What feels like a very long time ago, I happened to start a sort of research on this blog – and as it started to gain a bit of momentum, I made a sort of promise.
For various reasons, I'd decided to look up Lancashire hot pots via the online supermarkets. Coming across two versions from Tesco, I'd been rather surprised to see just what they cost.
The gist of the matter (and you can read the full story here) was that Tesco's hot pot ordinaire, if you will, rolled in at £2.90 for 450g. Which, as I calculated at the time, would make it around £11.60 for the archetypal family of four.
The weight is important – it’s only 50g more than a standard tin of soup.
But Tesco also retailed a 'Finest' version, at £4.25 per serving – or, using the same calculation as above, £17 for the four-person family.
I said then that the next time I made a Lancashire hot pot myself, I’d “make a note, to the very last penny, of what it costs.” I added: “I make you a promise now: it will not come even close to £4.25 per serving. And it will have good meat and good kidneys in it. And it will be rather bigger servings than the amount mentioned above”.
So, here we are. Almost 11 months later and I haven’t forgotten that little challenge.
And at the weekend, I set out to test my assertions.
Now before we start, a little background. It’s worth remembering that Tesco itself had, in a survey, bemoaned the demise of the classic British dishes – including Lancashire hot pot. Tesco has also, with a startling lack of self-awareness, produced a survey that reveals that only older people really know what joints and cuts of meat to use for what dishes. Each younger generation knows less and less on the subject.
That research didn’t observe that each new generations’ shopping choices have become more and more dominated by supermarkets in the last 30 years, as supermarkets’ share of the UK grocery retail trade has leapt from 20% to 80%.
And as Joanna Blythman showed in Shopped: The shocking power of Britain's supermarkets, the supermarkets in general have also ensured a de-skilling of butchery. They very rarely have staff who know anything about a cut – or can themselves prepare any cut.
Moving on, it’s worth making a quick check on the state of affairs with the supermarkets.
Ocado don't sell anything called a Lancashire hot pot for adults – three baby meals come under such a description.
Sainsbury's has one baby meal under the name – and a recipe for the real thing. The Co-op site reveals nothing.
Tesco no longer has anything listed either and nor does Asda.
So we're still working with Tesco's prices and portion sizes – nothing alters the challenge I set myself.
Now for the shopping list first – and at the risk of seeming overly pernickety, I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible. I went to some of my usual suppliers – I didn’t look around for the ultra cheapest. The bouquet garni was in the cupboard but I have checked the current price for the identical product online, as of yesterday.
Lamb and lambs’ kidneys came from my local butcher with a combined weight of 490g (trimmed). The cost was £1.20 for the kidneys and £3.59 for the chops. Total: £4.79 for the meat.
I bought two large potatoes for 80p, weighing in at around 320g. I used just one. They were both approximately the same size, so let’s call that 40p. It was 30p for one large carrot at around 196g unpeeled and approximately the same for two onions with a combined, unpeeled weight of 246g.
It was 29p for a sachet of bouquet garni and I’m going to calculate 10p for the chicken stock, 20p for a few dots of butter at the end (calculated on the basis of the cost of a small catering pack in the office canteen) and 5p for some lard at the beginning.
That’s a total of £6.43.
But you’ve probably already spotted something else: the combined weight of the ingredients in my dish (not counting the herbs, the stock and the fats) was 1,092g (with all the un-prepped veg). Let’s make this reasonably easy and deduct the whole of that awkward 92g as the peel and other bits, but adding nowt extra for the liquid.
So we’ve got a dish of 1kg.
That was for two people. Portion size was approximately 50g more than the Tesco ones. The cheap range would have cost £5.80 for two, with a total of 100g less.
The 'Finest' version would have cost £8.50 for two people – with 100g less actual food. My fresh version was £6.38 for 1kg.
Or put it another way: if the Tesco cheap range version had been the same size as mine, it would have come in at £6.43 for two portions, while the ‘Finest’ range would have been £9.35 for two.
You're left, of course, with the question of measuring a few other things – heat to cook and the time to make it. It took me 50 minutes to prep, slowly. I've no idea how much it cost to cook, at a moderate heat for two hours and 20 minutes. The fan oven is supposed to save energy.
On the basis of a very approximate (but generous, because I’m not interested in cheating) guesstimate, based on our average electricity bill, we’ll add about 20p for the cooking. And let’s not forget, you still need to cook the ready-made version – a cost that comes on top of what you pay at the checkout.
So even adding the power required, our version is, at £6.63, considerably cheaper than Tesco’s ‘Finest’. And it also included a higher percentage of meat (the previous article includes the full ingredients list for the Tesco versions) and no additives.
The issue of the missing kidney in the Tesco dishes is interesting: I have mused over whether this is because kidney would be more difficult to prep by a machine in a production line, but I've no way of knowing for certain.
Let’s look at it a different way, though. The cheaper Tesco version had 28% meat; the ‘Finest’ version had 36%. Mine had around 49% meat.
Of course, another question, which I didn’t include in the original challenge, is that of the labour. And just how do we calculate that?
Many people claim that the lack of prep required with ready-made food is worth the added cost.
But what about the value added by the food tasting much better, being fresher (and therefore with more nutrients intact) and additive free? And just as an added note, each portion of my own hot pot not only had more meat – it still had enough carrot and onion to count as two portions of each person's fruit and veg for the day, while depending less on potatoes.
I leave all this to your own musings on all this, because I really don’t know where to begin estimating the cost impact of that – although my gut says that they would make my version better value.
In the meantime, here’s how it’s done. The amounts are approximate and based on two people.
Pre-heat your oven to 160˚C (150˚C for a fan oven).
The longest bit is prepping the kidneys. I had four whole ones and two small bits. You need seriously sharp kitchen scissors, but they make the job of coring the kidneys quite easy.
I used three almost boneless ‘chops’, trimming most of the back fat off.
Take a couple of medium onions, peel and slice. Peel and thickly slice a large carrot.
Melt some lard in a casserole and brown the meats. Remove to a plate.
Add the onion and carrot and soften for a few minutes.
Pop your bouquet garni in, plus the meats and a little seasoning, and gently mix together.
Add a small amount of chicken stock – it needs to come up only about a third of the contents.
Peel and thinly slice enough potatoes to cover the dish. Season and dot with butter.
Put in the oven and leave for two hours. Take the lid off and leave for a further 20 minutes. Serve.
The smell as it cooked was divine. The contrasts in textures and the combination of flavours is wonderful. There’s a reason that this is enough of a classic dish that Larousse Gastronomique allots it an individual entry.
And to follow? A large, ripe pear, skinned, cored and diced, and some blackberries, cooked gently with a little brown sugar and a drop or two of water for something like 10 minutes.
Then decanted into a buttered dish and topped with more of the crumble mix that has been sitting in the fridge.
It was cooked in the same oven for 40 minutes after the hot pot had finished, and served with clotted cream – the perfect accompaniment: a joyous jolt of hot and cold in the mouth.