Saturday, 20 July 2013

Frugal living

That fridge looks rather bare, I thought, as I opened it up to find something to nibble on. It wasn't really empty, but I wanted something 'fast' and 'tasty' - and there really was nothing  in there that I could just grab on the spot and eat as is. Most of what was in my fridge last Tuesday (the day I was contacted by the BBC4 Food Programme to discuss frugal food) was unprocessed fresh food grown in our or another person's garden. If I wanted to eat anything from there, I'd have to process it - eg clean, peel, cut the fruit or veg. It wasn't quick enough for me at that moment.

The contents of my fridge, 17/7/2013 - I was surprised at how little processed food the shelves contained (the door shelves always contain more processed food, mainly in the form of my Asian bottled sauces).
Taking the shelves from the bottom upwards, there were:
1)  a range of different kinds of garden-grown peppers, and cucumbers (gherkins and Asian cucumbers which are popularly grown in Crete, known as atzouri)
2) some leftover vegetables, home-made tomato sauce, the last of my home-cured olives, an unopened pottle of yoghurt, some mizithra cheese and some home-made spoon sweets - bitter orange (made by my mother-in-law from our own fruit supply) and kumquat (which I made from a gift from a freind)
3) eggs - loads of them, due to generous friends whose chickens are laying in great profusion at the moment due to the breezy summer weather (free-range chickens don't like very cold and very hot weather, when they stop production), a bottle of water, 2 cartons of milk, and some dark chocolate flavoured with orange bits (I could have scoffed that, but it is not my favorite taste, so I just left it)
4) some melons and watermelon (more gifts from someone else's over-producing garden), and finally
5) a few bottles of beer, some corn husks (I have a craving to make tamales one day, so I saved the husks from our garden-grown corn), some butter spread, my home-pickled capers, a couple of cartons of cream, and some more jars of bitter orange spoon sweets (to last us to next season).

I may not have found exactly what I was looking for, but I was still quite amazed to find so much food in my fridge that was grown by us or someone we know, so much fresh, unprocessed food. (There were also some zucchini and eggplant waiting to be stored on the kitchen worktop.) In other words, most of that food came free - I did not have to spend money on it. But that only tells half the story. To procure that food, I spent a lot time. It didn't cover all my wants, just most of my needs. We sometimes lack variety when eating mainly in this way (using a lot of local fresh seasonal food), so our wants also show signs of lacking. I didn't have what I wanted to eat ready for me to eat it, so I had to make it myself.

By careful substitution, using some frozen and fresh vegetables, and the addition of some leftover meat from a feast we had attended, I made these delisious dumplings (I also made the wonton wrappers myself - recipe to follow). One dozen dumplings cost me not much more than €1.
Most people I speak to about food issues don't believe that it's feasible to rely on home-grown food, and they think I don't do my sums properly when I passionately describe the savings that can be made if food could be sourced as cheaply as possible. They insist that the quantities of such cheaply sourced food would not be enough to feed a family nutritiously. I can proudly tell myself now that what these people say is actually a good excuse for NOT making the effort required to source their food cheaply in whatever way they can. I live in the countryside, hence I have cheap sources of fruit and veg. Urban people will not have these cheap sources of food (I won't say 'free' - nothing is free in this world, it all comes with some kind of effort). My very cheap sources of food allow me to save a lot of money by using a limited variety of foods whcih are turned into an endless variety of dishes. My cheap food saves me a lot of money, because I can process it and make it good for eating at a later date too; I don't waste or throw it away, or spend money on food items that would render my cheap sources unnecessary. Most importantly, the food I have in my fridge at the moment keeps my family very healthy, and it keeps me in pocket.

The day after the BBC interview, I did a big shop at the supermarket and stocked up on things we don't produce ourselves, which complement our fruit and veg food. Kids want a ham and cheese sandwich every now and then, a bit of grated cheese is a nice way to round off a weekly pasta dish, and some ready-to-eat meat (in the form of smoked pork steak) is a good addition to a quick stir-fry, home-made souvlaki or any other meal where just a little bit of meat makes a mainly vegetarian meal so much more exciting. These cheap cured meat cuts go a long way - most will be frozen for later use. I know which supermarkets offer which specials, so I plan my shopping trips accordingly. On this shopping trip, I was accompanied by my husband, who snuck a packet of feta cheese into the shopping basket while I wasn't watching; I could have bought this feta more cheaply from another supermarket - he was obviously not prepared for the wait. 

Another thing those people say (the ones who think that cheap food sources are not easy to find) is that it is time-consuming processing food to make it edible, and then cooking from scratch. I won't contradict them - they are right, it does take a lot of time. But when that is all you have, and you don't make it a habit to buy processed food whose contents you cannot trust or do not know, then you need to do this - you need to think creatively, spend some time looking out for quality cheap ingredients, process them appropriately and find some interesting recipes to turn that food into delicious meals that your family will remember. It doesn't make a difference where you live - there is cheap food to be had. For example, I came across some 100% Greek fatless pork with very little bone for €3.05/kg - I picked up 5 kilos and stored it appropriately in the freezer in meal-sized parcels. That's all you need - you'll be able to save a lot of money by freezing bits and pieces here and there.

 I was a little annoyed with myself for not buying any chocolate on my last shopping trip; I think that;s what I was craving. Then again, the fewer chocolate bars in the house, the less chance there is of their disappearing as soon as they enter the house. To make up for the lack of chocolate in the house, I made the family's favorite chocolate cake instead, to use up some of the eggs. 

During the BBC interview, I was asked if I thought it was indeed possible to eat very frugally. And of course, I said it was. I did keep in mind that I live in a rural area (which helps), and I know I have a keen gardener in my family (which is also useful), but I also mentioned one more thing that is true for anyone who suddenly finds themselves with less money in their pockets and greater financial responsibilities: you have to change your way of thinking. You can no longer continue to live like you did in the recent past, no matter where you live, and you have to make new sacrifices that you thought you would never have to make. If you can't do that, then no matter where you live, you will eventually find yourself in difficulty, whether it's related to money or to your own sanity.

Living frugally - food- or otherwise - is possible ony if you want to make it happen. It's a matter of balancing my wants with my needs. If I can keep my needs down, I can choose which of my wants I can have. One thing I know for sure is that I cannot have everything.

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