Austerity? I want to eat well, with a clean conscience, on a low budget.
But is that possible? Surely a cheap ethical diet condemns me to a grim regime of porridge and cabbage soup? Where will I source that essential nutrient pleasure?
Well actually, despite the melodramatic introduction, my diet isn’t austere, nor is my life full of drudgery. In fact it turned out that most of the hard work lay in the research and between my ears. And as someone never knowingly accused of optimism, I’ve been quite startled to find myself sped on my journey by positive feedback, and encountering benefits instead of obstacles.
Take the well known maxim that ethical food is expensive. It turns out to be quite hard to spend a lot of money when you avoid unseasonal and highly-processed foods. Even organic and fairtrade ingredients work out cheap in comparison.
All that extra time I must spend preparing food? It’s less than the time I’ve gained by not wandering round shops reading small print and deliberating about cost.
The extra work and energy? My pressure cooker takes care of most of it. And I eat a lot more potatoes. But even foodstuffs like gnocchi, pastry and oatcakes that I would never have thought of making before have turned out to be easy and fun and surprisingly quick.
Deprivation? Most of the substitute foods I’ve adopted are much nicer than the originals and I wouldn’t go back now.
But the definition of austerity as ‘extreme plainness and simplicity of style’ does fit in quite well with my new approach. So here are a couple of tenets of my evolving food culture. My recipe for austerity, as it were. (Featuring quite a lot of peas.)
The first is Less is More (a.k.a. Choice is Overrated) as illustrated by:
The Parable of the Pulses
It’s got a bit of bad press lately but I think locavore’s a great word. I’ve no intention of picking my food just on the basis of how far a crow would fly, but I’m interested in replacing unnecessary imports with UK equivalents. And my first target was peas and beans.
I used to stock the typical vegan’s wide range of dried pulses, and buy the odd tin too. Obviously, different types were appropriate for different dishes, plus I regularly sprouted aduki, alfalfa, mung, chickpea and lentils.
And of course now that I’m cutting down on soya products, pulses are more prominent than ever in my diet, but buying UK-grown effectively limits me to peas, as I’m not a fava fan 1. Surely such a recipe for culinary austerity can’t possibly have a happy outcome? Well yes. Of course it does.
Their varied appearances had blinded me to how interchangeable pulses are2. Delicious and nutritious, but basically an adaptable substrate, it’s what I do with them that counts. With a change of spices and texture, my splendid split-peas transform themselves into humous, pâtés, falafel, soups, stews or dhal. After all, I can import the recipe without importing the ingredients.
As for sprouting, peas make such delicious sprouts I’ve lost interest in any others. The only difficult part of the process was the epic struggle to identify and buy them, but thanks to ‘Hodmedods’ I now get delivery to my door.
So I’ve discovered that choice is nice up to a point, but the law of diminishing returns kicks in quickly. My aim now is to work out how much choice will enhance my life, and stop there!
Certainly I’m finding that with a narrower range of ingredients I’m producing as wide a range of dishes. And that large selection in the cupboard was deceptive anyway. A lot got pretty dusty and neglected while I stuck to using my favourites.
And secondly: The Policy of Pushing at Open Doors
The admirable aforementioned Hodmedods may provide me with UK-grown pulses, but they haven’t yet extended their range to serve all my grocery needs.
I’d already embarked on a similar quest for flour – phoning and writing to ask which products were grown (not just processed) in the UK, and to politely suggest that the information be displayed on the packaging. But I’m not an investigative journalist by trade or nature, and was finding all this a serious drag.
Then my epiphany. I just stopped, decided to save myself the hassle and adopted my ‘push at open doors’ policy. It’s simple: If a producer doesn’t want to list countries of origin then I don’t want their product. I just seek out suppliers who share my philosophy.
The excellent www.BigBarn.co.uk came up with Fosters Mill, who even list the variety of grain and the farm it was grown on. My order came promptly with a handwritten note on a postcard of the windmill that ground it. It was better than Christmas! I also buy spelt flour from Sharpham Park. When I buy in bulk and share with friends it costs no more than the flour of unknown origin that I used to buy. As if that wasn’t enough, we like the bread better too.
I’ll conclude with a couple of the most profound & least expected consequences of this experiment:
Integration: For over 30 years my vegetarian diet has been a barrier to my social life and relationships. I’ve navigated life like a teetotaller in a world of drinkers. I hardly expected adopting a locavore(ish) diet to improve matters, but suddenly it seems my social life centres around eating! From foraging and fruit picking, to shared suppers and spelt sushi parties, I’ve found new friends with common interests, and we’re cooking, talking and playing with our food. It all feels incredibly decadent, but it’s actually pretty cheap entertainment.
Even more interestingly, being absorbed in pleasurable activities is dulling the gnawing angst about environmental catastrophe.
Liberation: I assumed this process would be an exercise in fighting temptations to buy unethical or expensive ‘treats’. After all, I was bereaved for years after giving up smoking, so that didn’t bode well…
But I’m happy with my new found diet. I don’t feel I’ve lost anything, just shifted emphasis – shuffled staples as it were. If I want to have coffee tomorrow I can, but the interesting thing is that I don’t, because I’m learning to distinguish between addiction and pleasure. Turns out that those decades of desiring cigarettes and coffee were really about seeking relief from withdrawal symptoms. And as those loudly insistent cravings fade, I find I start appreciating the quieter pleasures that are freely chosen.
Also, for the first time, I’m consciously decoupling the concept of an indulgence from something pre-processed, packaged, expensive and ‘naughty’. Do I even like crisps? Is chocolate really such an treat or is it just that I’ve spent my life watching women swoon with fulfilment as they clutch a bar of Cadburys? And if despite all that I still like figs and dates as much as chocolate, what would my tastes have been without decades of advertising and social conditioning? Even as I feel the seduction of expensive processed food, I’m now aware that if my brain was re-washed I’d find artichokes, avocados and apples much more exciting.
So instead of deprivation I’m finding liberation from the consumer treadmill. In fact I’m starting to wonder how I ever found these ‘treats’ so attractive. (Though I’ve not given them all up yet..)
The icing on my cake (which I would like to have and eat too) would be to buy these products at my local independent retailer. But so far mine has been dismissed as a minority and eccentric voice.
This project started out as Locavore Vegan Eating. But I feel it’s now earned the title Love Eating in its own right.
I wish you good luck on your own path to culinary happiness, wherever it takes you. If you want to join ours, check out www.LVE.org.uk.
Autumn recipe: Fava dip
Heat some cumin and coriander in oil to bring out the flavour. Blend with cooked split fava beans and cooked Bramley apple or Quince. Add salt and chilli to taste.
By Gemma Harris of Love Eating, and Urban Harvest, both based in Haringey, London
1. Yet. I’m getting there. 2. To me anyway! You may not agree.