Sunday, 7 December 2008

Meat Snobbery

It is clear that the time has come for many people to reassess the way they spend their money and our household is no different in that respect. Where we differ from the majority is that our fall in income has been brought about by choice and not by some guy in America who couldn't keep up his subprime mortgage payments triggering the meltdown of the global financial system. Nevertheless, a 75% drop in salary coupled with statutory maternity pay of £118 a week necessitates some serious belt tightening. We are no longer considered DINKYs, the marketeers dream segment of high-earning, big-spending twentysomethings.

Much of the credit "crisis" we now jointly face has to be put down to a culture of continually wanting more, not less. By launching new 'generations' of Ipod, or digital cameras with a bit more pixel capacity, or handbags in this season's colour, companies manage and manipulate the desires of neophiles for whom owning the latest thing is a defining aspect of their personalities. With our food, we're urged by supermarkets to 'Taste The Difference' or buy the 'Finest' bag of potatoes, as if the previously normal but slightly misshapen spuds would scream out "pikey" to anyone who might casually glance over from a neighbouring checkout and see the word 'basics' written on the packaging. Keeping up with the Joneses can be expensive and all consuming, but when we become insecure about things as insignificant as the size and shape of our carrots, we may be taking things a little too far.

The master of food snobbery has to be Marks and Spencer. For years, its food porn advertising campaign has basically been one huge sneer, a show of oneupmanship, a look down its nose at the fridge contents of the hoi polloi. "This isn't just food, this is Marks and Spencer food", they say, a well copywritten line that seems to paraphrase their true thoughts of "I wouldn't eat what you eat if I was alone on a desert island with only a rotting fish and a coconut for sustanance."

"Connoisseur Christmas pudding packed with plump sultanas and steeped in Courvoisier cognac", she gushes. But it's still mass produced in a factory somewhere and what's aspirational about that?

The rise of the organic movement and interest in sustainable farming has created a new class of food snob where provenance of meat has become the new "terroir" or "vintage" to be bragged about over the dinner table. "If it's not rare breed, it's not going anywhere near my plate", they whinney, juices slowly dripping from their invisible chins. "I'll see your Gloucester Old Spot and raise you my Lincolnshire Curly Coat." "You're not seriously going to serve me that 21 day aged sirloin are you? It's 55 days or nothing for me." The question is, does a breed's rareity make it any better to eat, or is it like the most expensive of fine wine where your money is being spent on a feeling of exclusivity rather than a pound for sip improvement in quality?

Everyday I have to walk home past The Blackfoot Butchers, the new outpost of the Salt Yard and Dehesa crew. I peer through the windows at their sumptuous display of rare breed meat like a petrolhead passing a Ferrari dealership. The Cote de Boeuf, the rack of salt marsh lamb, the aged ribeye - it's all on show, stoking that strange, irrational desire that I rail against in other areas of consumer society. Fortunately the prices are enough to snap me out of my reverie - beef fillet at £50 a kilo, ribeye at £36. That's a full 33% more expensive than the Ginger Pig which I would class as some of the best meat on sale in London. It may not be as expensive as Japanese Wagyu, but then I doubt it has been treated to sake and a daily massage - maybe a bottle of alcopops and backrub without the happy endings. This is British Beef after all.

With buying expensive meat comes the pressure of cooking it perfectly. If you're going to spend £15 on a single steak then overcooking it must be one of the most disappointing feelings around. Who cares how rare the breed if it turns out as leathery as Judith Chalmers after a few too many minutes in the oven? Far better to buy something a little cheaper, a little more, how shall I put it, common, and cook it well. I can guarantee that the best way to 'Taste The Difference' in a potato is to cook it properly and season it well, and the 'Finest' Turkey you'll find this Christmas may just be the cheaper one that is cooked with a whole lot of love.