Thomas Sutcliffe: Can't afford free range? Let them eat chickpeas

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The Independent Online

As Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver made their recent attempt to improve the diet of television viewers (and the short lives of battery hens), there was one argument that they found consistently difficult to deal with. And it wasn't to do with issues of practicality or taste or supply and demand but cost.

It's all very well for you, said several of the consumers they encountered in their various programmes, but I'm on a very tight budget and I just can't afford a free-range chicken at £9.00 a shot. If the supermarket offers me two for a fiver those are the birds I will be buying to feed my family.

To reply that it might be better to eat something delicious once rather than something terrible twice clearly wasn't an option. It would have smacked of condescension – and while we understand, and don't seem to worry too much about, the fact that some of us can drive Mercedes while others have to make do with a Ford Fiesta, the suggestion that some of us might be able to eat chicken seven days a week while some of us couldn't seems to be an affront to democracy. And yet the most helpful answer would have been, if you can't afford decent chickens you should eat more like a peasant.

It is, after all, what the food-conscious middle-classes have been doing as they pursue healthier, better-tasting and less ecologically damaging diets. It's true they have the unprecedented luxury of choosing from day to day what kind of peasant to be – Sardinian on Monday, Breton on Tuesday and Polish on Wednesday – and the grip of the seasons has been a little relaxed by modern food distribution.

But if you read the cookbooks intended for everyday use published over the past 10 years, they move consistently in the direction of cheaper, fresher food, more seasonality and the ability to eke out expensive ingredients with affordable staples. They move, in fact, in the direction of peasant cookery – which, for entirely involuntary reasons has always displayed qualities of frugality, local sourcing and nutrition.

In her classic book European Peasant Cookery (tellingly subtitled "The Rich Tradition"), Elizabeth Luard points out that when fuel is precious, one-pot cookery is often essential. Moreover, "Traditional prejudices about what should be served with what were based on sound and practical grounds of health. If any one phrase can summarise peasant cuisine it is precisely that – good health".

Luard goes so far as to suggest that, if they weathered the hazardous years of childhood, medieval peasants were likely to live longer than their medieval lords, who ate a diet of refined foods and meat. I don't know whether historical actuarial tables bear out that claim, but it's certainly true that the indefensible class divide in life expectancies we know now (in which the poor are far more likely to die early than the well-to-do) dates from the mid-19th century, as the diets of ordinary people begin to get more industrialised.

The ability to eat yourself to death, once the preserve of the wealthy alone, is now democratically available to all, while the ability to eat yourself healthy is – quite wrongly – assumed to be either financially inaccessible or inherently unpalatable. It isn't, because the problem with our diets isn't the cheap food – it's the cheap "expensive" food which attempts to make every day a feast day. As food prices rise and our collective waistlines expand, all of us – whatever our incomes – should be thinking and eating like peasants. Forget chickens, let them eat chickpeas.

A facelift for gloomy Gordon

I think Gordon Brown needs a face coach. The voice isn't really a problem, even if you don't care for what it's saying, but the Prime Minister's moments of facial relaxation are a diplomatic and political liability. A shot of him watching a table tennis game in Peking could be used as an encyclopedia illustration of the medieval sin of wanhope, an existential despair of salvation.

He's not much better in Parliament, apparently finding it impossible to project the requisite appearance of amused insouciance as the opposition pour ordure over his head. He needs to get a bit more two-faced and fast if he's to weather the storms ahead.

* As someone who's sceptical about the possibility that we're all roasting our brains with mobile phones, I did a bit of googling on the story that microwave radiation has been shown to disrupt sleep. And, sure enough, despite the fact that it was funded by the Mobile Manufacturers Forum, the results do seem to show a correlation between mild insomnia and laboratory exposure to 884 MHz wireless signals.

Interestingly, though, the Wayne State University biographical entry for Bengt B Arnetz, one of the paper's authors, includes this interesting remark: "the largest study to date concerning possible non-cancer effects from mobile phone use found that radiofrequency emitted from mobile phones was associated with worse deep sleep, more headaches, but also improved learning and reaction time (my italics). With my son's GCSEs approaching I don't know whether to confiscate his mobile or order him to use it as much as possible, having downed an aspirin with a mug of cocoa first.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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