TV Review: Jamie’s Money Saving Meals
Poor old Jamie Oliver does come in for a lot of criticism and bad press these days. One wouldn’t blame him for packing his £millions and retiring well away from it all, even though he’s not yet 40. But there he is, still determined to set us on the right eating path; an evangelist of the kitchen. He’s taken schools to task for their meals, shown us how ensuring a diet rich in fatty acids will improve the behaviour and learning of our kids, and fought for animal and fish welfare. Now he’s showing us how, in these financially challenging times, we can cook good meals cheaply. Or is he?
I’m a fan of Jamie. I have a lot of his books and think he’s one of the good guys. He has got a little serious, though. I saw him on a chat show a few months ago and he seemed to be carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. I wanted to tell him to lighten up, not wear himself out. Thus it was good to see some of the cheeky chappy Jamie back on TV when I decided to watch his latest series, Jamie’s Money Saving Meals. But the real problem with Jamie is he’s overextended himself. He’s everywhere. A bit like IKEA, you could fit your house out with Jamie-ware. And of course that makes it hard for him to keep his eye on all that bears his name. I was, for instance, a fan of Jamie’s Italian when they first arrived on our high streets but of late have found them expensive and disappointing. The only exception being the one in Gatwick North Terminal – a terminal that must be one of the dreariest places to spend a couple of hours. Now it’s even worth getting there early if you’re flying around lunchtime to eat at Jamie’s Italian before you board the plane. But that one aside, I’ve had some dire meals. Some branches are OK, some not. I did a cookery course at Recipease earlier this year which was less about teaching you to cook than getting you to chop vegetables to add to their stock, or whatever, that they’d made earlier. So, one wonders, how well does Jamie really understand the needs of … to put it bluntly! … the poor. Those people struggling to feed families on benefit or low wages.
I caught up on the second episode of Jamie’s Money Saving Meals (Mondays, Channel 4 at 8.00pm) last night. It was immediately obvious that Jamie wanted us to know he’d done his homework; his research. The setting was more like a laboratory than a kitchen. We were introduced to a large team of helpers; people like nutritionists. Was this supposed to reassure us that although we might be cooking cheaply, we wouldn’t miss out on necessary nutrients? There was little intimacy. I thought if you’d just walked into the room and didn’t actually catch Jamie’s famous face you might think you’d come in while the advertisements were on.
You can eat cheaply and like a king, he told us, as he rushed into his first recipe: Dim Sum Buns. But to begin, you had to spend £29 on a shoulder of pork. Yes, £29. Well, of course, Jamie told us that this wasn’t just for one meal; we could make lots of meals from the meat. But Jamie, have you any idea how a person with little money would feel about going into a butcher and spending £29 on one piece of meat? It would give them palpitations; a panic attack. It’s not enough to argue that you need to spend money to save money – as Jamie did – you have to understand how people feel about putting their hands into their purses and handing over such a large sum of money. People on the breadline live meal by meal. Then we saw Jamie splashing on the olive oil (yes, olive oil, extra virgin of course) and fennel seeds. Later, he added bay leaves, dipping sauce, soy sauce and bunches of fresh coriander. Jamie told us that it was worth spending money on these extras to spice up our food, but my guess is that for people really struggling financially, a jar of fennel seeds and a pack of fresh coriander are luxuries.
Jamie then goes off to visit a woman who buys halves of lamb – yes a half of a whole lamb! – and then wastes it because she’s worried about keeping it in her freezer and doesn’t know what to do with the various joints. Jamie, this is so unreal. Who the hell buys half a lamb and hasn’t a clue what to do with it. It’s usually the privileged middles classes or people living in the country near farms who buy whole or half lambs. Not your average town or city dweller. And not your average Mr & Mrs Joe Bloggs on income support.
Next he makes a meat loaf. Well, if money is tight, there’s a lot to be said for a meat loaf and his did look pretty good. Whether Mr & Mrs Income Support would buy nice jars of fine passata rather than supermarket economy tinned tomatoes, I’m not sure. Whether they want to open a whole pack of feta cheese to add about a quarter because it adds to the flavour, I’m not sure either. Probably not, I think. But in essence, meat loaf was a good way to go. And to be fair, what is the point in him showing us a really boring meat loaf. The idea is to show us how to spice up cheaper food – like his final recipe of a sweet potato korma curry. Why spend money on a takeaway, he asks us, on a Friday night when we can cook up our own curry for a couple of pounds rather than twenty. But Jamie, the whole point of a takeaway is it’s a treat; you don’t have to do anything other than ring in your order. And believe me, Jamie, I’m a pretty good cook but I can’t make curries like my favourite (and the only one I use) takeaway – Tangawizi restaurant in Twickenham.
Jamie’s intention is good but he comes from a place where olive oil, bay leaves and a huge assortment of spices and herbs line his shelves and windowsills; where spending £29 on a piece of meat is nothing to him. He comes from a place where he can go out to a fine and expensive restaurant every night if he wants; he’s not one of those people who can’t afford to go to a restaurant on a Friday night and look forward to a takeaway treat once a week. It’s a bit on a par with George Osborne telling us he understands what it’s like to be poor. No, George, you don’t. You haven’t a clue.
Yes it’s a great idea to show people how to shop well, save money and add interest to their cooking. But I’m not convinced that a mother struggling on benefit with hungry children will feel that buying a whole shoulder of pork for £29 and making fresh dough for dim sum is something she has the energy for; maybe a young couple not earning much or a student might. You can cook brilliantly and creatively on a low budget – as the wonderful Jack Monroe has proved with her blog: A Girl Called Jack – and being poor doesn’t mean you have to eat boringly; it doesn’t mean you don’t understand good food and flavours and want to do your best and enjoying eating. But what’s missing from Jamie’s attempt to help people on low incomes is a sense that he really understands what it’s like for them. It would be so nice to see Jamie get down from his soapbox, I think, and go back to his roots for a while and do a nice, fun series about the cooking he does best.