Posted: 4th May 2020
It has been another month in quarantine, another month of survival. Our lives are similar to those led in wartime. We try to find provisions to feed our family and to distract ourselves from the danger around us. My neighbour, the literary scholar John Mullen, often taunts me for being a ‘hunter-gatherer’. Never has this been closer to the truth. I have abandoned all supermarket chains as they seem to want you to serve yourself these days, and I can’t see the point of queuing for hours outside a shop only to learn when I finally get in, that the thing I wanted has sold out. I pace the streets instead, hoping to see my quarry and it helps to know when this or that place has been freshly supplied.
Speculators have certainly been at work, and with the government’s blessing. I presume it is a tenet close to the heart of neo-liberalism to see price as a function of demand. If a commodity like flour is required, then the price should naturally go up; and to make sure it rises and rises, it is stockpiled and reintroduced to the market via eBay etc. ‘Profiteering’, which resulted in imprisonment and executions as recently as the Second World War, is now considered enterprising. As one local shopkeeper who tried to sell me an inedible Halloween pumpkin at an inflated price put it: ‘business is business.’ An instructive walk up Junction Road has shown me that half the corner shops have hoisted the price of capsicums to around £5-6 a kilo while a few honest traders are still selling bowls of four or five for a quid.
The government has recently told us all to stay at home and make cakes. So they are encouraging both demand and scarcity. Without ensuring that more flour (let alone eggs, dried fruit and nuts etc) reaches the market, this is irresponsible. Am I wrong to assume that there are people out there making proper money out of all this? Now that my French online source has dried up my bread flour has generally been Italian. The ‘0’ grade sometimes labelled ‘Manitoba’ is used for pizza or focaccia, as such it is a little bit too refined for bread, but it will just do. It made the hot-cross buns, which people liked. I can obtain this for about £1.40 a kilo, which keeps me in business. More recently, however, I have found a source of better T65 French flour in 5 kg bags for £6.50. As long as I can locate yeast I am a happy bunny again.
There is plenty of flour ordinarily; just British wheat is not good for much. Supply problems should not affect continental flour which is only used by professional bakers and these are not currently operating in hotels and restaurants. In other areas I am told there are problems. Fruit and vegetable traders have to deal with closed borders which lead to fluctuations in prices which rarely diminish. I don’t know why the price of fish has soared? Fishermen still go out and the principal destination for fish from our southern ports is the restaurant, which remains closed. If anything fish prices should have declined. Ditto meat: a lot of restaurant cuts should be looking for a market. I have not, however, seen big reductions in price even if I have not seen significant hikes either.
Shopping for fish for three with a maximum spend of £10 has resulted in an ever-worsening catch. At the beginning of April it easily bought two huge trout or a big slab of excellent farmed salmon; even mid-month it bought me three small bass. Since then the prices have gone a bit wild: a tenner now buys 420 grams of salmon, or at its very worst three small mackerel. That is about twice as much as I’d expect to pay for common or garden mackerel.
As a freelancer my income dwindles and dwindles and I doubt that any government scheme will be made to apply to my relief. We need to shop wisely but there is plenty of nutritious meat about and the occasional treat too. We had lovely oxtails on my birthday and several good lamb shoulders since. There was even some new season’s lamb for May Day. I have had good skirt and braising beef but none of the prime cuts of steak or the English cheese I pine for and which the government has told us we must eat to be ‘patriotic’. Patriotism, it seems, is a luxury unassailable to the poor.
Roasting pork is £6.60 a kg and mid-week knuckles almost absurdly cheap. The meat can be used in a variety of ways and the broth gives you stock for soups and sauces. There are minced meats and offal like lambs’ kidneys as cheap as 25p each; and curries, ragoûts, béchamels, stuffed peppers and shepherds’ pies put an acceptable spin on leftovers.
A little fad has been boning out and stuffing chickens. Mozzarella has been useful and I have cooked it in carrozza as well. My butcher hands out wild garlic which he picks near his Essex home. This made for lovely stuffing. Even if you don’t fancy deboning a chicken, it is always cheaper to buy the whole beast and chop it up for a sauté etc.
Every day olive oil has been another scarcity, but I have found it in one or other of our Italian delis. I have had my eye too on a second pressing oil with the comic name of ‘Sparta’ sold by the Iranian butcher. It will give me strength, I hope. Rice is a worry, it is periodically hard to obtain, but risotto and paella rice I can find easily enough and we had an excellent risotto alla rucola last week.
I haven’t seen many tempting spring vegetables. There has been some rubbery English asparagus on Sally the Hat’s stall, peas but no broad beans. The same applies to fruit: oranges are past their best, but we are still getting good conference pears for poires à la normande and we have made rhubarb cakes, pies and crumbles exploiting the current season. I am looking for a big bowl of damaged strawberries for jam but the moment for strawberries and cream has not yet returned.
We drink wine with dinner. A lot of old bottles are coming out, generally things that should have gone years ago. In this damp house the corks often have to be removed with tweezers but the surprises are mostly pleasant. We had a bit of a treat on my birthday with a heavenly 1998 Dom Pérignon and a 1991 Premier Cru Vosne-Romanée from Domaine de l’Arlot that was still massively on form. On Easter Sunday the liveliness of Jean Garaudet’s 1991 Monthelie came as a surprise, as did Peter Schandl’s exquisite pure Furmint Ruster Ausbruch from the same year.
The hunter-gatherer now gathers his skirts again for the merry month of May.