I’ve been involved in promoting a new BBC campaign, Dish Up, aimed at breaking down barriers to cooking, and getting the inconfident and self-proclaimed incompetent into the kitchen. The campaign is based around a website, which contains recipes, all very simple and easy on the kit and the ingredients, along with articles, tips and tricks which link to the various reasons people gave for wanting to learn to cook. The Beeb did a survey to inform the website content, and show the scope of the problem. 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women said they’d never been taught to cook. So what?, I hear you cry. Teach yourself (which is what I did in my teenage years). It’s not that simple. 19% of the population say they don’t think they can cook at all – higher for the under 24 year old age group. And around 50% of the population say they’d not feel confident in cooking relatively simple things like toad in the hole and macaroni cheese. We’re spending less time cooking, and are more likely to eat ready meals and entirely no-cook meals more and more of the time. And, as has been repeatedly shown by various studies, that’s not a good thing. There are potential health dangers in high consumption of heavily industrialised foods, including the simple fact that portions are on the large side. Even if you genuinely don’t care about the taste of your food, and can happily ignore the various issues around sustainability, in both food and environment terms, there are still loads of reasons to cook.
The Dish Up survey suggested that the main motivators for wanting to cook are health and saving money, but there are also factors around sociability, family dynamics, and enjoyment. There are so many barriers to cooking, but the main ones seem to be perceived cost (presumably the people who cited cost as a motivator for learning to cook are either different respondents or maybe, I hope, aware of the reasons for very cheap processed foods) hassle factor (cleaning a microwave is hell vs a hob and a knife, I’d say, but hey), and time. Keen cooks will be aware that all of these barriers are rubbish, if you pick the right recipe. More pernicious, I suspect is the fear of failure, unrealistic expectations based on the incredible stuff produced by the ‘amateurs’ on Masterchef and GBBO, and a lack of motivation to just get in there and have a go. Anyway, there’s loads of stuff on the website to tackle these misconceptions, and I had a crack at challenging and encouraging wannabe cooks over 3 hours of radio interviews on Friday 22nd, when the campaign was in full launch mode.
I also thought I’d see how well I practise what I preach, and since we’re once more in a French gîte, with its random range of equipment and limited scope for ingredients (very little here, don’t want to spend a fortune stocking up on my full range of stuff from back home), the time seems perfect. The gîte, by the way, is stunning, but the owners admitted they never cook, and gave us a comprehensive list of local restaurants. As a result, the kitchen is one of the most poorly equipped I’ve ever seen. 3 saucepans, a frying pan, some flexi-mats (one of which is split) as chopping boards, and oven proof dish, a lemon squeezer and some tableware. The only knife is a bread knife (I have brought a 10 inch cooks knife and a paring knife). No mixing bowls (though it does have a lettuce washer). I made mayonnaise on day 1 in a mock flowerpot which was being used to keep the dishcloth in. And I did buy a couple of cheap 70s mixing bowls at a car boot sale on day 2. Clearly, I’m no scared, inexperienced cook, and I have a tendancy to buy fresh, as-near-to-unprocessed-as-possible produce. And I’m not on a scarily tight budget (but neither, necessarily, are the uncooks that the Dish Up campaign is aiming at – this isn’t about food poverty, but people not cooking in general). Otherwise….here goes.
Day 1: olives, cheese. It’s Eurovision, so finger food is important to allow all attention to be on the screen. Fried sand smelts, battered in a fizzy water, flour and egg batter and shallow fried. Boiled artichokes with tartare sauce (home made, we’ll never use a whole jar of mayo). Massive box of strawberries and unpasteurised cream (there are some large advantages to being in France).
Day 2: yoghurt and jam for breakfast, picnic lunch, dinner of tuna marinated in olive oil and garlic, briefly blanched globe artichoke and cheese salad, more strawberries. There are now no more strawberries.
Day 3: breakfast poached egg and asparagus. Put slotted spoon on list of things we need to buy. Lunch, local brasserie. Dinner, endlessly cooked white beans (can get them tinned, but we have the time, and they are way cheaper with more variety in a plastic net), with tinned chestnuts and mushrooms and cream sauce, with boudin blanc, fried and sliced and chucked on the beans with some lettuce as a sort of hot salad beast. Oodles of watermelon.
Day 4: Lait fermenté pancakes (essentially buttermilk ish pancakes) with cheese and butter for breakfast, lunch ham and cheese in a baguette. Apples, more watermelon (now all gone). Dinner, veal chop, cooked over wood on the gîte BBQ (long story, but there was no charcoal, and Monsieur gave me a load of kindling and assumed I could light a fire), with more artichoke salad and black pudding.
Day 5: more pancakes, decided to buy some muesli as by now groaning. Lunch an ice cream (cider sorbet, ahem), as breakfast was so large and so late (I’m on holiday!). Dinner fried floured mackerel fillets, tomato salad, melon.
Day 6: muesli. Epic lunch at a recommended resto, followed by a cheese crawl round Camembert and other cheesy villages. Dinner, as a result, was cheese, saucisson, pickles and baguette. And strawberries, now happily replaced.
I could go on, but it will get repetitive. As an experient in whether I can do as I say, not just say it and ignore my own advice, it was a success. I suppose the outcome wasn’t necessarily in doubt – after all, I managed 3 years as an undergraduate with one frying pan, one saucepan, an electric wok and a toastie machine. (You can do an entire fry up in a toastie machine as long as you get the right model). I once made fresh pasta by dint of crouching on the floor, which I’d stuck greaseproof paper to, rolling out the pasta with a wine bottle. But time moves on, and I’ve got very used to a well-stocked kitchen and zillions of things lacking here, like mixing bowls, graters, and cake tins. Conclusions? I don’t feel like a hypocrite, promoting the fact that cooking doesn’t have to be complicated or kit-heavy – unless, of course, you want it be, and that’s fine too.
BBC Dish Up is here.
For processed foods and health, Joanna Blythman, Swallow This (occasionally a bit Daily Maily, but a good and interesting read)
For a more general debate on food and sustainability, anything by Michael Pollen and also Jay Rayner, Hungry Man in Greedy World. (Includes must-read chapters on supermarkets and farmers markets)