Convenience Shopping at M&S, the Convenience Store…

In Marks and Spencer today I was accosted (in a nice and very polite way, I hasten to add!) by several people all gasping at the bargains in my shopping basket as I queued to pay.

I had run in to buy a Dine in For £10 special for ‘convenience’ sake. If I’m in the area and see it advertised outside, then I’ll usually grab a Rotisserie chicken, side dish, dessert and get a free bottle of wine (well done M&S, reducing your VAT bill by giving it away for free!).

I’m usually happy just with the main and can take or leave side dishes and desserts; it takes me ages to decide as I really don’t want any of them. And the wine? For our personal taste, £6.50 or £7 wines aren’t going to get us anything that we can really enjoy, so I tend to grab whichever Italian red is going free that I can cook with throughout the week.

I digress.  Whilst waiting in the queue I had several conversations with other shoppers, all amazed at what I’d been able to pick up and at what price.

You see, I looked at the Rotisserie chickens and didn’t feel inspired, so had a wander round the aisles and found some bargains. Real bargains.

One of the queuing shoppers (a lady in a striking green coat) asked me a fairly rhetorical question: “You should have a Blog. You probably have one.* Why don’t you put it on your Blog?” I gave her a card and promised I’d add something to our Blog. [*Do I look like I have a Blog? What does a person with a Blog look like?]

Does this type of cost saving tip or ‘how to’ advice fit on our Blog? Not really! Our Blog is about Central and Eastern Europe, it’s about our travels, restaurants and wineries we visit, people and producers we meet, chefs we love, food/wine matching, and the produce we import and/or sell in our shop.  But on the bus coming home, I thought why not? Let’s adapt it and suggest wines from our portfolio to match to the food I bought. It was all fairly standard supermarket food.

In Croatia, food in a family café or restaurant can be cheap enough to allow us to eat out most days.  In the UK we’re not so lucky:- food is expensive in the UK so we’ve turned into canny shoppers.

We eat a diet rich in meat, fish, vegetables and olive oil wherever we are in the world – effectively, what we would be eating if we were in Italy, on the Med or Adriatic.  OK, the English Channel isn’t the same (although it should be as we’ve enough fish in it to enjoy it fresh daily) nor is the weather as good but a Mediterranean diet really is our optimum wherever we hang our hats.

On a trip to Australia, over 10 years ago I visited my sister who has lived in Sydney for over 30 years now, and I was amazed at her lack of basic housekeeping and budgetary skills. From that I presumed prices must be very cheap in Australia, but when we went to buy food it wasn’t that cheap.  She would supermarket shop every day, but walked past the bargains, never bought in bulk, never looked at the reduced stock, never cost cut, never bought in order to freeze half. I watched her making meat balls and asked why, to save time and with 3 growing children, she hadn’t doubled the quantity to freeze a batch? She looked non-plussed.

Then I realised that it was our mother who had taught me all these tricks, so I learned to budget on our weekly regular shopping trips together and my sister had left for Sydney in 1980 so she had missed out on all this maternal wisdom.  So things like “Buy bruised fruit on a Saturday afternoon, it will be cheaper as the shop is closed on Sunday; just cut out the brown bits and make fruit salad, crumble or chutneys” – that sort of basic tip was endless from my mother, and stored away by me to learn from, but my sister had never heard it.

In their later lives, when I used to look after both my mother and my father as they became older, she was always overjoyed when I did her shopping regularly for her; she deemed me a chip off the old block when I turned her £20 into a week’s meals for them both! And I still do it today.

Back to good old M and S.  I’ve made a table of what I picked up, for how much and the price it should have been:-

Description Reduced to Usual price
1 Lightly dusted plaice (2 pieces) £1.40 £4.00
2 Lightly dusted plaice (2 pieces) £1.40 £4.00
3 Minute Steak (250g) 28 day matured £1.60 £4.50
4 Free range chicken drumsticks (4 large) £1.25 £4.00
5 Tuna with a sweet chilli sauce (2 pieces) £3.00 £8.50
6 Seabass fillets (2) £1.95 £5.50
7 Medium Chicken (whole) 1.5 kg £1.75 £5.00
£12.35 £35.50

Seven meals for two for £12.35 instead of £35.50.  Of course we’ve got to add the veg to these, in order to top and tail them or bulk them up, but by buying vegetables from our good friend Pat Mears at Brighton Open Market, we will eat well for a week for around £20 to £25.

‘Green Coat’ in the queue said that she preferred to buy convenience food “because it’s easy”, but I couldn’t really grasp what wasn’t convenient about what I had bought?  A couple of tuna steaks with a chilli sauce on the side? Reduced from £8.50 to £3? Or 2 breaded plaice fillets for £1.40?

So in order to theme this piece to our Blog, we’ve added our recommendations for wines from our shop at Brighton Open Market (and one from M&S…) to match the week’s meals.

Friday will be good old fish and chips, using one of the plaice meals, with some chunky home-made chips (use Maris Piper or waxy potatoes that don’t crumble to pieces when parboiled), bake them on a thin tray covered in a sprinkling of semi-dried rosemary and sea salt, and drizzle with Croatian olive oil (all from our deli).

So many of our white wines are great with fish. For this we’d definitely choose a crisp Istrian malvazija, and M&S happen to sell one of our very own (it’s in its 3rd year now) – made by the young Geržinić brothers Marko and Marino, it’s a fantastic and sophisticated match to fish and chips, any salads, pasta, pizza.  You really cannot go wrong with it.  Our thanks for reviews to both Rose Murray-Brown MW and Victoria Moore.

The minute steaks cook very quickly – yes, in a minute! and can be fairly boring.  Zhoosh them up with a sauce, but remember to make any sauce before you fry the steak or they’ll be cold and shrivelled when you finally get round to eating them.  Go French with an ‘au poivre’ or go Italian with a Neapolitan Pizzaiola sauce created from tomatoes, onions and red peppers. Remember: make the sauce first, do the steaks last.

Instead of more starch, parboil some fennel (in abundance at the moment – we prefer Italian which usually we buy in Trieste or Aosta and freeze, roasted, once we get home, but British is getting tastier); bake it in olive oil for 30 minutes and drizzle more oil over it before serving.

Piquentum Refošk is such a lovely smooth red, with herbal and mossy aromas, easy to drink and perfect with red meat and root vegetables. Winemaker Dimitri Brecevic has created a superb wine, with minimal intervention, that will age well but each vintage is so full of character, drink now or lay down, enjoy always.

The whole chicken is easy.  Add a few veg, roast it and it will be our Sunday lunch! But it’s not particularly interesting is it? It’s just a bland chicken. So we’ll stuff it with some lemons just arrived from Spain, very juicy and very good this year (we buy them by the box when they’re in season).  Get some onion in there too.  Baste with Brittany sea salt butter to crisp the skin.

Again, our Istrian malvazija won’t let you down with chicken, and we have a crisp, fresh and zingy one in our shop from Franco Cattunar. But Franco also makes an excellent unoaked Chardonnay, perfect with chicken.

We’d also recommend Chamlija’s unfiltered and unfined Narince from Turkey, which has lovely red grapefruit aromas. It’s equally good with fish and olive oil based sauces.

We won’t eat all that chicken so we’ll strip the meat off the bones and make a chicken cacciatore for Monday.  Easy – chop up some chorizo or smoked bacon, fry with onions, mushrooms, red pepper and add the leftover veg (if there are any) from your Sunday lunch, add a box of chopped tomatoes, some oregano and basil (add fresh at the end, dried during the cooking) and serve with rice or spaghetti. You can always freeze this for a later date.

The seabass fillets are a delicious and easy midweek dish – M&S’s instructions are fairly simple to follow, just fry in oil for 5 to 6 minutes. But you don’t have to fry them – instead, bake them. Start by seasoning them with some thyme or tarragon.  Melt butter, crushed garlic (or we sell a divine pure garlic paste) and chopped up spring onions together in an ovenproof dish and then add the seasoned fish skin side down. Cook for a few minutes and add a small cup of either fish stock or white wine – improvise! Bake for about 6 mins. Done.

Want it even simpler?  Make a marinade with fresh chopped ginger (or use our fantastic ginger paste!), juice of a lime, some soy sauce, chopped coriander, olive or sesame oil, and some rice wine vinegar. Mix together and brush it on the fillets. Let it soak in and then grill them.

What to drink with this?  The Asian twist to the marinade allows us to go for our lovely Graševina, a Welschriesling (not Welsh, as someone once asked us!). It would be slightly better with river fish as it comes from a part of Croatia where the Danube runs through providing abundant big river fish to match these wines, but it’s aromatic and will be great with the ginger and lime marinade.

Keith Floyd’s recipe for red mullet with tomatoes and olives from his fabulous “Floyd Around The Med” is great for seabass too, and uses our favourite vegetable – fennel – which is also great with so many of our white wines.

Mid-week we’ll switch to chicken again and have the corn-fed chicken drumsticks – as a chicken, olive and lemon Tagine.  Olives from Croatia of course!  Orzo from M&S, and lemons are fresh and juicy from Spain in better fruit and veg shops this month.

The tuna steaks could become part of a Salad Niçoise and we may use the soy and chilli sauce on the seabass fillets instead.  You can afford to mix and match when it doesn’t cost the earth.

And for the price of 2 breaded plaice, and because we prefer our fish battered (tempura please!) we may divest one lot of these of their ‘bread’ jackets (why do supermarkets use too much coating?) and treat them as plain plaice – for £1.40 for 2 fillets they’re still cheap!

By the way, whilst mooching around the aisles, I could also have purchased 2 Poussin at £1.40 each (nice stuffed if you feel inclined), some large organic chicken breasts, pork chops and a whole host of reduced readymeals.  But I had enough meat with my purchases, and where’s the fun in a ready meal? Other than convenience, of course!

This is dedicated to my mother, Clarice Burns, who would have been 90 years old on 8 October 2016;  with my grateful thanks to her for having shared with me so many helpful culinary tips over many years of friendship and laughs as we shopped and talked food, drank wine and shared each other’s company.  In turn, we’ll share more of her skills and tips in one or more of our books in the future.

© Pacta Connect (UK) Ltd