maybe Jay Rayner needs to distance himself from the rarefied regions of gastronomy he normally inhabits, and get his arse out into the real world, to find out what real poor people are doing. Trust me, the vast majority of us are not culinary and economic morons, waiting for Jamie Oliver to come down from his ivory tower and ride to our rescue – I, for one, am eating pretty well, thank you very much! Talk to people like me, Mr. Rayner, not Heston Blumenthal. We represent the reality.
Note: Sorry to keep banging on about “poor” but anyone subsisting on benefits is below the government’s own definition of poverty-level. See these two earlier posts on the subject of eating cheaply:-