How did we manage before the high priced technology of the Best Before and Sell-By label? Perfectly well is the answer. I feel the British Nanny State’s dark cloud descend on me at the thought that we need such a thing. But, maybe in this dumbed-down society where for so many, food counts for nothing but fuel, they are essential to all those who couldn’t spot at their arms’ length a rotting tomato and a green potato from putrefying meat to penicillin coated bread.
This is a multi-million pound industry keeping food technologists, technicians, printers, ink makers, laboratories through to the Food Standards Agency all in full employment – and the consumer picks up the tab. Happy days. All because Nanny thinks you can’t look after yourself and family when you’re out shopping, as people have done for centuries during times way less clean, wholesome and disinfected than these.
Blue Collar Gastronomy in Action
But Blue Collar Gastronauts, there is a silver lining to Nanny’s expensive dark cloud. Isn’t there always as long as you know where to look? These dumb-down labels can be a gift for anyone on a tight budget. One smart supermarket on King’s Road, Chelsea has had a small and eager crowd gather around swing doors where ‘mark down’s’ appear every Saturday afternoon for twenty years that I know about - and these are the well heeled, not the impoverished.
Street markets are the same. No trader wants to be left with short life produce over the weekend – Bank Holiday Monday’s work even more in the favour of the canny shopper. If you are ready to prepare foods immediately on getting home and use them creatively, your weekly shop will become cheaper – no bad thing in these stretched times when hedge fund managers artificially hype and control the price of cereals, GMO soya beans, pork bellies, coffee, cocoa and more, let along the food that so wickedly is grown for bio-fuels (that’s over 40% of all food grade maize in the USA, just as one example of vile trading).
Beware of Rogue Traders – they’re not all in the City
For centuries, people have shopped in markets and bought unwrapped, fresh foods – vegetables, fruit, meat, poultry, cheese, butter, milk and more. Rogue traders might try and pass off from the back of their stall – I’ve had it happen in London markets before I got wiser to their tricks and it still happens I’ll admit. I just never return to their stalls and make a point of telling other shoppers my experiences. Always share bad experiences as well as good – that’s the mark of a five star Blue Collar Gastronaut.
In French, Italian and Spanish markets you are expected to handle produce 99% of the time - why else would you buy it. The traders know it all goes by the end of the day because there are those, for example, who want firm tomatoes and those that want the very ripened ones. That’s why it’s called a market. See that sign ‘Don’t handle me until I’m yours’ and walk on by.
When will supermarkets realise a tomato should never be refrigerated – I guess that’s the same day they realise cheese shouldn’t be kept at low temperatures and that cling film over-wraps are the enemy of all fresh food. Wait for piggies to fly and Big Ben to go digital.
One enterprising English supermarket, on the advice of a Californian consultant, already has no pre-packed produce in a test store. Bravo. Bring this on south and make it the norm.
In supermarkets, I would always choose the chicken or meat closest to its Sell-By. All meat and poultry benefits from age – hung bone-in as a naked carcase is best for beef, but any ageing is good, even whole muscles in vacuum-packs are better than no ageing at all. The slow cooling down of a carcase after slaughter also improves flavour – only the best abattoirs would do this as time costs money (oh, that one again – the enemy of good taste). Once home, always remove the plastic over-wrap, re-wrap in greaseproof paper and refrigerate.
It goes without saying, don’t buy meat or poultry that’s obviously discoloured – potatoes that are green, onions that are too soft and the like. This is common sense savvy. There’s plenty times I have seen foods that are off that are well within their labelled ‘Best Before’ or ‘Sell By’.
If there’s any hint of an ‘off’ smell, then rinse in water liberally dosed with wine vinegar. I learned that in Paddy’s Market in Liverpool where they’d sell out of Sell-By unwrapped birds. I’d shop there when worked near Pierhead in the late 60s and used to cook for my hungry flat mates to lessen my rent.
If only we could buy our chickens ‘New York Dressed’ , meaning innards intact – to be removed once purchased and adding to the richness of flavour up to that moment. Every French supermarket offers poultry that way on their butchery counters. They say it’s illegal in England – why and how come, when Brussels calls the shots? Don’t know how to do it, customers squeamish of reality or health & safety are the more likely answers.
Please celebrate those who rely of the safety of Sell-by and Best Before labelling - it’s there to be exploited it for all it’s worth with Blue Collar Gastronomy and is the fairy godmother to those challenged with their house-keeping in these stretched times.
Soon I plan a piece on Left Overs to fight the wanton waste that costs many households so dearly. There’s a great book on ’Left Overs’ and how to use them being published days from from now and written by a super talented chef friend. I’ll hold the mystery there and ask you to watch me tie the two together like you’ll soon doing in your kitchen with your copy of the book. Counting down from now – 10, 9, 8, 7, 6………………..