Shopping - part 1 - no expense spared
"Few recipes so perfectly illustrate what I have been banging on about for years - that the integrity of the ingredients is more crucial than the ability of the cook. In other words, shopping is more important than cooking." Nigel Slater
I have been meaning to write this piece for some time now, and every time I try to make a start I get bogged down in diversions, which sometimes become the post instead of this one. But I'm going to give it a go this time.
The quote at the top of the page is from one of my favourite cooks - as you will know by now. Nigel Slater is so good for two reasons, he writes beautifully and his food is generally very simple, thus making his recipes easy for beginner (and lazy) cooks. But not only is it simple, it's also interesting - helped by that writing skill of course.
Today however, I am taking issue with him - and a whole lot of other food writers too over the shopping for ingredients thing.
The meal he is talking about in that quote is this one - Penne with Parmesan and parsley. Indeed, as he says himself, it's barely a recipe
"There is one throw-it-together midweek supper I make year in year out. It consists of nothing more than a few handfuls of pasta tossed with olive oil, parsley and Parmesan." Nigel Slater
He doesn't even include the garlic of the classic pasta aglio e olio.
What he does bang on about at length is the quality of the ingredients. For example the Parmesan:
"The Parmesan you grate for yourself from a great craggy lump is altogether different from one bought ready-ground. The way I look at it is this: if we were really meant to buy the stuff that comes in a little cardboard drum, then how come it smells like vomit?" Nigel Slater
All very true of course, but unless (a) you live in Italy, (b) you are well off and (c) you live near a gourmet grocery store that sells large chunks of genuine Parmigiano Reggiano, you're not likely to be able to get it. And even if you are buying the stuff that 'smells like vomit' - Coles home-brand, for example it will still cost you $16.00 a kilo, $17.50 if it's shredded. Zanetti grated Grana Padano - not even Parmesan - will cost you $45.00 a kilo! And let's be honest, some would say that Parmesan itself smells a bit like vomit.
In fact this morning I needed to buy some Parmesan - in a block for grating myself - yes I do that. I'm enough of a gourmet, and have enough money to be able to do that. He is right - if you grate it yourself it is much better. Mind you I tend to grate mine in bulk in a food processor which he snidely deplores:
"Disliking drawers full of bits and bobs, I have not yet fallen for one of those old-fashioned barrel graters where you hold the cheese down against a revolving drum. I have met those who swear by them."
My food processor is not old-fashioned but it is a revolving drum that grates the cheese, and it's not quite freshly grated at the table. But it's perfectly fine - very nice in fact. My gourmet husband, though does the right thing by his salad - he cuts thin slices over it at the table from the block.
However, at the moment I cannot access my supplier of large chunks because that is in Doncaster and I cannot travel there. Well actually I probably can now as we have just been allowed to go 10km. And to be honest even when I do go there to buy it I don't buy the Parmesan I buy Grano Padano because it's cheaper and because I do not have a refined enough palette to be able to tell the difference. A long time ago I did a post on the difference between the two which had some 'experts' saying they preferred Grano Padano. It's all a matter of subjective taste really.
But look I'm digressing from my main intent, which I shall illustrate some more with a couple more quotes from the Nigel Slater article:
"I should point out that it works best if you have stopped at Oddbins on the way home for a bottle of glorious Icardi." Nigel Slater
What the hell is Icari and who are Oddbins? Are they the British Dan's? Well I looked both up. Icari is an Italian wine-maker from Piedmont as it happens, and try as I might I could not find out how much a bottle of their wine costs. A lot I'm guessing. Below is the Home Page from the Oddbins website - need I say more? Sort of equivalent to our Langtons I guess. Anyway - not your bottle of bargain plonk from Dan's.
He also has a word to say on favourite ingredients:
"Whenever I am asked one of those 'what ingredients do you always have in your kitchen' questions, then a lump of Parmigiano is never far behind the Illy espresso, tiny Ligurian olives and Evian." Nigel Slater
Well I wonder if Brexit will up the prices on all of those things?
Now to be fair to Nigel Slater he grew up in a modest household. Not dirt poor but not rich either. Now, by talent, hard work and probably determination as well, he is a household name and probably has lots of money and so why not spend it on your passion - in his case food? He also writes in The Guardian which is not the newspaper that the working class buy. So the working poor are not his audience. It's very definitely a newspaper for the educated, the intellectual, the middle and upper classes. He does do a bit of television but not a lot. Also to be fair I have sometimes seen him modify the 'buy the best' mantra to 'buy the best you can afford', but nevertheless even such a simple dish as Pasta with olive oil and parmesan is probably out of the reach of the very poor - even just the poor. Those are expensive ingredients (not the pasta I suppose) even if home brand.
There's more to the idea of quality ingredients than taste though isn't there? You can avoid the cost on the gourmet grounds by saying you can't tell the difference. If you don't taste the really high quality stuff you'll never know will you? Ignorance is bliss perhaps. Although last night we had one of our regular arguments about bargains, versus quality when it comes to wine. We never, ever spend a lot on wine - not even a relatively modest $30,00 say. Let alone several hundred dollars. Even though theoretically we could afford it. Now I'm not saying one should spend what one can afford all the time - it wouldn't be a very special treat then would it? We are blessed here in Australia to be able to access very, very drinkable wines at a really low price, all the time. The same should probably apply to food - although I have to say I draw the line at paying just under $9.00 a kilo for tomatoes at the moment. But that's a seasonal thing too. They might be expensive but they are not high quality. You need to wait for summer for that.
The other 'guilt trip' that the gourmet cooks try to make you go on is the health trip:
"Ingredients are, quite literally, us. They physically become part of our bodies, and the bodies of those for whom we cook. The food we choose is the very matter that underpins our life, our health and our well-being." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Today I had to go to the supermarket to buy yet another very expensive leek, so I called in at our local Farmer's market to check it out. This is not a photograph from today - I got there a bit late, and so there wasn't much left, and what was there was a bit tired and dismal looking. And not that cheap either, though I did see that if I had got there earlier I could have got a leek for a mere $2.50 instead of the horrendous $4.50 that I paid. I suspect it would not have been as high quality though, however organic it might have been. So I did not spend any money there I'm afraid.
On the whole, on my previous trips to our local market I have noticed that the prices are higher and the quality doesn't look a whole heap better - bar the apples from the orchards, and the various gourmet cheeses and honey and things. Which, of course are also not cheap. But Eltham is a wealthy area. In Europe the markets are colourful, are in romantic little villages, and the food is actually quite well-priced as well as being of a quality to die for. Besides you're on holiday so who cares how much you pay? And here, again to be fair, there are markets like Preston and Box Hill and the Queen Vic which do indeed sell cheap, high quality and hard to find stuff. So I shouldn't complain about markets. I will complain about organic though. Various organisations, such as Choice have found that organic does not necessarily taste better, but it is always so much more expensive. Why? But that's an argument for another day.
"Every culinary endeavour starts with ingredients - and the best start with the best." says Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Is that true? Couldn't a bad cook stuff up excellent ingredients? Can't a good cook make something good with something that isn't the best that money can buy?
I have a friend, who declares that she doesn't look at the cost - if she wants it she buys it. And I could do that too, but sometimes I just cannot bring myself to buy the expensive pasta say, when the cheap stuff is almost as good. It's pasta and I just cannot seem to get over my poor youth.
I try. I do really love food shopping. But I can't quite be Nigella:
"Eating alone for me, is most often a prompt to shop. This is where self-absorption and consumerism meet: a rapt, satisfyingly convoluted pleasure. The food I most want to buy is the food I most often try not to eat: a swollen bellied tranche of cheese, a loaf of bread. These constitute the perfect meal." Nigella Lawson
Bread - yet again - do you really have to spend $8.00 and upwards for the best bread when Coles Laurent finest at $5.00 is excellent?
"Shop well and you'll eat well. It's a small idea. But it has big impact." The City Cook
Alas I think the City Cook really is with Nigel and the rest. None of them seem to want to talk to ordinary people just trying to get by who live in an ordinary suburb without a gourmet food shop. I think only Jamie and perhaps Delia make any attempt at understanding the dilemma of the ordinary cook.
delicious. too - a foodie magazine aimed not at the ultra rich or even the Toorak set, but probably at people like me who can afford to splurge every now and then. I'll finish with another simple example from them - the new caprese - a Valli Little recipe. Brilliantly simple but you need buffalo mozzarella - not just ordinary mozzarella, - or burrito - even more difficult and expensive, perfect really ripe tomatoes, 'real' balsamic vinegar and of course, the best olive oil.
You could make do of course, with cheaper substitutes, and you know it might be just as good, and if you've never had those expensive things then you'll never know. And at least you are trying:
"It's already a commitment to cook instead of taking-out and what we want are ways to make it easier, not harder." The City Cook
Really it's a question of access isn't it? Where do most of us do our shopping? The supermarket probably - and that's for next time.