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Open Features: Second Helping Of Lord Wooton's Pie Anyone?

...The Spanish still do what we once did so well in this country, cook from the heart and soul. They use what comes from around them, wasting nothing; everything has a value, if only to make stock...

Following the news that the average British household throws out £420 worth of perfectly good food every year, Mary Pilfold-Allan recommends that we should make the most of home-grown food.

The latest announcement from Government as a preamble to the G8 conference was that we are wasting food by the ton. The cost a staggering £420 per household per annum. Covered by the media as a news item, such things as ‘two for one’ offers in supermarkets and the lure of ready meals that we never get around to eating, were cited as examples of our inability to say ‘No’ when we should say ‘Yes’ to leaving them on the shelf like the perennial spinster.

Surely there is also a case to be answered by the media itself for aiding and abetting this excessive food phenomenon? It promotes cookery programmes as a winning way of capturing viewing ratings. The cult of the celebrity chef has now reached such heights that these gods of the kitchen can barely have time to eat let alone cook anything except with the cameras rolling. What they do however, is to make us think about what we could do. In the process we head to the shops with an open mind to the mantra, ‘buy, buy, buy’ and come home with things we intend to use but never will. That delicious Thai dish, as demonstrated on TV requiring exotic ingredients, ends up being too much trouble to prepare after a hard day at work. Eventually the lemon grass wilts, the ginger shrivels and the garlic sprouts green shoots that suggest it’s changing its identity and turning into a spring onion!

Possibly, because I can (just) remember post-war shortages, possibly because when my children were at home they would eat anything and everything in sight and possibly because I was born with the ‘Waste not, want not’ gene, a rat would not get fat on our left-overs.

It was a couple of years ago that I became interested in the idiosyncrasies of the food industry whilst doing some work on future sustainability, including the anomalies of over production, carbon footprints and the whole concept of how far our food travels. The revelations were truly horrifying. There and then I made up my mind that local was good, long distance bad. Wherever possible I try to buy from produce grown or reared in East Anglia as a first choice, the United Kingdom otherwise. Why, oh why when farmers grow thousands of lettuces in the rich fenland soil adjacent to my home does our local supermarket import lettuce from Europe? Likewise, this is the height of the tomato season, yet a quick scan of labels reveal the country of origin as Holland. The same goes for cucumbers. Tackled on the issue, I was told by a company employee that it was all down to cost. He was referring to the monetary cost – the future cost to customers in carbon foot printing and the economic viability of this country was not something the supermarket obviously felt it needed to consider. No wonder Farmers Markets are proving such a success!

My grown-up children are now doing the proverbial ‘teaching their grandmother to suck eggs’, except the grandmother is me! Vegetable patches are appearing in their gardens. Troughs harbour tomato plants with minute green marbles. Old lace curtains are doing a turn as covers to keep the caterpillars at bay on the sprouting broccoli. Lettuces, whilst tender and tasty, sometimes come with lodgers in the shape of wriggly things or tiny, puzzled snails. Whilst all these efforts are to be applauded I dare not mention such mundane matters as, that growing your own plants from seed is much cheaper than buying them; you don’t have to bring in bags of compost if you make your own; and if you do use seeds, sowing lettuces at two weekly intervals stops rows of them being ready to eat at the same time.

Carbon foot-printing aside, the problem of food wastage is a serious one and needs the support of the so-called celebrity chefs if there is to be a change of consumer attitude. One of the most inspiring culinary programmes I have seen in a long time was presented by Tommi Miers, ‘A Cook’s Tour of Spain’. Yes, the recipes were mouth-watering and the scenic background wonderfully representative of the vastness of Spain, but it was the fact that she learnt from the local people that marked the whole series out as a winner for me. The Spanish still do what we once did so well in this country, cook from the heart and soul. They use what comes from around them, wasting nothing; everything has a value, if only to make stock.

The final lesson we have to re-learn is that a little meat can go a long way. Somewhere along the line we have become addicted to quantity. Steak is no longer a luxury, but the size of the steak has become paramount instead of valuing the tenderness and flavour. We are heading for what I remember with a shudder from my time in the USA as the ‘size matters’ rule. If a steak arrived at the table without both ends hanging off the plate, it was considered skimpy.

It would appear our attitude to food has become contorted. We buy too much, eat too much and now it is said, we waste too much. Time to get back to basics? History teaches us we once lived by that which was produced naturally within our hunter-gatherer reach. To my recollection, Hugh Fearnley-Whittington and his River Cottage series is one of the most prominent promoters of this concept. Perhaps its time for a few more of the chefs to come on board and show the nation how to make the most of ‘home-grown’ meals.

As for our leftovers, the last time we had a food crisis, albeit for an entirely different reason, the Minister of Food came up with his own recipe – Lord Woolton’s Pie. Well, that’s not quite true, it was named after him but created by the chef at the Savoy so the web says. We can only hope that the message Gordon Brown’s has just delivered will be taken on board and we can save ourselves from the possibility of a Government cookbook. I wonder what the title would be? ‘Learn to Love Left-overs’? ‘Waste for Taste? ‘Nanny (State) Knows Best’?

Now what can I do with a couple of wilting lettuce leaves, half a tomato and some cold potatoes for lunch?

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