Why we need to dig potatoes

Putting some work into your food, like digging or scrubbing potatoes, will help keep it affordable

One thing all Watsons have in common, despite loving our food, is that we don’t like to spend a lot of money on it. It’s probably true of all farmers’ offspring and I’d like to think this is reflected in the dairy, veg boxes and shops.
I’ve spent nearly 35 years trying to keep prices reasonable, but despite our best efforts people endlessly make comments about us being expensive. Obviously, we’re going to struggle to compete with Morrison’s, however we need to offer a broad range of products and I’m never going to dumb down and sell rubbish.
Back in the late eighties an extremely well-to-do, and unfortunately very ill, customer asked us to get organic fruit from Covent Garden. Occasionally we’d end up with a bit of ridiculously priced leftover fruit and for years people remembered the £5 avocados and mangoes. I never heard the end of it and it was a salutary lesson.
When I started making sausages, bacon and pies back in 1066 the luxury or artisan food market simply didn’t exist. Traditional provisioners like Crebers in Tavistock and Cundells in Dartmouth were failing fast and the rash of new, Elizabeth David inspired, delicatessens with French names didn’t seem to be working either.
At the other end of the spectrum, supermarket suppliers had managed to emulsify just about everything they touched and, strangely, independent butchers seemed to think emulating them was the best way forward.
Detailed costings and business plans have never been my thing but, providing I worked efficiently, there seemed to be plenty of available margin over ingredients. I bought pigs from the farm, cutting out all the middle men and dealers, wasted nothing and ate a lot. Being a one man band, with a bit of help from my mother, had a lot of advantages.
How things have changed. As disposable income for the middle classes has risen, a whole new market in top end, so-called luxury food has evolved. Take marinated olives for example – I’ve often wondered how olives, available in Greece in bulk for about £2 a kg, can end up selling for ten times that after minimal processing.
Or British charcuterie. Good quality boneless pork costs about £3 a kg yet dried (losing a third) it retails for £50 plus a kg. Obviously things can go wrong but making salami is a bit like watching paint dry. I can see the attraction, as once you’ve sorted out your equipment and processes and made the sausage you can go off and do something else.
So there’s been a bit of a rush to get into marinating, distilling and curing. The products are all very giftable and I can’t help feeling that’s become a big part of the luxury food market.
Other sectors of the food business don’t offer the same attractions – either in profit, or lifestyle. We’re all crying out for good bread but it’s hard work, of low unit value and extremely perishable, so bread making doesn’t tick many lifestyle boxes.
That turned out to be rather a long way of saying we try hard to be affordable and we won’t sell mass produced rubbish with no provenance. Nor will we sell the overpriced, over packaged and often over provenance food that looks as though its real home is the duty free shop at Dubai Airport.
Now if you’re still with me, that all leads on to the inevitable question of ‘What is affordable?’ Out of desperation at the lack of attention given to the thorny question of how we’re going to feed ourselves in the post Brexit future, Jay Rayner printed his Food Manifesto in the Observer last week. A few of his points needed explanation but it’s a newspaper article not a PHD thesis and, for the most part, he hit the nail on the head – it’s worth a read.
The fact that as a nation, as a percentage of our income, we are now spending half what we did forty years ago on food, offers very little encouragement – especially in the current climate of weak sterling induced inflation. As pressure on food prices increases, quality will go down because we’re all wed to the post-war idea of cheap food – a bit like a Watson. The difference perhaps for us is that rather than go down to KFC for a bucket of fries, we see the answer as putting on our wellies and digging some potatoes, and I’d like to think that that’s what you do too. So we try to be affordable – but far more so if you’re prepared to put in a bit of graft as well.
Back to Jay Rayner and post Brexit, the scary thing in this new world of unplanned chaos is where the hell are we going to buy the 50% of food we don’t produce ourselves? Sterling must be one of the least coveted currencies on earth and the places where we used to think we had precedence simply don’t exist anymore. The Chinese are buying up Africa, and New Zealand and Australia seem to have chucked their lot in with Asia. There was a time when we used to buy Kiwi lamb and the offal would go to the Gulf States. Soon we’ll be lucky if we even get the fleece, so someone had better come up with a plan soon.