Noshing on the cheap

We food writers with more taste than income live in two separate worlds. If we lived by the uncompromising standards of vrai cuisine – nothing but the very best! – and of hygiene – nothing but the freshest and the cleanest! – we could easily spend a fortune on ingredients and then throw half of them away.

In practice, there’s the sans pareil, which we glowingly report, and then there’s what we can afford for everyday. John Thorne comes right out and tells us what he loves to do with mass-produced American chicken thighs, which even the Chinese have now rejected. (He has also publicly confessed that for a while he had to give up his favorite mail-order coffee and brew what came in cans from a local supermarket – 2002 was a bad year.)

When I was on a high-fat, high-protein diet, it would have sent us to the poor house if I had not made regular pilgrimages to Waitrose, seeking out the meat, fowl and fish that had reached their sell-by date. These were reduced two-fold, often to less than half their original price. Ten 99p packets of prawns? Sure! Half a dozen trays of Prince Charlie’s bonniest sausages? Yup. A couple of trussed partridges, minus their pear trees? Thanks, I’ll take them all. When did you last see a slab of meat in an artisanal butcher shop with a sell-by date on it? Meats can mature like fine wines, gaining character with age. (Best to forget about sushi and steak tartare.)

I take comfort from MFK Fisher’s description of her first Dijon landlady, Madame Ollangnier. She was notorious in the local markets for buying their cheapest merchandise, however decrepit: “. . . she would pick up a handful of bruised oranges, a coconut with a crack in it, perhaps even some sprouting potatoes.” And yet, in fond memory, “. . . from that little hole, which would have made an American shudder in dusgust, she turned out daily two of the finest meals I have ever eaten.”

I can well believe it. There are tricks of the trade to reclaim foodstuffs which are ready to flee the kitchen under their own steam. Years ago Mary and I bought a duck on the Grimsby market. Her parents in those days did not own a fridge, but Mrs. Broxholme across the street was happy to give us storage space until our return to London.

”Nothing she owns ever works,” Mary’s father warned us, but we were young and trusting. In a couple of days we collected our prize bird – more or less cool – and set out with it on the back seat of the Mini. Soon we caught the unmistakable odour of high-hanging duck. We relegated it to the boot, opened the windows, and were able to arrive home unasphyxiated.

In the 60s, newly-married couples didn’t lightly throw away a duck, and so Mary went to our local butcher in Bute Street, South Kensington, and asked his advice. (Back then you didn’t have to be a rich Arab to live in South Kensington.)

“No problem,” he said breezily. “Give it a good rub, inside and out, with washing-up liquid and then rinse it well under the tap – you don’t want bubbles in the gravy!” We took his advice and it worked a treat. The duck was magnificent, with an opulence born of – shall we say? – maturity. We didn’t ask him whether this was his usual practice.

©2003 John Whiting

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