We're spoilt for choice, so why do we eat so much rubbish?
Published 23/02/2013 | 06:00
So, there I am, in my kitchen, pottering around like a happy little camper. It's Sunday afternoon and I have just sealed a roast rib of beef in olive oil and garlic on the pan before putting it in the oven where it'll gently roast before coming out nice and medium rare.
In the meantime, I'll peel the potatoes, carrots and parsnips and then trim the broccoli and the cobs of corn.
Then I'll have a beer as I sit down to watch the first half of the football on the telly.
During half time I'll go back into the kitchen to make sure everything is okay and having already prepped the veg and set the par boiled potatoes in a roasting pan, I can go back into the sitting room to watch the second half.
All that safe in the knowledge that when the game is over, all I have to do is make the gravy with the beef juices and then serve – medium rare roast beef, crispy roast potatoes, carrot and parsnip mash, blanched broccoli, braised corn and a lovely, rich, thick gravy providing a beautiful, beefy emulsion to cover the meat.
The total cost?
Less than 20 quid – with plenty left over for sandwiches.
And I totally understand people who think that spending a few hours in the kitchen is their idea of Hell. My wife is one of them.
We Irish have always had a rather odd relationship with food. Anything that wasn't boiled to the point of obliteration was viewed with suspicion and I remember spending summers as a child in Mayo where dinner was at 1 in the day.
That in itself was something of a culture shock, and I still remember my stomach doing a back flip when large lumps of pure fat were heaped on to the plate. But they were farming stock and simply looked at food as fuel before they went back out to work.
I was explaining this to American chef and author Anthony Bourdain and he was simply not buying it.
As he said over a few pints of his beloved Guinness: "You guys have the some of the best ingredients in the world; the beef, the cheeses, oh my God the seafood! And yet you also eat so much rubbish. I don't get it."
Now, one should always be careful when you have a chef talking about food – they are obviously biased.
And that's why the campaigns by the likes of Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall have actually been counter productive.
That's because people don't like being lectured to and tend to bristle.
Honestly, it can all come across as terribly middle class and elitist – only an oik would buy a cheap battery chicken from a supermarket is the unspoken theme.
But the problem is – they are right. And when Bourdain expressed his astonishment at our eating habits when we live on an island that produces so much culinary riches, there was nothing I could do but mumble in embarrassment.
Because I remember going into a fishmongers in the west of Ireland and the woman behind the counter expressed astonishment when I ordered half a dozen scallops – she thought they were disgusting, even though she had never eaten them. Honestly, only in Ireland.
Lax regulations, even laxer inspection, cross labelling of raw meat and a massive drive to cut costs have all lead us to a situation where we just don't know what it is we are actually eating.
But I do.
Again, without wanting to sound smug, I get all my meat from Derek Bolger, who runs Ennis Butchers in Rialto.
I've been going to him for about 10 years and even though we moved out of the area a few years ago, I still take the trouble to make the journey up to him every Saturday – even though there are plenty of butchers closer to where I now live.
That's because I trust him and I know the provenance of the produce he serves.
Let's put it this way – I remember talking to him about an amazing free-range shoulder of pork I was buying and he laughed that he could even tell me the name of the pig, such was the closeness of his relationship with his pork supplier. And he was only half joking.
I was talking to Derek about this yesterday and he made a good point about the horse meat scandal: "People who are saying horse meat is fine are completely right, I agree with them. But this isn't a haunch of horse that is being minced and used. It's everything from the horses gizzards and anus to its eyelids. And that's the problem."
He then went on to point out that: "Look, everyone is broke, we all know that. But if you're buying a dozen frozen burgers for two euro then you are quite simply putting your health and the health of the people you are feeding at risk.
The simple reality is that it costs money to produce food, to raise pigs and cattle and so forth and people simply have to realise that they will have to pay for it."
But here's the thing – it works out cheaper for people to go to their local butcher once a week and get all their meat rather than just stopping at a supermarket on the way home from work every night.
Buying ridiculously cheap meat is not just a false economy – it's a fool's economy and I have absolutely no time for people who say that they are too busy to do a home-cooked meal for themselves and their kids – you can cook something tasty, cheap and healthy in less than half an hour.
I know some people hate cooking and that's their loss.
So, apart from bellyaching and giving out about people who eat cheap food (look, I'm more money conscious than ever before, but from an early age my mother taught me how to eat glorious food on a budget) do I have any constructive suggestions?
Well, the first thing that comes to mind is this – Home Economics class in school for both boys and girls.
Instil in them a love and appreciation of food at that age and they will eat well for the rest of their lives.
(On a not entirely unrelated note, it was the third anniversary of mother's death on Wednesday. Apologies to any family members who might be a bit pissed off that I didn't mark it in the column on the day.)