Dining on the foccacia line
We knew it was coming, but when the bill for our new bathroom was actually laid before us, we broke out in a collective cold sweat. Having ascertained that we had nothing worth selling on eBay, and no treasure troves hidden under the floorboards by long-gone piratical owners, we pooled our resources to the last copper, and braced ourselves for a month of frugal living and budget eating.
Gone are the Friday night take-aways, the mid-week noodle bar meals and the gratuitous bottles of wine. So far (touch wood), we’ve managed to escape the worst effects of the credit crunch, apart from the stress associated with the uncertain future of working in the cash-strapped media. Now, suddenly and unexpectedly, we had £20 each to last the week. In boom time, we can spend that on newspapers alone (at least someone does).
Yet, despite my melodramatic anguish and yelps about stale bread and Tesco’s Value spread, I couldn’t quite bring myself to cancel the low-key dinner party I had planned. This was no grandiose affair – nowhere in sight was a folded napkin or an amuse-bouche. It was relaxed bonhomie – two close friends, crucially, both bearing wine and chocolate. It was practically an investment.
When I moved to the gentle cathedral city of Exeter, I was amazed to discover there was a “wrong” side of the river, regarded with disdain by those who live within sight of the university. I live quite happily in such an area, in St Thomas, and it was not for the first time that the honest traders of Cowick Street came to my rescue.
A trip to Courtenays butchers, which makes its own faggots and displays plump strings of hogs pudding dangling in the window, renewed my faith that we could dine like Vikings, if not kings. Though not averse to experimenting with the ox hearts and slabs of tongue they practically give away, I decided to play it on the safe side of frugal. I was tempted by lamb’s neck with ideas of a curry, but a marbled slab of locally produced pork belly won the battle of the cheapest cuts, totalling at £4 for a generous portion for four.
Among the giant vats of sunflower seed and flour at the Weigh and Save, they sell prunes by the scoopful, allowing shoppers to carefully measure out the exact quantity needed for a recipe – a much cheaper option than buying a large bag. The store sells a curious mix of food stuffs, from cheap and cheerful boxes of broken biscuits to obscure and trendy health foods like goji berries, with a corner dedicated to oriental cuisine, displaying an array of sauces, rice paper, and sheets of seaweed. In a chaotic jumble of spices, I unearthed the usually elusive ingredient of dried juniper berries, for a bargain price of 49p.
Throw in some wholesome Westcountry potatoes and greens from Stokes and the Co-Op’s own brand Strong Dry Cider (acceptable for cooking purposes, even if most of it didn’t quite make it to the casserole dish), add a bit of Delia jiggery pokery, and hey presto – a warming hot pot, topped with a satisfyingly neat and crisp layer of sliced King Edwards. http://www.deliaonline.com/recipes/cuisine/european/french/braised-pork-with-prunes.html.
It made a meal for four for less than £15, including the gooey lemony meringue dessert, largely created from the store cupboard. Admittedly, this was a good proportion of our weekly budget, but we were prepared to live on baked spuds and pasta for one night of relative luxury. And in our undeniably middle-class version of being on the breadline – the foccacia line, perhaps – we now have dinner party favours to call in during our hour of need. As I said, practically an investment.