ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Pennywise, Poundcake

‘Double Dip!’, ‘Credit Crunch!’, ‘Trough-snout Bankers!’ Whichever buzzwords you choose to bandy around, it can’t be denied that tough times are here to last – for most of us at least.

This week Nik Kershaw is auctioning both his lungs, while the next sequel to ‘Dude, where’s my car’ doesn’t have the budget to feature a car.

The French government has rocked the state-owned cutlery-manufacture business by ruling that all new forks will be made with only two prongs, and the Westboro Baptist Church is having to offer gay marriage ceremonies just to pay the bills!

So, to help people through these penurious times I’ve put together a list of five simple ways to save the pennies but still eat and drink like royalty.

You know the old saying – Breakfast like a King, Lunch like a King, and dine like a King!

1. Go with the flow

Be flexible Be spontaneous. In almost any market, super or otherwise, there will be bargains to be had at any given time as stock approaches the end of its saleable life.

There’s no good way of knowing in advance what you’ll be able to pick up for cheap, and that’s the very beauty of it. Instead of planning a meal and then hunting down the ingredients, do it the other way around and let your dinner be determined by what’s available cheaply.

The other day I saw a huge bag of winter vegetables for just 75p. A couple of onions, carrots, parsnips, a turnip and a nice leek. That’s the veg sorted for a nice beef stew that’ll do us perfectly at this time of year.

There’s always something on special offer that’s worth buying. If it’s perishable, plan tonight’s meal around it, and if it’s something that lasts, stock up!

A word of warning though – do not buy shit just because it’s cheap. It’s better to buy nothing than to buy something you’re never going to use or which will go rancid before you get round to using it. Common sense, that, but it’s something of which we are all guilty occasionally.

2. The more the merrier

The economy of scale is a fairly universal principle. Cooking beef stew for four will not cost four times as much as cooking beef stew for one, so you might as well make more and eat the rest tomorrow if there aren’t four of you.

If you get bored having the same meal two days running, you obviously haven’t made it delicious enough. I guess you'll just have to invite a few friends round for an economical celebration.

This isn't a new idea either - the practice is said to originate from the teachings of Thriftes, the ancient Greek god of frugality...


3. See through the hype

Back in the old days, people would just go out and buy eggs and butter and milk and bacon and whathaveyou, without a second (or even a first) thought as to what social connotations the stuff they’d bought said about them.

These days many supermarkets divide their stuff up into different ranges - essentially ‘expensive’, ‘ordinary’ and ‘cheap’, or indeed ‘brilliant’, ‘ordinary’ and ‘a bit shit’.

Of course, instead of spelling it out, they badge their products with labels like ‘Extra Special’, ‘Taste the Difference’ and ‘Finest’ for the top stuff and ‘Basics’ or ‘Value’ for the cheapest. Stuff with no specific extra branding is generally in the middle category.

It’s the same principle as the ‘hierarchy of threeness’ which I blogged about some time ago. (Oh, and the poor relation, Singapore Sams, has long since gone!)

The problem is that branding is applied to almost everything these days which dilutes the power of hierarchical differentiators, but snobbish and scratty consumers alike may subconsciously think that the three levels universally signify ‘brilliant’, ‘regular’ and ‘a bit shit’, even when the difference between them is much of a muchness.

It’s not just about packaging, mind. The trick is knowing where there is a real difference in quality and where you might as well save the pennies and buy the ‘a bit shit’, sorry, ‘Market Value’ option because it’s not actually that shit.

Take sausages. There is a huge gulf in quality between top-of-the-line and bottom-of-the barrel (which might be less than 50% meat in some cases) and it’s reflected in the price.

But if you’re buying onions for cooking with the sausages you’re probably throwing money away if you get anything other than a huge economy bag. Once they’re in the pan, I’m really not sure I could ‘Taste the difference’ between the red onions which cost a pound for a pack of two, and the ‘Basics’ red onions which are a similar price but you get about 15.

More examples - the hierarchy usually means something when it comes to chocolate,  alcoholic drinks and fruit juice, but it means very little in the fresh fruit and vegetable section, so go for the good value bargain options unless you have a very good reason for wanting them particularly clean and well-presented.

Fish and meat quality varies somewhat, so your best bet is to examine the individual pieces – you’re as likely to find a tasty cut in the bargain range as you are to find an horrendously overpriced bit in the flashy packaging.

4. Waste not, want not

All rise!
In the old days, getting full measure from our leftovers were as much a part of life as ration books and rising for the National Anthem after TV stopped for the evening at about 11:35.

Families, as the legend has it, would enjoy a big roast dinner on a Sunday and then eat dishes based on the leftovers for the next two or three days. At least.

These days, as a society we’re much more into recycling but also throw more food away than any previous generation and it’s madness.

Baking potatoes? Cook more than you need, then you can cut the leftovers into wedges and fry them up for a tasty side dish the following day.

Roast pork becomes something very special when slow-cooked a second time with onion and barbecue sauce to make pulled pork.

Not enjoying that bottle of wine or beer? It’ll do just fine as an ingredient in that risotto or chilli you’re cooking tomorrow. Yes, and that beef stew I keep banging on about.

5. Drink selectively!

One of life’s strange phenomena is that you don’t always get what you pay for.

This is most obvious when drinking in a pub in that the price one pays for a pint will bear no resemblance whatsoever to how much one enjoys drinking it.

The cost of beer is influenced by many factors, but the quality and tastiness of the beer is not one of them and a night drinking indifferent or even frankly horrible beer can cost as much, or more than, an evening where every sip is nectar from Heaven.

So aim for fewer, but better nights out down the pub (and stay in so you can make a beef stew with inexpensive vegetables on the other nights!)

These days there are great pubs almost everywhere and it’s worth travelling a little further or paying a little more occasionally to have a pint that makes you go ‘WOWFUCK!!!’ rather than chugging down gallons of uninspiring pisswater every night.

So, there we go then. Simple, obvious stuff, but particularly relevant in the current climate where very few people have money to burn. That beef stew is impossible to burn, by the way…

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