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{25/06/2012}   Dictating good quality food

Last night, I made moules frites using mussels I had bought the day before in France.  Every time I go to France I at least think about eating moules frites.  It’s a great, simple dish that doesn’t take long to prepare or cook.  But it turns out that most mussels from UK waters are exported, indeed I’ve only ever bought a bag of live mussels from our own shores maybe three times.  I am convinced this is as a result of bad PR that the UK isn’t associated with “mussels chips”.  After all, we’re known for fish and chips, though which in most cases are unforgivably dreadful.

In the UK, we have some fantastic produce, from fish and shellfish to meat and certain vegetables.  But what gets my proverbial goat is that we don’t seem to appreciate our natural resources.  Why, for example, do we sometimes go out of our way for New Zealand mussels?  Just because they’re bigger and have prettier coloured shells certainly does not mean they will taste better than those we could feasibly eat a day after being harvested, in fact even the same day.  But no, we’ve been brain washed into thinking that sometimes only New Zealand green lipped mussels will do.  What middle class fools we can be.

There are also a lot of food stereotypes, for example that toffs go shopping in Waitrose, Selfridges, Borough Market etc, and so can expect and afford better quality food, which mere Lidl shoppers can’t hope for (wrong!).  However, traditional Italian food has the right idea: a few fresh, seasonal ingredients can taste amazing.  A few evenings ago, with little in the house to make a meal, I made a pasta dish from three ingredients – tagliatelli (the only dried pasta in the cupboard), crème fraiche and good quality chorizo sausages .  I wasn’t particularly optimistic it would taste that great, after all how could three ingredients be enough.  But I was wrong.  I wouldn’t buy the three ingredients to specifically make it again, but it tasted really good.

I have recently discovered Lidl.  They do a Black Forest ham (maybe six slices) at, as I recall, £1.99, that for a treat I would happily pay about £6 for in Borough Market.  Likewise, they do a goat’s cheese roll that I would be prepared to pay about three times as much for as a treat.  But actually I don’t need to.  We’re all just a bit food snotty and often don’t appreciate that quality does not have to come at a price.  I have bought three bunches of spinach from Peckham’s various veg shops for £1.  You have to wash it and trim the stalks but the leaves are thicker, darker green and more full of flavour than most of the leaves you get in a supermarket for twice the price and maybe half the weight.  We – and by “we” I am probably referring to a label I detest, but our middle class, of which I resent being (probably) a “member” of – are brain washed into thinking quality does not come from street markets but from farmers’ markets and high end supermarkets.  But in the case of Peckham, no self-respecting West African is going to sell or buy puny, limp, baby leaf spinach.  Why?  Well why would you, it’s a fast growing variety grown for quick results; if you want a spinach dish to taste of spinach, buy proper spinach with a distinctive flavour, packed with iron, not a bag of “oo, it’s baby spinach which costs more, it must be the best”.

We do seem to have descended into a culture of the-more-you-pay-the-better-it-must-be.  Rubbish.  Yes, a budget pack of supermarket cheap meat can be chewy and tasteless  so you might think you’d be better off buying more expensive, say, steak.  You’re probably right.  But if you’re lucky enough to live in London or somewhere with a particular ethnic population, there’s a chance you’ll find cheaper steak from a local butcher than, say, Tesco Value.  I get annoyed that we as a whole seem to allow ourselves to be controlled by, largely, the supermarkets and food snob chefs.  We should trust our instincts more and/or pay more attention to simple, seasonal, local food.  We have long stopped being a nation of foragers, vegetable growers, etc.  What a shame – and I am guilty of thinking “more expensive = better” at times – so many of us have convinced ourselves that we can’t possibly have a good quality, delicious meal if we haven’t gone to Waitrose or bought Sainsbury’s Finest.  Every now and then for a special occasion, buy a punnet of Finest strawberries, then go and pick your own and taste the difference (note the absence of capital letters for Taste the Difference!).  One option will be cheaper and taste far superior, it will just take up potentially a lot more time, but it will be an adventure and a morning or afternoon activity – and think of the freebie potential!  I’m not saying we all have time for going to great lengths to source good quality food, I’m just pointing out that there are cheaper options for sourcing food that can be cheaper, we’re just becoming increasingly snobby, I think, about where our food comes from and how much it costs.  I think.

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