When we first moved to Queensland I was enchanted by some money-saving tips in the local newspaper. One suggestion was to forgo butter and economise by mashing up your avocados and spreading that on your bread instead. Happy days.
The problem with advice on making money go further, is that it spills so easily into sounding patronising or teaching granny how to suck eggs. So please forgive me if the following observations stray that way.
It is a common hope that if you don’t have much money you can make up the ground by spending time instead – going to the right places to buy, and/or getting cheaper ingredients which require more preparation and longer, slower cooking. Buying in quantity is often cheaper, though you need to have some storage space. If you can, growing some of the foods yourself can make a big difference. Not that you need to grow your own to be aware of financial implications of the seasons and their surpluses.
With supermarkets you pay not only for food, but also for convenience. The time-saving convenience of M&S being at the station means that food costs more there than at the Beehive site. The time saving-convenience of Tesco removing the skin from chicken thighs costs £1.65 per kg – and what could be an easier manoeuvre than that? For the convenience of buying small amounts, Tesco will charge you £1.90 for 2.5kg of Maris Piper potatoes, whereas Hackers Fruit Farm (on the A14, practically in sight of Tesco at Bar Hill) will charge £5 for 10 times the amount of Maris Pipers – 25kg. At Milton, Rectory Farm has been charging £6 for 25kg sacks of Estima or Marfona potatoes, while Gog Magog Hills Farm Shop has 25kg sacks of Maris Piper or Desiree for £6.95.
That sort of bulk buying doesn’t feature at farmers’ markets or Womens’ Institute stalls (now re-named Country Markets), but the quality, freshness, local sourcing and prices should take you there anyway. For instance there are truly free range eggs at keen prices – but I mustn’t digress to the appalling density at which hens may be kept in barns and yet still qualify for the label “free range”: another time perhaps.
There is a supermarket for which I have high regard on the price/quality front – Aldi. The Histon Road shop is full of good things, including award winning olive oil (Which? no less). Each week the vegetable section highlights a “Super Six” selection, for which the prices are extraordinarily low.
There is mileage in trading down as far as ingredients go. Chicken thighs have more taste and succulence than breast, and cook more evenly. Asparagus sprue – the little, thin stems – are less pretty than Extra Select, but have just as much taste. Chuck steak and skirt need slow, low temperature cooking, but the result is deeply tender, thick and hearty. Belly of pork is brilliant stewed with apple and a touch of star anise.
Chicken livers make a fine paté and terrific hot salads (as, for instance, a recipe from Josceline Dimbleby’s Almost Vegetarian Cookbook involving mint, pine nuts, cinnamon, paprika, garlic and soy sauce.
Focussing on the seasons, and therefore cooking what is plentiful and cheap, helps keep prices down. An excellent book on this subject is Good Food on a Budget by Georgina Horley, which is a huge compendium of culinary information, as well as giving recipes month by month through the year. Sadly it is out of print, but Emmaus at Landbeach is exactly the sort of place you might find it.
Gluts are a pleasure if you have a good size freezer, or you fancy making jam. However, those ploys are just the tip of the possibilities as far as preserving food are concerned. There is smoking, pickling, bottling, excluding air (e.g. confit), drying, salting, fermenting and preserving in alcohol, all knowledge which doubtless our great grandmothers had. I heartily recommend Preserved by Sandler & Acton, which covers all these topics.
A modest way of saving a fortune (particularly on something like salad leaves) is to grow your own in some pots or a plastic trough. It’s not complicated, and seed is cheap – especially if you buy Franchi’s Seeds of Italy, which are phenomenally well filled packets (enough to share with half a dozen other families in fact.). But then one of the pleasures of growing things yourself is plying friends with surplus pears and plums and beans and radishes, and then in turn being the happy recipient of apples and walnuts and artichokes and sweet corn and tomatoes. A further pleasure is that no money changes hands.
Another pastime with money saving potential is going out picking. The Cherry Orchard at Great Abington is an enchanting example of this, but picking blackberries is geographically widespread, accessible and free. Sweet chestnuts and sloes come to mind too. But now we are reaching into proper foraging – more of which in the May food column, plus Revenge Soup. And, unlike Queensland, there are no worries about snakes.