Although – I realise with a shock – it is almost a decade since I lived my life by the academic calendar, September still feels like an occasion for new beginnings. This autumn, my resolutions revolve primarily around saving money and I’m starting with a little book by Claire Leavey entitled How to Run a Thrifty Kitchen, which promises “advice from the ancestors . . . updated for modern living”.
Much contemporary wisdom on the subject involves cutting back but not here, as is clear from the first paragraph: “Cutting down what one spends upon food is not necessarily economy. Getting the same food value at less cost is.” Advice from 1932 that rings true today: Ireland is the only European nation that spends a smaller percentage of income on food than the UK. Leavey believes that instead of slashing budgets further, Britons should work on getting more for our money.
To this end, she counsels readers to switch to cooking with solid fuel, build a haybox oven, start a wormery to use up food scraps and make their own nettle wine – all of which (with the possible exception of the last, which I’ve always found to occupy the cat’s pee end of the flavour spectrum) are no doubt eminently sensible suggestions. But if you can’t run to an airy, north-facing larder, her smaller changes may be just as effective.
I don’t need to tell you to look out for special offers when you go shopping or that apples will be cheaper in October than in June – but do you need to buy anything in the first place?
Any thrift drive should start with a thorough kitchen inventory. If you’re like me, you will have several weeks’ worth of potential meals growing old at the back of the freezer or cupboard. Working out how to turn the dregs of several bags of pasta, some peas and a cheese rind into a decent dinner can be a surprisingly satisfying culinary challenge.
When shopping’s back on the agenda, remember the premium placed on convenience. Buying everything at the same shop will save you time but rarely money. Shop around. Rice, cooking oil, herbs and spices (always whole –more versatile than ground, they’ll also last longer), dried pulses and frozen seafood are usually better value at Asian grocers.
The same goes for seasonal fruit and vegetables at street markets. It’s also easier to purchase fresh meat, cheese and fish in exactly the quantity you need from a butcher, deli counter or fishmonger, rather than overbuying the pre-packed versions in the supermarket.
If you don’t have the luxury of choice locally, go online. You may need to buy in bulk but it doesn’t take much imagination to get through a bag of basmati.
Similarly, try to avoid processed foods that can be made at home more cheaply. For the price of a couple of jars of fancy pasta sauce, you could get a huge drum of tinned tomatoes, some garlic and a bay leaf and cook enough in half an hour to see you through the winter. Use your leftovers to make stocks and soups and rediscover the joys of classics such as breadand- butter pudding and bubble and squeak.
Think about fuel use, too. Invest in a tiered steamer so that you can cook several things at once. And if you’ve got the oven on for dinner, bake a loaf of bread or some vegetables for lunch at the same time.
My favourite new pennypinching gadget, however, is the pressure cooker: no longer prone to exploding, it cooks tough cuts of meat and pulses in a fraction of the time.
I’ve found such small measures not only economical but a source of profound satisfaction. Eating the last of the Sunday roast with fried rice on Thursday or freezing cheap berries as a winter treat feels, in a small way, like beating the system.
As Leavey writes, “It’s time for us to rediscover and reclaim the power to feed ourselves.” Drink, however, I’ll leave to the professionals.