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Where Molly Ate

Where Molly Ate: food writing amid a financial crisis, at home and abroad

With the cost-of-living crisis affecting so many people, restaurant dining feels like a luxury that a lot of people simply can't afford, in stark contrast to a home life of freezer dinners and budget woes 

Bread and butter from The Water House Project

I like to think of myself as a pretty down-to-earth person. My parents spent years throwing me into situations I thought I would hate only to find out I loved them in order to quell a seriously burgeoning princess side of me. She’s still in there somewhere, deep down, but for the most part I tend to prefer low-key and fun to expensive and grand. I did, however, start this fortnight on a trip to Mykonos, staying in an incredible hotel that has previously played host to a number of celebrities that I’m not sure I’m allowed to name. Sometimes this job can do a good job of detaching you from reality.

That’s the funny thing, though – reality will find a way to come crashing in whether you like it or not. And boy did reality come crashing down with my first meal after spending 72 hours in Mykonos eating my weight in feta (the Greek kind that you could eat a whole slab of), sashimi, grilled fish, greek yoghurt that carefully treads the line between dairy product and spoonful of heaven and, well, you get the drift.

I landed back to earth with something akin to whiplash when, at 6am on Friday morning, I found myself eating a vaguely pongy sandwich from an airside Pret a Manger and glugging back coffee after a maximum of two hours’ kip courtesy of the Gatwick Yotel, whose pod rooms lack both windows and anything resembling soundproofing but make up for it in its presence of spiders, made all the more distressing by the aforementioned absence of any connection to the outdoors.

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Working as a journalist is such a funny exercise in parallels. You can eat at some of the city’s most incredible restaurants, be taken on bucket list-worthy holidays and chat to some of the most interesting people in the world and yet, when you hop off the rollercoaster for a second, you realise real life is waiting in the wings, ready to crash on in. Like when you walk out of an interview at a michelin-starred restaurant and go to an ATM to get cash out for lunch in Chinatown, only for it to decline you the mere sum of £10.

The cost-of-living crisis is slowly seeping into all elements of our lives at the moment, whether it’s in the soaring price of a simple coffee or the fact that bills seem to be making a larger dent in our bank accounts every week. I’m not sure how this will impact restaurants and the simple joy of going out for a meal. It is one of life’s greatest pleasures, and one of its grandest luxuries. And, as we are all very aware, luxuries are the first thing to go for many of us when we feel the squeeze.

I imagine it will make a lot of people cut down on how many times they splurge on a restaurant. If you were only going to have one meal out in a month, you would be hard-pressed to do better than The Water House Project. I was lucky enough to join a wonderful group of people there for a lunch showcasing its new spring menu last week. There are few things I love more than engaging company and good food and this meal provided on both fronts.

Culinary innovation went hand-in-hand with beautiful ingredients, like charred calçots, cooked until soft and slightly sweet, served in a slick of sauce rife with the tang and light nuttiness of Lincolnshire poacher cheese. Or St Austell mussels, slurped up in a warm broth enlivened by the acidity of preserved lemon. But more than anything, you know the money you do spend is going into a place that truly deserves it, and to a team that really seems to care.

Or maybe it’ll make us all turn back to home dining again, opting for restaurant alternatives like Dishpatch that don’t leave the wallet as light as a meal out, and allow you to drink alcohol at store-bought prices. My lovely mum has a tendency to do spontaneous and deeply thoughtful things and she surprised us with an Ottolenghi Dishpatch box last week. I always forget that they require you to use basically every pot, pan and serving bowl you own, but it’s worth it for such a great spread. The Ottolenghi Bookshelf Mezze is a good’un, and had more than enough food for two, with thoughtful, stereotypically Ottolenghi pairings like gem lettuce with aubergine yoghurt and chilli shatta, and roasted beetroot with goat’s cheese and hazelnuts.

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But for the majority of the population I think it’ll force a move towards budget basics and freezer favourites. While food writers can’t do much to encourage the government to do better, we can help make wallet-friendly cooking seem a little more exciting. I think it’s really easy for recipe writing to get caught up in organic ingredients, well-reared meat and fancy legumes (and I myself am a huge advocate for rethinking how our consumption habits can encourage unsustainable food chains) but at the end of the day right now, for many people, these things are simply out of reach.

As we draw towards pay day my partner and I have been mining the contents of the freezer and have come up with some surprisingly good meals. This week’s winner was fish finger tacos – seriously basic, low-fuss and, most importantly, cheap. And they were tasty, too – breadcrumbed fish fingers have, in my opinion, the perfect structural integrity for a taco filling.

It can be hard for food to remain an excitement when for many people right now it’s a source of immense stress. I know this column usually centres around the incredible places I get to eat as part of this job, but I think it’s remiss to pretend life is all michelin stars, trips overseas and endless jaunts to restaurants that, for many people right now, simply aren’t accessible. The cost-of-living crisis is already impacting everyone and the government needs to take action. The answer is not in telling already overworked people to pick up second jobs or attacking Jack Monroe for simply trying to help people feed their families on a budget. It’s in real, tangible change, government support and relief for those people that need it most.

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