The latest Christmas advert from Waitrose features Heston Blumenthal as a Harry Potteresque magician, creating his pine-scented mince pies as though by magic.
But if the country’s number one exponent of molecular gastronomy makes you wonder at the blurring lines between food and science, then try this.
One group of scientists has decided that the cheapest meal that you can manage in these austere times is a toast sandwich.
But the rather strange confection isn’t new, as it first appeared in Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management 150 years ago.
Now, though, it’s been revived by the Royal Society of Chemistry with the claim that, at 7.5p, it’s the cheapest meal possible. They’re so confident that they’re offering a £200 prize to anyone who can beat it.
The sandwich is a slice of toast between two pieces of buttered bread, seasoned with salt and pepper to taste.
RSC employee Jon Edwards said: “In my student days, I thought a meal of 9p noodles from Tesco was thrifty – but a toast sandwich is tastier, quicker, has more calories and comes in at just 7.5p.”
That gives us a quick idea of just what the society’s criteria are: calories per penny, in effect.
In a press release, Dr John Emsley of the RSC said: “We could have gone for one of the thousands of recipes that Mrs Beeton employed, most of them being table-groaning creations full of meats.
“But, given the stern days we are yet to experience, we decided to go for an unknown dish that requires little money and little time, and which she devised to cater for less well-off people.”
After the cost, what are the nutritional benefits, according to the society?
The basics: 3 slices of white bread = 240 calories. Butter = 10g = 90 calories
Total = 330 calories
Toast sandwich nutrients
Protein = 9.5 g
Fat = 12 g
Carbohydrate = 55 g
Fibre = 4.5 grams
Calcium = 120 mg
Iron = 2 mg
Vitamin A = 90 mcg
Vitamin B1 = 0.25 mg
Vitamin B2 = 80 mcg
Vitamin B3 = 4 mg
Vitamin D = 0.08 mcg
Well, I actually think that I can meet this challenge. And my idea is only a slightly modernised take on an old food.
I give you toast and dripping with yeast spread.
Although not that modern: Marmite was launched in 1902 in Burton-on-Trent, while the basis for it had been discovered in the late 19th century by German scientist Justus von Liebig, who had discovered that brewer's yeast could be concentrated, bottled and eaten.
First, how to do it: take two thick slices of white bread. Toast them. Spread dripping on one and scrape some yeast spread onto the other.
Put them together.
Now let’s look at the ingredients, with a cost and nutritional analysis.
For prices, I used tesco.com today. Let’s take a thick sliced, white loaf (own-brand) at 47p for 800g. A slice is apparently 44g.
So on that basis, there are 18.1 slices in a bag. For my ease at least, let’s call it 18, which makes it 2.61p per slice.
Tesco has dripping at 72p for 500g (£1.44 per kg). This is cheaper than lard, in case you’re wondering.
Thus 1% of the packet – 5g – is 0.72p.
The best value Marmite is 500g for £4.99 (£1 per 100g) – this is cheaper than smaller bottles.
However, Tesco’s own-brand yeast extract is 240g for £1.89 (79p per 100g).
In which case, it costs 0.0315p for a four-gram serving.
So, two slices of bread costs 5.22p.
Let's say a scraping of yeast extract (2g) costs 1.575p
And 10g of dripping is 2.16p.
So, the total costs of the sandwich – the “meal” – would be 8.955p.
At this point, I’m losing on this basis.
But let’s look at the nutrition next.
The bread works out at 110kcals per 36g slice, so 220kcals for two slices. It has 21g of carbohydrate per slice (so a total of 42g here) and 1.1g of fibre (total 2.2) with a little sodium of 0.2g per slice (so 0.4g), 0.07g fat (0.14g) and 3.6g of protein (7.2g protein).
The dripping is 135kcals for a 15g serving. There’s 15g fat, but no proteins, carbs, fibre or sodium.
One serving (2g) of the Tesco yeast extract provides 5kcal, 1.6g protein and 0.3g carbs (of which only a trace sugars). There’s only a trace of fat and fibre, 0.2g of salt, but 0.15mg of vitamin B1, 1.5 of niacin, 25.0µg of folic acid and 0.15µg of vitamin B12.
As a slight aside, Marmite has half a calorie per 2g and fractionally more protein and carbs, plus 0.14mg riboflavin.
So, the total of calories is 355kcals,
Protein = 7.4g
Carbohydrate = 48.6g
Fibre = 2.7g
Fat = 15.14g.
Calories are up and fat is up.
Now as we know, fat is not bad – our parents and grandparents didn’t have an obesity epidemic while eating bread and dripping. Indeed, this is a combination of that traditional dish and Mrs Beeton’s lesser-known idea, plus my own yeast spread twist.
The fat helps to ensure the eater feels sated. It provides good mouthfeel too and it has plenty of nutritional benefits, such as helping the body absorb plenty of other nutrients, including a number of vitamins.
The yeast spread adds nutrients that the salt and pepper don’t provide, but does give a similar seasoning.
Now, I don’t have the data on iron and calcium (or various other nutrients) for my version of this – and I’m no chemist – but I would suspect they’d be similar at least.
And remember – the challenge, as set out by the society, was not for what is regarded as ‘healthy’ eating these days, but – in effect – as calories for your penny.
There is more fat in my version – but since it’s dripping, it’s a lot, lot cheaper than butter or marg.
If I'd kept it to bread and dripping – and how much more traditional can you get> – that would have been cheaper, but the yeast spread adds an interesting touch and quite a lot of nutritional benefit.
I actually tried a toasted dripping and Marmite sandwich this lunchtime (with wholemeal sliced bread) and I have to say, it was not unpleasant at all.
Mind, this is austerity food – with a royal society uncovering it and promoting it for exactly that reason. It’s not supposed to be about taste. And it's difficult to see how anyone could come up with more calories for less.
But the mood of culinary pessimism seems to be spreading, with a recent article looking back at George Orwell’s comments on British food in the 1940s.
It’s all as depressing as a royal society finding it as appropriate to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Mrs Beeton’s book with a recipe for austere times.