food

Panic room

In 2010, as part of an experiment and learning exercise, we lived on World War II rations to see how it worked and if it was possible with today’s diet.

The answer was, yes, it was possible, but good lord it was dull and hard work.

But the experience is likely to become vital. On 29 March 2019, we will leave the European Union with little or no preparation done to ensure food security. The likely results will be random shortages and hyperinflation, at least in some key commodities.

This is what civil servants in the Department for Exiting the European Union expect; many individuals there have started to build their own store cupboards of food to ensure their families don’t go hungry in the short term.

Obviously, eventually a system to allow for food distribution to begin working again will be implemented. But it’ll take at least six months and the fall of the government to happen. Even then, that system might have to include elements of rationing – if the government decides that ‘fair shares for all’ is something it wants (they’ve shown no sign of this since 2010, preferring ‘devil take the hindmost’ as their mantra).

I’ve started adding items to my weekly shopping list to put away for that particular rainy day, building a brexit store cupboard to ensure that neither of us go hungry, but trying not to panic buy or add too much to our exiting overheads.

The first problems we’ll see after brexit will be shortages/high prices for fresh goods – salads, fruit, meat. There’s nothing that can be done about that – you obviously can’t build a six-month stock of tomatoes and bananas.

But the nutrition of fresh fruit and vegetables will still be required, so tinned goods are our friend here. Tinned tomatoes make up a lot of the storage space because they are so flexible for making meals. Tinned soup, tinned vegetables and tinned fruit in juice are also there, ensuring that, if nothing else, we keep up the supply of vitamin C and fibre our bodies need.

Next up are shelf-stable carbs – pasta and rice, mainly. The average Western European eats far too many of these anyway, to the point that people try to cut them out entirely. Both extremes are foolish. Carbs are instant energy and needed in moderation by everyone. They’re also really tasty and help to bulk out a meal to create a feeling of being full at the end of a meal – useful when you’re worrying if the country will recover at all from this entirely foreseeable nightmare. Flour is there too, but mainly as a cooking ingredient because my cakes and bread are always almost inedible.

Oats and oatmeal are a great addition here, as both can be easily made into both sweet and savoury dishes and absorb the flavours around them, creating the illusion of abundance. During the rationing experiment I made a lot of meals with mince, one third actual ground beef or vegetable protein, one third finely diced mushrooms and one third oats soaked in gravy. Nobody ever realised it wasn’t plain mince beef.

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If you remember your Food Pyramid from school (it’s largely almost entirely unhelpful, but it’s a good basis to start from when planning meals; the above 1946 US Department of Agriculture poster is a better option), the next tier is protein. Ours is suppled by tinned fish and meat for my husband and bags of dried textured vegetable protein (TVP) and vegan sausage and burger mix for me. The latter can be bulked out with oats; the former less so. Smaller tins are better than large ones, as wasting food by having it go off is terrible at the best of times and virtually criminal in times of shortage.

The next tier is dairy produce. This is one thing that is likely not to go into shortage in 2019, but it is very likely to jump in price quite dramatically. Dried skimmed milk is awful, but it’ll do as a cooking ingredient. The Americans, no slouches when it comes to shelf-stable awful food, do various long-life cheese powders. By combining the dried milk with a good shake of a strong cheese powder, you’ve got an entirely passable cheese sauce, with which culinary miracles can be made.

At the top of the pyramid is butter and spread. These are not shelf-stable; there is such a thing as tinned butter, but that’s basically unfiltered ghee and is awful in almost everything. I’ve invested in lots of small bottles of oil – olive and rapeseed mainly – for cooking and for dipping and frying bread in. Small bottles because, once opened, the shelf life reduces dramatically. Buy small bottles you can open and go through rather than bulk containers that may perish before you’ve finished them.

There’s a temptation, especially if doing a brexit cupboard shop online, to buy condiments and those little flourishes – sauces, chutneys, condiments – that make food extra exciting. The actual experience of World War II suggests these are foolish buys. During the entire War, Fortnum’s and other such emporia were fully stocked with things like mint sauce and ketchup and stock cubes and all those other bits and pieces, often at very reasonable prices even at the worst of the Wolf Packs in the Atlantic. They were no use whatsoever without the main meal they do so much to enhance – you try having a cheese and pickle sandwich without the cheese, the butter or the bread, or mint sauce on a plate with no lamb or potatoes, and report back to me on how good it was.

We have 290 days, at the time of writing, to build up this cupboard. By adding items to our standard weekly shop, the cost should be ameliorated. If brexit is a success – please, I know already – then we’ll end up with a cupboard full of useable if dull foodstuffs to eat over the course of 2019.

Otherwise, at least we won’t go hungry while we take back control.

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Of knives and forks

I’m back from a week in Belgium. I love Belgium: quiet, laid back, pretty and with plenty to do and see. And above all: British people don’t tend to holiday there.

I’ve only once been on a package holiday, about 15 years ago. I went to Corfu. It too was lovely, but it was infested with Brits – and I hadn’t even gone to the rough, partying part (Paleokastritsa), instead choosing a quieter area (Kassiopi) overlooking Albania. The problem was that Thompson or whoever it was had run a special offer I hadn’t known about and had hoovered up a lot of other British tourists more used to Spain. I spent two weeks in the close company of people who moaned that the newspapers were yesterday’s newspapers, that the plumbing was wipe-and-bin rather than wipe-and-flush, that there was no McDonalds, that there was no Sky TV, that there was too great a chance of running into a local who might not speak English, that the pool was smaller than Spanish pools, that the beach was shingle not sand… on and on, all ending with the refrain “It’s not like Spain!”

That was the reason I hadn’t gone to Spain. Spain was full of British people complaining. I thought a relatively expensive, out-of-the-way not-quite-a-resort like Kassiopi might have been fairly free of Brits. I was wrong and the experience still haunts me.

So Belgium is lovely in that regard… except that we long ago fell in love with Ieper (Ypres that was) and I got my Commonwealth War Graves hobby going. Ieper, home of the Menin Gate and bazillions of CWGC sites obviously attracts lots of British tourists. Still, they’re mainly coach parties, doing a night in Ieper then off to the Somme or Dunkirk or somewhere with tulips and pot, so you don’t see all that much of them.

Except at dinner time. I wouldn’t mind, if it wasn’t for the bloody incessant complaining of the Brits aboard. It’s ABROAD – it comes with differences, that’s why you fucking well went abroad in the first place. Still, I’m pretty good at tuning them out most of the time, and if they’re too far away for me to hear with my useless hearing, it’s quite easy to do. And then I can switch to people watching – the proper study of mankind being man (also, I’m nosey).

One evening, we were eating dinner at Brasserie Central on the Grote Markt. We’ve become friends with Sergio, a waiter-manager, so tend to take breakfast or dinner there four or five times in a week. He tends to seat us with the locals rather than the tourists, so it’s win-win. I watched as a family of three came in and pegged them (in a sociological kinda way, not at all a snobby kinda way, ahem) immediately: Brits on holiday by Chunnel and car, used to Spain, branching out.

They sat down and I waited for the usual food order to be placed – fish and chips for the mum and dad, burger and chips for the (alarmingly large) 11 year old son. Well, slap me down: they ordered off the set menu. This is reasonably priced, but quite exotic in places so I was shocked. It features neither fried fish nor burgers. Still, it does have some “normal” food on it, and the starter of melon and ham they ordered didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was the main course – they all had Flemish Stew.

Flemish Stew, I thought, was quite an adventurous meal for them. It can hide a multitude of sins (liver being one) in the thick, beer-based brown gravy it comes slathered in. But they cooed over it (it was, as usual at Central, beautifully presented) and tucked in.

I have in the past, here, on foodie forums and on my previous blog, complained that the Tory decision to remove Home Economics (ie Cooking) from the school timetables created a whole generation of parents that can’t cook even a simple meal and is creating a whole generation of unhealthy children who don’t know what goes into food. Smug in my chef-fy, middle class world, I prescribed reintroducing Home Ec, or where it already exists making sure that there are actual cookery lessons, teaching the basics (hygiene, how to make a roux, how to make a soup or stew) to solve this problem.

The son proved that my solution wasn’t really addressing the problem. I’m not talking about the horrors of an obese 11 year old (although this is Not Good in itself, and I speak as a bit of a porker myself). No, this is more fundamental. I watched as he picked up his knife and fork and looked confused. He watched what his parents were doing and tried to replicate their behaviour, swapping the cutlery from hand to hand as he attempted to saw at a piece of meat. He tried valiantly, but soon gave it up as a bad job, put the knife down and ate with fork alone. Anything too large was simply crammed into his mouth and chewed at, wide-open, until it was swallowable.

This child had clearly never used a knife and fork to eat with before. All his food – and he’d had plenty in his time – had been edible with just a fork or, more often, with just his hands.

How does this happen? How could his parents have let him get to Secondary School age without once noticing that the poor boy had never had reason to use a knife? How in future will he cope in school dining rooms, cafés, restaurants, dinner parties and any one of the thousands of other social occasions that include sharing food? Is he expected to spend his life eating only in McDonalds or Pizza Hut, never again to experience a civilised meal that doesn’t involve using either or both hands to get the food into his gob?

This spell of people watching was the worst spell of people watching I’ve ever done. And I’m all the more convinced that I should holiday in places without (other) British tourists more often.