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Melanie McDonagh

Raymond Blanc is right about convenience food

Raymond Blanc is right about convenience food
Raymond Blanc (Shutterstock)
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Hooray for Raymond Blanc for stating the absolutely obvious. He’s got an ITV series coming up, which, if I had a television, I’d be watching compulsively, called Simply Raymond Blanc. He’s an instinctively brilliant, self-taught chef, who really was a game changer on the Eighties restaurant and cookbook scene. And in an interview for the Radio Times he declared that Delia Smith was absolutely right to make use of convenience food in her most controversial cookbook, including frozen mashed potatoes. As he observed, ‘Delia Smith was the first TV chef to really simplify food. She was heavily criticised for using tinned and frozen food in her recipes, but she was absolutely right.

‘Take the frozen pea. First, it’s delicious – all the nutrients are trapped in. Not quite as good as fresh, but nobody wants to pick and pod peas. If it takes two hours, you’re not going to want to eat it.’

He’s not the first French cook to make the point. Cooking in Ten Minutes, by the sublimely brilliant Edouard de Pomiane made excellent use of simple food in tins. As he observed, 'Modern facilities have made everything easier, and it is possible, in a few minutes, not only to open a tin or warm up some frozen food but to prepare a whole range of dishes from the simple to the luxurious'. So sucks to the people who think that unless it’s fresh it’s somehow not quite edible. A tinned sardine on toast is a very good thing.

Raymond Blanc is correct of course about the deliciousness of frozen peas, which are, as Bird’s Eye tell us, brought from field to fork effectively in about three hours, being frozen pretty well as soon as they are picked. They are the people’s staple, a genuine addition to the quality of life.

I’d say, however, that they are an entirely different sort of pleasure from the fresh pea, which I don’t begrudge shelling for their excellence in the eating. In fact, it’s one of those chores which is pleasurable, in that you can let your mind wander while you pod. (You could probably get people to pay for podding peas as a mindfulness exercise…'feel the texture of the pod, focus on the pressure from your fingers on the bulge…concentrate on the satisfying pop as it opens, run your fingers consciously down the spine etc.') The trouble with fresh peas is getting actually fresh ones. I can’t grow peas in my allotment (nor indeed, runner beans, which ants colonise) for the life of me, and farmers’ market peas are palpably not very fresh. But if you can get freshly picked peas, they’re one of the best things of the summer.

Raymond Blanc is right to assert that tinned and frozen food can be delicious, far better than fresh fruit and veg imported from another hemisphere (I am thinking of Kenyan beans and Peruvian asparagus, to name just two). Certainly Delia got it in the neck from her critics about embracing convenience food, but I think we should distinguish between the rubbish sort and the genuinely useful stuff. I was actually shocked when Delia recommended Aunt Bessie’s Yorkshire puddings, on the basis that the ready made ones are never as good as the ones you make (can I recommend adding sparkling water along with milk in the batter?) and this is a false time-economy. But frozen mashed potato is another matter. I’ve never actually come across it but I see no objection. If you’re up against time making a shepherd’s or fish pie, and creamy mash is there to hand, well go for it.

Raspberries, too, are brilliant frozen, making a wonderful tart addition to trifles and cakes; boiled down with sugar they make a really nice kind of jam for a Victoria sponge. Other fruit also freeze well – blackcurrants and redcurrants, for instance. Strawberries, nope. Their water content means they end up floppy and pallid either frozen or tinned. Wait till June, then eat them every day.

Raymond Blanc has also, in the past, suggested using tinned pears, I gather. Well, that’s simply a variant of the old fashioned method of bottling fruit when it’s in season for use out of season. It’s one way of dealing with the problem that Nature delivers an awful lot in autumn and rather little at this time of year. So, I’m all for tinned pears – try them with condensed milk. Actually, lots of fruit is good in tins – tinned apricots, for instance, make a perfectly decent apricot and almond tart. As for tinned peaches, they’re simply different in their slimy tinned incarnation than fresh, and so long as you don’t expect the two taste sensations to be identical, a treat.

Tomatoes are a different matter. I remember almost weeping as a child when my mother served up cooked tinned tomatoes for breakfast, rather then the normal sort – fried, but with the lid on the pan, so they steamed at the same time, producing wonderful juice. But as is well known, if they’re used for sauce, or cooked with mince or whatever, they’re brilliant – actually richer in nutritious lycopene than the fresh sort. In fact the tang of tinned tomato is probably the most ubiquitous flavour in contemporary British cooking; I’d say, use it in moderation.

There are some seasonal things that have to be eaten fresh; British green asparagus comes into that category. But there is a place in the grand scheme of things for tinned or, better still, bottled, asparagus, and it is the Spanish white asparagus, which the Spanish serve regularly from tins. It’s delicious, if expensive. Again, it’s simply a different sort of eating pleasure from the fresh green sort which famously have to be served as soon as possible after picking – I’ve heard tell of showoffs who have a stove in their allotment so they can actually cook theirs straight away.

Raymond Blanc draws the line at British sliced bread, and I am right with him there. But there are several things that you can embrace ready made, including those handy tiny pastry shells for filling with a quail’s egg and mayonnaise, or smoked salmon mousse for an easy canapé. Or the biscuit Rose de Rheims, pink coloured dry biscuits which you dip into champagne after dinner, the way people nowadays dunk Italian cantucci biscuits into dessert wine. And that’s just for starters. Of course there are endless convenient ready made edibles which you don’t have to make yourself, though oddly enough, the universally approved ready-made puff pastry is not one of them – the texture isn’t right. Life is too short not to embrace convenience. As they say, cooking is easy. It’s shopping that’s the hard part.