One Mangetout at a Time

25 mussels

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…

29 replies
  1. Kenny
    Kenny says:

    Very valuable insights, Miss South. You’re someone with a particular knowledge and interest in food with an excellent market on your doorstep and even then, this turned out to be a bit of a struggle. Imagine what it’s like for a single pensioner living in the country or a disabled person who hasn’t the energy to trawl the market or a single mother in the suburbs with two young kids who can’t afford the Tube fare for herself and the kids, never mind manage to get them (one of them in a buggy, one on reins) round the shops without having a nervous breakdown. That’s before you even consider the lack of cooking skills some people have, or the problem of living in a bedsit with only a microwave to cook in or any number of other difficulties. I appreciate our feted celebrity chefs making the effort to help us all learn to cook better, but the level of victim-blaming that comes in when you start talking about their big TVs is no worse than talking about the length of a rape victim’s skirt.

  2. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Kenny: exactly. I am a disabled person without the energy to trawl up and down and it’s taken me ages to get to know the market. I’ve been ripped off a good few times, sold some rubbish quality stuff and had to learn how to shop there because I grew up in a city where the market only ran on a Friday when we were at school or work, so no idea.

    That’s a lot of skills to master just to make your dinner and a big risk for many!

  3. Dom
    Dom says:

    For the last 5 years or so, I’ve lived on a food budget of around £10/week.

    I have arthritis, and there are no food markets around here. The closest supermarket is a bus ride away, giving me just over £7/week if I shop at the supermarket. If I want to go to an actual food market, it means buying a travelcard, leaving me about £3/week to spend.

    Mr Oliver *has* *no* *clue*.

  4. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Dom: I’m afraid you made me laugh like a drain trying to even imagine Jamie Oliver on a bus, let alone knowing the fares. He’s in Cloud Cuckoo Land…

  5. Kate Powell
    Kate Powell says:

    Bulk cheap peppers are a find of great excitement in our house. Our budget for food is low, but not as low as yours, and there are more of us. If I find some really cheap this is what I do, cut them up into big pieces, quarters are good, and take the seeds and pithy bits out,throw them in a roasting tray with some thyme, garlic and chillis if you like, salt pepper etc. Dribble generously with oil (olive for pref. but sunflower is fine) roast them off in the oven (when you have it on for something else?) until they are soft, a little charred if you like, I never bother to peel them for this, and they will produce a bit of juice, when they come out of the oven give them a decent glug of wine/cider vinegar, and when they are cold pack them in a jar and push them well down under the oily liquid…they will keep in the fridge for about 10 days….you can eat them cold or heat them up. They are super tasty 🙂 You can do the same thing with a glut of mushrooms.

    I hear what you are saying about Jamie Oliver…but I think he’s closer to being on the same page as me than some of the others. Hairy Bikers cheapie meals series was ridiculous. I love Si and Dave, but really??? The were not eating on the same planet as me. The pieces of meat they were buying would have blown my budget for the week!

    I love your blog… 🙂

  6. The Lone Gourmet
    The Lone Gourmet says:

    I do have a market on my doorstep and I don’t have a limited food budget. I also work from home for myself so I can pop to that market when it’s open, without disrupting my work time too much. That immediately puts me at several advantages over many of Jamie Oliver’s lazy poor people with massive tellys. However, I do live alone and really don’t want to buy large amounts of anything. I’m quite frugal with food. I’m lucky that I can grab a single carrot or 3 onions if that’s all I really need. I could probably get 10 cherry tomatoes, assuming one of the veg stalls has them, which they mostly don’t.

    However, I’ve never seen mange tout on sale at my local market – if I want them, I have to go to the supermarket and buy them in a shrink-wrapped tray of 150g or whatever is it. That is actually a *lot* of mangetout for one person.

    My market also has a fishmonger. I’ve never seen mussels on sale there. No doubt I could get them if I ordered them in advance, but I’m sure they’d arrive on collection day in a 1kg net. (My fishmonger does let me have small amounts of whatever is on the slab though – I think I really pissed him off one day when I asked him to fillet and butterfly a single herring for me but he kept smiling anyway).

    Also, this 60p of Jamie’s – it’s still not clear to me if it was the packet of spaghetti that cost 60p or the whole meal. Even round my neighbourhood, which is mostly poor, I’ve never seen spaghetti on sale for under a quid.

    I’d be amazed if I could pull that Sicilian peasant’s meal together for 60p, even without watching the pennies and even with a market and a very cheap Asian store, plus two supermarkets on my doorstep…

  7. Clare
    Clare says:

    I’m going to defend Mr Oliver (a little bit).
    I think he’s made his point insensitively but I think the point he was trying to make has been slightly obscured by the fact that his foot was in his gob when he was making it.

    The point is not that we should be able to grab a handful of mussels – the point is that we can’t do what the Sicilians do so easily because most of us don’t have access to markets anymore – and the reason why is that we have allowed them to dwindle and die.

    Furthermore, a lot of people, poor or otherwise, are bloody ignorant and lazy when it comes to their diet.

    I generally like Jamie O. The work he’s done with school meals and the 15 restaurants is really valuable. And while doing that, he’s been faced with kids who couldn’t tell the difference between a potato and a stick of rhubarb.
    Although he forgot to check his privilege before opening his trap, it doesn’t make him entirely wrong. What you do with your budget is mind-blowingly impressive but I’d prefer for us to live in a society where it wasn’t necessary because you were better provided for to begin with.

    It’s easy to slag off the poor and those of us who are or have been poor (properly poor – no money, no food, no clue what to do next – poor) will always take umbrage at posh, rich people making suggestions about how we live our lives. However, you are the exception not the norm and I’m sorry to report that there are people who prioritize their telly and games machine over their diet. Some of my daughter’s pals can’t identify basic foodstuffs when they’re round our house but they’re not short of branded trainers and tech. There’s an issue here of what we’re teaching our kids to value – and that’s society wide.
    In a nutshell, what I’m trying to say is that he absolutely could have put it better but he’s not entirely wrong.

    So I guess I’ll end with a quote from ‘The Big Lebowski’:
    “You’re not wrong ‘Walter – you’re just an asshole”

    I love your blog too. Don’t hate me. xxx

  8. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Kate: hilariously despite using them as a benchmark here I despise peppers so I’ve never ever cooked or bought one! But people always mention the price of them and I understand they have a strong flavour and thus are a good budget item when you can get them cheap, so good tip on this. I’ll definitely try the mushroom version. I did slow roast tomatoes like this recently and it was great!

    I think teaching people cook skills is so valuable. I’m never going to knock that. I might roll my eyes at Si and Dave’s puppy like enthusiasm, but I felt their heart was in the right place at least.

  9. The Lone Gourmet
    The Lone Gourmet says:

    Jamie Oliver last year applied to the DWP for free “work experience” labour by JSA claimants for his restaurant in Cornwall. This is a hugely controversial scheme – claimants are expected to basically work for nothing or have their unemployment benefit sanctioned for weeks. The companies that have used this scheme, many of which have been publicly embarrassed into withdrawing from, are huge companies such as Tesco, Boots and Asda – companies that can afford to pay their staff.

    Claimants who are forced onto these schemes then don’t have the time to search for paying work or attend interviews because they are doing 40 hours a week unpaid and as proving you are searching for a job is mandatory for claimants, they can also have their benefits sanctioned for being unavailable for work. This is the Kafkaesque world of unemployment today.

    Anyway, Oliver applied for free labour. Last week he moaned that he hadn’t been offered any. GOOD!

    If he’s too tight to pay his workers – workers he has also said this week he expects to work 80-100 hours a week – then he has absolutely no business telling people who live in poverty how to spend their money or how to eat.

    Foot in gob doesn’t begin to describe his folly and ignorance.

  10. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Alicia: thank you. It was the most delicious point I’ve proved in a while.

    Louise: good points here. One of the very things that makes markets great is that they are all different to each other so Brixton isn’t the same as Tooting and neither are the same as say Bury or Ashton. I’d have thought Jamie would be keen on regional difference. Even supermarkts do it. I see so much difference between the ones in Belfast and the ones in London. I struggled to get a bag of pasta for 60p too due to the rise in prices for wheat based products at the moment.

  11. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Clare: no hating at all! I don’t object to Jamie saying it, but I do object to the judgement and his positing himself as the expert when he isn’t. Remember how successful the school dinners campaign was when he teamed up with and listened to the dinner lady Jeanette? He didn’t call those kid fussy wee buggers and he changed things, but he feels it’s ok to slag off poor people in the middle of the biggest economical crash ever seen and while the government targets them through crippingly welfare changes? That’s cold and cruel. I get called a scrounger everyday for being too ill to work, then Jamie joins in and it feels like bullying.

    And yes, lots of people are ignorant about cooking. Do you think you’ll change their mind by being rude? Jamie is in a brilliant position to help and I’m so annoyed because he isn’t using it, not because the basic message is wrong. I’d love to teach people to even cook one or two meals or to add more veg to things or to shop to their best, but finger wagging won’t do it nor will asking people to change every single thing at once.

    Pity I can’t be like The Dude though and do it over a White Russian. I love those!

  12. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    The Lone Gourmet: You just can’t have it both ways and ask staff to work 100 hour weeks for between £53 and £71 and then expect them to feed themselves well. Combine the fact that getting taxpayer subsidised employment when you can afford to pay and made your name with something like Fifteen makes him the scrounger, not the benefit claimants.

    Poverty is not one amorphous blob. It tends to divide into several camps and there are the cash and time poor (like the Workfare person above or the zero hours contract worker) or the time rich and cash poor like certain lone parents and unemployed people and then there’s those who have no stability or routine such as some sick and disabled people and carers. You can’t apply the same answers to a problem that isn’t always the same.

    And Jamie of all people should know better. He could go back to the dinner ladies or the Fifteen applicants and ask for their help like he did before and work with them. And he could apologise and start paying people.

  13. Clare
    Clare says:

    Points very well taken Miss South.

    I’m not too impressed by him signing up for free labour either, as per the post above….if that’s true then he’s just been evicted from the list of people I’ll usually defend from slaggings.

    Careful man, there’s a beverage here. x

  14. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Clare: yeah, the free labour thing is beyond the pale for me. I’ll be keeping an eye. I also heard that he uses zero hours contracts for all staff in Jamie’s Italian. Now I can understand those for students for example, but as a widespread thing they are very difficult for staff for childcare, transport and tax credits especially.

  15. gjj
    gjj says:

    You’ve either deliberately or accidentally missed the point completely. It’s not about mussels and mange tout. It’s about shopping for fresh ingredients and cooking them. THAT is cheaper and healthier and tastier and more satisfying etc than buying ready meals. It doesn’t need to be mange tout – and to suggest following Jamie’s advice required you to hunt all day for mange tout is frankly wrong-headed. Use brocolli, or green beans, or cabbage, or cauli, or cabbage etc. And if your scared of cooking mussels use fish or chicken or sausage or bacon or sweet potato or pumpkin. And if you were still hungry then cook more pasta. Sorry – but this post is nonsense

  16. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Gjj: How have I missed the point when my previous post and my entire blogging career is about cooking from scratch, using markets and adapting recipes to make them easier on a budget? I was making the point that for someone who doesn’t know how to do these things because they’ve never been taught to cook or don’t have a market, he’s giving misleading advice and suggesting ridiculous things.

    He should have mentioned cabbage and making a packet of sausages go further. That is the point I was making. And the other point I made was it’s just not as simple as fresh food being cheaper. How long could you continue to eat plain boiled spuds, cabbage and sweet potato without herbs, spices, oil, butter etc? Because he hasn’t allowed for that outlay.

    I cooked 21 meals for £20 for the Observer recently and used storecupboard basics of salt, pepper, oil, mustard powder etc and was shocked to realise that even shopping in Asian grocers those items came to £14. Big outlay if you start from scratch and if you buy one thing a week, it takes ages. And as to cooking more pasta: that’s extra cost as the bag won’t last as long, extra electric, extra time in a shared kitchen or extra time if you’re feeding kids.

    I don’t disagree with the basic point. I just know it isn’t that black and white. Nor does his being rude help the situation.

  17. Amanda
    Amanda says:

    The Sicilian peasant (who I feel sure is called Paolo) scenario is a pretty silly example by Mr. Oliver. Paolo probably lives by the sea and collects the mussels himself. And has a little veg plot and grows the baby toms, and La Bella Signora next door grows mange tout (or sugar snap peas) (or snow peas). Although, I’ve never met a mange tout in Italy but hey ho. And he’ll have orzo (or something similar: I thought orzo was specific to Sardinia…double hey ho). And barters some of his prodigious crop of baby toms for olive oil: a sort of quid [Euro?] pro quo.

    Incidentally, I’ve just been reduced to tears of laughter in the village shop: LOOSE BABY TOMS. I couldn’t bring myself to count out 10 and see how much they cost. (I’m writing from a place perched on Exmoor: great excitement to see aubergine for 75p each.) The nearest “proper shops” are 14 miles away – there is the most hideously expensive organic farm shop a bit closer, but I wouldn’t dare cross its threshold. So I try to buy local veg from the village shop and look out for reduced-to-clear local meat: 3 lamb leg steaks/£2…currently being made into a casserole with spuds, courgettes, peppers (sorry!) and other bits & bobs. Which, as well as lunch for me x 3, will have rather good liquid leftover for soup-making for my pa who is unable to have anything else.

    I’m so pleased I found your blog!

  18. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Amanda: if he’d used the example of people with allotments here swapping or bartering their courgette glut that would still have been a bit out of touch for some people (I don’t expect him to capture every scenario) but it would also have been very in touch for some people and attainable for others giving them something to work toward.

    Even if he’d used examples of things you can buy loose like carrots or broccoli that would have been much better. I’m a a bit perturbed he picked things with massive food miles and not seasonal to here as that’s actually how local markets tend to to work. I love a market and think it’d be great if people could use them more, but he’s undermining his own point there. You don’t get bowls of mangetout for a quid.

    And your lunch sounds lovely. Peppers and all!

  19. gjj
    gjj says:

    Many people eat expensive and not very nourishing food when they could and should eat better for less outlay. I’ believe Jamie Oliver was right about that.

  20. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Gjj: of course some people do. I can think of several well paid middle class people who do just that as they hop from burger pop up to dine in for two deal. But nobody judges them the same way as an unemployed person eating sausage rolls…

  21. Mamacook
    Mamacook says:

    Really interesting. I blogged about Jamies comments this week too.

    For peppers, keep them in the fridge to keep them fresher and if they are getting a bit close to end of life, cut out the core and seeds and cut into pieces then freeze. You can’t use them raw like this but they’re fine in cooked dishes, e.g. rice dishes, stews, roasted, sauces etc and prevents you wasting them completely.

    I smugly thought a few days back that Jamie had a point but when I looked into it more, I think he’s well meaning but missed the crux of the issue. I would have loved it if he’d done this new book in partnership with a charity working to help people in food poverty and maybe donated some of the takings? I know he’s donated books to libraries but he’s going to make another few squillion out of this, let’s face it. He’s well meaning. Loved his series on school food and loved the US Revolution series but this one has missed the mark.

  22. Regine Franck
    Regine Franck says:

    If one of your wonderful Shops stocks this
    It does make good and cheap-ish alternative to Peers in cooked dishes. It does sell in rather large jars, but keeps forever in the fridge (if you’re at all nervous, divvy up into portion-size freezer boxes and freeze).

    Oh, and try spreading it on toast …

    good luck

  23. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Mamacook: good tips on the peppers. I don’t eat them but they are so versatile and loved by kids, it’s great to have tips about the people who do buy them. Mister North was pointing out if you buy value bags of them at the supermarket, they swizz you with two green ones, but if you splash out more, you get one of each colour…

    Totally agree with you on Jamie. Donating a book to each library is a start but he could have worked with a charity or his onw Ministry of Food (which btw, I think is probably the best value cookbook out there because it doesn’t budget=no nice things at all.) Bring back idealistic Jamie and he could do so much good.

  24. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Regine: I’ve seen this in Eastern European shops and never known what it was! What a brilliant tip. It would perk up soups or pasta or veg beautifully. Will get some next time I’m passing. Thank you!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] (Update: After writing this piece, Miss South shopped for, and made Jamie Oliver’s much-debated meal with mussels. tomatoes, pasta and of course, mange tout. Was it possible to buy the individual ingredients, and did it cost just 60p? Find out here.) […]

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