Read on for a new collection of frugal food stories from mothers and grandmothers closer to home. In collaboration with photographer, Maria Bell, we’ve been touring the UK to share the waste-free wisdom of several British women from diverse backgrounds. I’m excited to share more with you in the coming months. Sign up to my once-a-month newsletter to get them to your inbox.
This costs about two quid to make, says Mary over the noise of her food processor, pulverising day old bread into crumbs. My husband and I spend no more than £30 on our weekly shop. Maybe it’s the mathematician in me but I am a great weigher of things, I don’t waste a thing.
The sunlight streams into Mary’s kitchen through a large window. A handful of green tomatoes ripen on the sill. She is standing at the sink washing a pound of French beans, looking out onto a garden where a ginger tomcat sprawls out in the hot July sun. Neat rows of beanpoles heave, courgettes, tomatoes and cucumbers swell in the heat, there are rosemary bushes, chickpea plants, unruly amounts of mint and a leafy apple tree yet to bear fruit. The southern Welsh mountains are visible in the distance beyond.
Mary works methodically, shunting from the sink to the fridge to the cooker. Butter melts into molten liquid, milk heats until frothing, breadcrumbs are weighed, cheese grated. Dirty spoons find their way to the sink, the food processor is cleaned and returned to its place. Habitual patterns.
Her countertops are full: weighing scales, food processor, Kenwood mixer, a well-ordered spice rack. Investments, Mary says. She makes mental calculations, scraping bobbed hair behind ears, eyes flitting between the stove and the cookbook she’s adapting a recipe from. Customs and Cooking from Wales. She flicks through, showing us recipes for Welshcakes and tea loaves, various bread puddings, drop scones and buttermilk pancakes, each a simple set of instructions and less than a handful of ingredients.
Skimming through this cookbook, it’s possible to see how some of the world’s most iconic dishes were dreamed up. Each recipe a method towards preserving, stretching or reviving ingredients that today we’d throw in the bin. Each recipe a clue to our ancestors’ creative ingenuity and resourcefulness, which saw opportunity in a glut of ripening fruit or an oversupply of garden vegetables, in the surplus buttermilk from butter-making or in a stale loaf of bread.
For millennia, bread has been one of the world’s staples and cultures everywhere have found ways to revive it, brewing it into beer or drowning it in milk and baking it into bread pudding, or frying it in a hot pan with spices and sugar for French toast, tearing and tossing it through juicy sweet tomatoes for Italian panzanella, or soaking and blitzing it with tahini, garlic and lemon juice for Middle Eastern fatte (I wrote about a Palestinian version here), or for today’s Welsh cheese pudding.
Mary removes a dozen duck eggs from the fridge, each with a small crack that she buys at discount prices at market. How do you know they’re not off? “Oh they soon smell. Keep them in the fridge, some last weeks” she shrugs, carefully breaking an egg in half and shuffling its bright yolk from one empty shell to the other, translucent whites trickling into the bowl of her stand mixer. She clicks the bowl into place and sets the whisk in motion, beating air into the transparent liquid until fluffy snow caps appear. Gently, she folds it through the pudding mixture to help it rise into something both light and deliciously rich.
She pours the lot into a buttered pie dish, scraping out the last slick with a spatula before putting it in the oven. “Back then, recipes weren’t heavy on meat”, Mary is saying. “They weren’t aiming to be vegetarian necessarily, it’s just that people couldn’t afford to eat meat everyday. Before intensive farming, buying a chicken was a once-a-week treat at best and every last bit of that animal was used. That’s what hit me when we lived in Nepal. It’s not right that I can afford to eat meat when others can’t, so I cut it out”.
Mary and her husband met as teenagers, had their three children young and travelled widely, living in Nigeria, India and Nepal where Mary taught maths in international schools and worked for NGOs. “Luckily, cooking from scratch came in useful as packet and frozen food was just not an option. We took early retirement because we knew we could live on very little, and travelled between here and India. We did the gap-year thing later in life”.
The heat from the oven is slowly doing its job, the pudding rising and expanding, turning itself golden, chemistry working its magic. The idea of eating ‘food waste’ has become a trend of sorts today, but people like Mary would just call it cooking – that simple, singular action that can teach us so much about our food, where it comes from and how to eat it in a way that is affordable not just for our own bank balances but for the planet’s too. And more to the point, it tastes really good. Scroll down for Mary’s recipe.
Mary’s Welsh Cheese Pudding (Pwdin Caws)
60g/2oz butter, plus extra for greasing
1 pint milk
170g/6oz bread, blitzed into breadcrumbs
4 chicken or duck eggs
60g/2oz mature Cheddar cheese, grated (or
other strong cheese)
salt and black pepper
Preheat the oven to 180ºC/gas mark 4. Grease a large, deep pie dish. Heat the butter with the milk in a pan.
Pour into a large bowl and stir in the breadcrumbs.
Separate the egg yolks from the whites. Beat the yolks lightly and stir into the milk mixture with half the grated cheese. Season to taste.
Beat the egg whites in a clean bowl (making sure to remove any stray egg shells first), with an electric whisk until stiff and fold into the mixture using a metal spoon.
Pour into the buttered pie dish, using a spatula to scrape out every last bit from the bowl, then cover with the remaining cheese.
Cook in the hot oven for 30 to 40 minutes, or until risen and golden. Serve immediately with greens and potatoes, if you like.