I think we all know how I felt about Jamie’s comments about poor people in Britain, but just before I fell asleep, I panicked and jolted awake in horror. What if he was right and me writing off Sicilian peasant cuisine in south west London was short sighted? After all, my mantra about food poverty is that there is no one size fits all answer to such a complex problem and there was me, who does have a market just up the road ignoring the advice.
Luckily it was Wednesday ,when any batch cooking from the weekend tends to have run out, since I have a rule to only eat 2 portions of anything and freeze the rest so I don’t put myself off my staples and keep food enjoyable. I was also feeling well enough to get out of the house before half day closing in Brixton market to buy mussels, cherry tomatoes, pasta and those mangetout that attracted so much attention.
This was relatively easy for me as I use the market as often as possible, so I knew where to go and which stalls are worth my custom, saving lots of aimless wandering and tiring myself out. I like to shop in geographical order if I can and I’d brought a shoulder bag since this shop wasn’t trolley worthy. Much as they save the old arms when shopping, I find them a faff getting in and out of small shop fronts and aisles and avoid if I can. I don’t suppose you have that choice with a buggy though.
I started at Ilias (formerly Dagon’s) in Brixton Village. Not the cheapest fishmonger in the area, they are very friendly and easy to ask for things. Some of the cheaper fish counters only sell shellfish in net bags that prevent any purchase of ‘handfuls’. Ilias’ tend to sell theirs loose. I ask them to humour me and count out 25 mussels, spending £1.63 for 390g compared to £2.99 for 500g for pre-packed ones in Sainsbury’s.
I shop here at least once a week. I know the staff by name and to chat to about their families and have a laugh with and see what colour Donna’s done her nails today. I still felt ridiculous asking for 25 mussels and I was the only customer at the time. I’d have been dying of embarrassment doing this at a busy time. I explain why I’m being weird and they all fall about laughing. If this was my first time here, I’d run far away and never return.
Next stop was the wonderful Nour Cash and Carry. The small entrance opens out into a veritable Aladdin’s cave of everything you could possibly ever want. I go here since I can’t afford a holiday instead. I trawl up and down the aisles and eye up a cornucopia of ingredients. I could fill my basket with bottles of pomegranate molasses, 5 different sorts of lentils, tins of black beans and callaloo and halloumi and spend less than a large latte and muffin in a coffee chain. But today, I was there for the vegetables.
There is a literal corridor of fruit, veg and herbs running down to Electric Avenue (I usually come in from the Market Row side as it’s easier to find) and the choice is amazing. Last week, I wrote a piece for the Brixton Bugle (no link yet as it’s a monthly paper) comparing the costs of the market with that of shopping in Sainsbury’s and I know this is the cheapest place in town. Unless you want to buy in small amounts.
Five peppers cost a pound in a styrofoam tray here. A single one costs 34p or almost two thirds higher in price compared to the multipack. Brilliant if you really love peppers or have a large family, not so useful if you live alone or have a small fridge space in a shared house. I’ve noticed they wrinkle quickly when left in a fruit bowl so may well be wasted if you go for bulk and can’t eat them quick enough.
I buy cherry tomatoes here all the time. 50p gets me 350 grams of them. God knows where they come from at that price. Surprisingly they are packed with flavour as well so definitely a contender for my bargain of the week, especially compared to 335g for £1.10 in Sainsbury’s. Neither shop offers me them loose though so it has to be more than 10. I look at basil to accompany my toms. It’s £1.15 a 75g bag in the Nour. I already know the plants die in my dark as a ditch kitchen so compare a 28g bag in Sainsbury’s for 80p. It’s still too expensive.
Anyway, I needed to concentrate for the hunt for mangetout. Not a sniff of such a thing in the Nour today but as the produce is seasonal, you never know what you’ll find on any given day. I can’t find the pasta to compare prices, but I’ve got a bag of orzo at home I bought here for 99p for 500g.
Back to the mangetout. I trek up and down Electric Avenue looking for them and of course find them in the last place I go to. The Wing Tai Oriental Supermarket has a 100g bag for 69p. Produce of Zambia and packed by a New Zealand firm, they are the only ones I can find, let alone asking for 10 at a time. I end up with 27 and they are in fact called snow peas, so maybe everyone had them and didn’t know.
Cooking it was the easy bit. I boiled 100g orzo and once it was almost ready, I softened the cherry tomatoes in a saute pan and added the mussels. I used no oil, stock or herbs except salt and pepper. In total it took about 12 minutes to make, easier with two pans (one lidded) and a colander.
And you know what, it tasted pretty good. The flavours were strong enough that it didn’t need herbs and 25 mussels yielded 245g of meat which is about right for one person. I really enjoyed it and I’d cook it again as a Friday night treat tea. However despite what Jamie says, I couldn’t buy all my items per portion so even allowing for the pasta and tomatoes making more than one meal, the dish cost me more than £2 for one meal.
This isn’t really sustainable on benefits especially since I have 20 others to come up with maximum £20 for the week. It was cheaper in the market than a supermarket, but that’s not much use for those who don’t have the delights of Brixton market on the doorstep. I also really doubt it would scale up easily and an hour and a half later I felt hungry again! I also think mussels are a massively nerve wracking thing for the inexperienced cook.
Also I was so bloody tired after the hunt for mangetout that I totally forgot to cook them, so they’ll have to wait til tomorrow to save the day…