Can You Eat Well on a Tight Budget?

Just like so much of Europe, Ireland's taste buds have woken up over recent years. Spice was once reserved for the Christmas cake, with the exception of a few cloves to put in your hot whiskey to cure your cold, (it made you feel better, anyway) or to stick in an apple pie. Even pizza and pasta were exotic – at least outside the cities.

Irish stew

You could hotly debate the subject of Ireland's cuisine. One school of thought would say that it hardly existed. But, like many other aspects of the country's history, it is high time for a revision.

People used to eating spicy or deeply flavoured food may call traditional Irish food bland. It may be also fair to call it pretty unadventurous. But, hang on a minute - that is to be far too dismissive.


A Traditional Irish Diet

Some of those criticisms are of what we now see as being healthy and pure. Think about some of the staples of an Irish country diet, fifty years ago. Oatmeal would feature – seriously good for you. Locally caught fish would be central to the diet of the significant proportion of the population who lived near the sea - again very good for health with the well-known benefits of the Omega 3 oils present in fish.

Brown soda bread is more nutritionally sound than your white sliced loaf. There is also something in the manufacture of modern bread that makes some people feel uneasy. It is a much speeded-up process and produced in mass proportions. Think also, of how filling and satisfying a bowl of soup and some soda bread and cheese can feel. You eat less of it because it satiates the appetite.

Many of us grew up on bacon and cabbage. If the bacon is home cured and the cabbage is green and the potatoes are floury this is a simple dish that conjures up a whole way of life as well as being tasty.


Expensive Convenience Food

One of the biggest and most damaging lies in our modern way of living has got to be the development of convenience food. Jamie Oliver is a well-known chef in the UK who has raised his head above the parapet and spoken out about the relationship between poverty in Britain and a terrible diet – one that isn't even cheap either, relying to a large extent on quite expensive ready-meals and takeaways.

Of course you can almost guess the thrust of the criticism levelled at him; principally he is a rich and privileged man and how the heck can he speak about feeding a family on a tight budget. Others (including myself) applaud him for saying what needs saying. He didn't need to; but cares enough about diet and its social and health implications.


A Changed Ireland

Just a few years ago, Ireland, particularly small-town Ireland, was different. It still had local shops run by local people. Shopping was as much a social as a domestic activity. The butcher was an important person. But, many aspects of this are changing.

The supermarkets have really got their feet in the door now and changes to how we shop and eat seem an inevitable consequence. Supermarkets encourage you to buy in bulk, thus discouraging those frequent trips to your local town, shops and markets. They tempt you with ready-meals that just need popping in the oven or microwave.

You are persuaded that this will save you loads of time. In the long-term this changes your whole attitude to shopping and cooking – rather than being a vital part of life, even a pleasure, it becomes a nuisance, something to be avoided.


The Fightback

However, there is possibly a core of common sense in the Irish psyche so a counter-movement has also taken hold. Farmers' markets have proliferated and some people do still, despite the pressure support the local tradesperson. There are still enough people around who care enough about what they put into their bodies to learn how to cook and teach cookery.

Women's Rural' organisations and country shows still encourage and nurture the skills of baking, jam-making and of course, craft. The trend to grow your own salad leaves, tomatoes, cabbage, potatoes and other vegetables has also influenced young people in how they want to live.


Is This Financially Viable?

The big question though is the class issue: is all this healthy eating and selective shopping, the preserve of the middle-classes? Is it a million miles away from the daily experience of those who are struggling financially? Well, it doesn't need to be. This is something I am going to explore further in my next article.