Tag Archives: Guardian

A diet for the breadline?

25 Jun

Over the past seven days the Guardian has run a number of articles on what it terms Breadline Britain, highlighting people struggling by, and in many cases working hard to do so, in a condition one slip away from being unable to make ends meet.

Giving the lie to the pernicious myth – ably assisted in recent times by Iain Duncan Smith – that the poor are scroungers who should try a bit harder if they want to do better for themselves, the series struck a chord with me.

Closer to the trapdoor

During the six years I worked in social housing, I read hundreds of homeless case files of people seeking a council property. Many of the neediest had been dealt a heartbreakingly shitty hand from the outset – and yes, a proportion were trying to chisel the system.

But it was always striking to see instances where a divorce, debt problems or simple misfortune had ripped the rug out from under seemingly settled lives. For many, the ongoing erosion of the UK’s welfare safety-net is bringing these kinds of scenarios nearer.

I got a milder taste of austerity after coming to Bristol last summer, thousands in debt after retraining, to start a £15,000 entry-level journalism job. On my second day I learned my team was being axed and that redundancy was imminent; my girlfriend, who moved with me, was unable to find full-time work.

We turned the situation around thanks to luck – and the privilege of having qualifications, job experience and families seemingly desperate to part with the odd tenner. But I can confirm that watching rent and bills swallow three quarters of earnings while interest on money owed ticks upwards is a bit stressful.

Eating happier

During those months, having something decent for tea was about as exciting as life got. So I was unsurprised that some of the case studies in the Breadline Britain series vented frustrations that they couldn’t manage to eat healthily.

But interestingly, next to the tales of hardship was a report on prison food, costing £1.87 a day for each adult, which hinged on the argument that good food could be prepared from fresh for “a fraction of the cost” of foodstuffs “in a packet or a tin” – and had a pronounced impact on self esteem.

Drawing a comparison between incarceration and working poverty would be glib, and stupid on a number of levels, but that £1.87 figure – the cost of four chocolate bars, and less than the minimum daily patient spend in NHS hospitals – got me thinking about how far I’d be able to cut things back, while still actually enjoying eating.

So later this week I’ll be devoting a few posts to exploring what you can do for £2 a day; it’s the kind of thing this blog was originally intended for.


A food poverty trap?

19 Dec

Interesting Guardian article by Zoe Williams this week, framing the links between poverty, bad eating and poor health as a consequence of economics, not just education.

It riffs on a lighthearted piece at the Student Beans website about cooking a cheap and cheerful/nasty Christmas dinner out of processed food, making the point that if a site was discussing hard-up people other than studes (“the acceptable face of poverty”) doing the same, the tone would be pretty different.

I wrote a list two weeks ago about some of the independent retailers I’ve found to buy good food for relatively little cash since moving to Bristol. Having the choice to shop at these places is down to a couple of factors:

  • Living in the inner city, close to the intersections of many different areas. On one side is a main road packed with independent supermarkets catering to local BME communities; on the other a neighbourhood heavily populated by relatively affluent hippies and their brethren in which local food shops are a given.
  • Being young and mobile enough to get to these different places by bike and therefore shop cheaply – or do the same at a big supermarket – meaning the lack of a car isn’t an issue.

In north Sheffield, where I worked for five years, many outlying areas where money is tightest and car ownership lowest have fewest amenities – so least choice – within easy walking distance. This pattern is typical of many parts of the UK, especially in today’s chilly financial climate.

Education about eating well is clearly important – it’s grim as hell meeting kids barely able to identify a vegetable or a piece of meat. But if keeping your family fed is manageable from your local cut-price freezer centre, and a struggle from the expensive supermarket franchise next door, then putting that theory into practice isn’t necessarily straightforward.

On the pulse, part three: megadarra

14 Sep

Megadarra: basically rice, lentils and onions, but far more than the sum of its parts

My writing of this conveniently ties in with an article about British and American meat addiction by Felicity Lawrence in last Saturday’s Guardian (surely the lentil-eater’s publication of choice).

The benefits of consuming less meat are many and have been repeated at length by millions. So I’m not going to parrot them here. However, it was interesting to read a persuasive argument against the myth that veggie diets are automatically second best in terms of taking on board protein.

So with immaculate timing, here’s another pulse-based winner, megadarra (aka mejadarra, mujadarra or moujadara, depending on where in the Middle East you’re eating it).

As its main ingredients are just rice, lentils and onions, it costs virtually nowt and fills you up like a bellyful of warm cement. But it’s being included here because it tastes unbelievably good, provided you like onions: sweet and caramelised and spicy and comforting all at the same time – and it’s equally good cold the next day.

You will need:

  • Approx 125g green or brown lentils.
  • Approx 125g long grain rice (standard stuff is fine as basmati can be a bit too delicate).
  • Three medium-sized onions.
  • Approx 3/4tsp each of coriander, cumin and paprika. You could also try adding allspice.
  • 6tbsp olive oil.
  • Salt and pepper.
  • Natural yoghurt, to serve.

To prepare:

  • Put your rice in a bowl of cold water to soak.
  • Rinse the lentils and boil them hard for 10 minutes in a good-sized pan of water, then drain.
  • Meanwhile, finely chop one of the onions and fry in 2tbsp of oil until softened and slightly coloured. Slice the other two thinly and set aside for now.
  • Add the spices and stir for a minute or so before seasoning and adding the drained lentils.
  • Add about 600ml of water, bring to the boil and continue cooking for 10 minutes or so.
  • Drain and rinse the rice and add to the lentils. Boil for another five minutes or a bit longer – most of the liquid in the pan should have disappeared.
  • Now turn the heat down as low as possible, cover and leave undisturbed.
  • Meanwhile heat the rest of the oil in a large frying pan until very hot. Fry your remaining two onions, stirring often, until they are brown and crispy, about 15 minutes. It’s very easy for them to go over and turn black, so keep a close eye on things.
  • When the onions are done, tip the lentil mixture into a serving bowl and pour the onions and their oil over the top. Leave to rest for a few minutes so the flavours soak through.
  • Serve with the yogurt spooned on top, and maybe some salad if you’ve got some.

[Serves two]

Eating a path across Glasgow

6 Sep

I recently spent two days in Glasgow, one of my favourite cities, but one in which I’d always reckoned it necessary to be flush with cash to enjoy. Not so, as the following proved:

  1. The Banana Leaf: I’d heard good things about this South Indian canteen on the fringes of the West End. Walk there down St Vincent Street and Argyle Street from town for a snapshot of why Glasgow can look more exciting than any other UK city.

    Century-old mini-skyscrapers (the reason film shoots such as the one for World War Z, the upcoming, Brad Pitt starring zombie thriller, use Glasgow as a stand-in for US cities) give way to vast slab blocks looming over a motorway canyon gouged into the earth, and finally to a landscape of genteel-looking tenements, where the tiny Banana Leaf can be found.

    A shared starter of Kozhi Varuval (marinated spiced chunks aka ‘Chicken 65‘), a giant, crisp masala dosa and a portion of rich curry came in at under £15. Worth a trek for even if you couldn’t care less about the surroundings.

  2. Black Sheep Bistro: finding this place was as simple as taking a punt on the number one Glasgow restaurant, according to TripAdvisor. A risky strategy maybe, but one that paid off (literally) in massive platefuls.

    Kitted out in a knick-knack strewn style that feels as if you’ve rocked up at someone’s home, and boasting an impressive disregard for food presentation, Black Sheep is not a place to go for trendy dining. But if the idea of tanning a solid, delicious portion of haggis, neeps & tatties before you’ve even moved onto a gloriously throwback main of beef olives fills you with greedy glee, then you should head here without delay. With a dirt-cheap wine list also part of the fun, Black Sheep Bistro gets a king-sized thumbs up.
  3. Where The Monkey Sleeps: in search of somewhere to get a sandwich in the city centre the next day, a list published in the Guardian last year provided the goods. Budgetary constraints meant that I only got a tuna butty from here, but packed with dill and dijon, and eaten sat in the sunshine at the top of the Necropolis, it was a proper treat.

Living large: road-testing the broadsheet pack-up

1 Feb

Basic but tasty: the tuna sandwich as (slightly) remodelled by Allegra McEvedy

A tip of the Bare Grills hat this week goes to the Guardian’s Allegra McEvedy for her recent series on the humble pack-up. I religiously take packed lunches with me wherever possible, because these are three of my vices:

  • I’m tight (especially at this time of year) & buying my midday meal invariably spirals towards a fiver.
  • I’m greedy & am rarely satiated by prepacked cardboardy sandwiches.
  • I’m smug & believe that what I make myself usually tastes better (even if it’s just a cheese & pickle butty).

However you won’t often find me preparing something to eat on the hoof that has come from a broadsheet, as many recipes described as “quick”, “easy” or similar within the pages of our quality nationals require access to a thoughtfully-stocked & Waitrose-sponsored larder.

So I was pretty pleased when I came across the above recipe suggestions, which ask for a bit more than a loaf of bread & some cheese, but not excessively so. I tested several of them out over the last week and found:

  • Barley & bits salad took an hour to prepare and lasted me 3 days. I’m suspicious of food this healthy looking, but it actually tasted damn good.
  • Tuna pepper pitta pockets – ok these are far from rocket science, but 10 mins prep = two days’ delicious filling scran. Which also happens to incorporate cheese & beans. Can’t ask for more than that really.

Malcolm Gluck talks budget wines

25 Dec

Gluck, blatantly in his element

A few weeks ago the Guardian published a nice article on buying wine for less than a fiver. With uncanny timing, I interviewed their former budget wine supremo Malcolm Gluck on the same day, as part of a project I’ve been involved in to design a mini-magazine suitable to be given away free with a product.

Gluck, who wrote the Superplonk column for 14 years, has often cut a controversial figure, first and foremost for getting up the noses of the wine establishment by dismissing corks as likely to spoil good vintages.

More recently he caused further outrage for describing many wines as being so full of additives that they resembled “alcoholic cola” on a C4 Dispatches programme, and started a booze-related turf war by suggesting that beer-drinkers were “terrible lovers” in the Guardian‘s Word Of Mouth blog.

Quite apart from all this, I was nervous about interviewing him as he had been a hero of my father (a man who loved to drink wine, but not to spend silly money). What if he wasn’t a very nice bloke?

Thankfully I got a pleasant and informative interview out of Gluck, who recommended that novice drinkers looking to explore interesting wines at good prices should head to Sainsbury’s, Asda and M&S as their first ports of call. With this in mind, here are a select few of the vintages that should be available in Cardiff over the winter. If anyone would like a more comprehensive list please email me, and also see below for an audio extract from the interview.

Winter 2010/11 recommendations from Malcolm Gluck, all under £7. Wines are scored on a value-for-money basis out of a possible 20 points:


  • Asda Cava Brut – Spain, 16 points, £4.28


  • Asda Vin Du Pays Chardonnay – Italy, 16 points, £3.97
  • Asda Soave 2009 – Italy, 16.5 points, £3.28
  • Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Bourgogne Aligote – France, 16 points, £6.99
  • M&S Orvieto Single Estate 2009 – Italy, 17.5 points, £5.49


  • Asda Beaujolais 2009 – France, 17 points, £4.47
  • Asda Marques Del Nortes Rioja Joven 2009 – Spain, 16 points, £4.06
  • Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Curico Valley Merlot – Chile, 16.5 points, £5.99
  • M&S Vina Ulmo Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 – Chile, 17.5 points, £4.99

Excerpt from interview with Malcolm Gluck