The lost art of wasting nothing

Joanna Dobson introduces the second extract from Incredible! and explains why it addresses topical concerns about food waste…

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Grafted fruit trees growing at Incredible Farm, the social enterprise just outside Todmorden that trains future market gardeners.

Food waste is in the news again, with the latest report from the Waste and Resources Action Programme showing that we in the UK throw away an average of £60 worth of food every month – the equivalent of almost a meal a day.

That report comes just a few weeks after Tesco revealed more mind-boggling statistics about the amount of their food that gets chucked out, such as 40 per cent of their apples, almost half of all bakery products and a staggering 68 per cent of bagged salads.

In other cultures, such profligacy would be completely unacceptable. Indeed, in our country it is only relatively recently that such high degrees of waste have become the norm.

Rachael Babar, a supporter of Incredible Edible Todmorden, the local food movement that’s changing the way people think about what they eat and where it comes from, carried out some fascinating interviews with older residents of the town, asking them about their memories of food and growing and revealing an attitude that is very far from the buy-it-and-bin-it culture of today.

Some of those memories appear in Joanna Dobson’s book about Incredible Edible, which she has written with one of the movement’s co-founders, Pam Warhurst.

In the extract below, lifelong Todmorden resident Barbara Diggle talks about growing up in the 1930s and about the amazing skills of her grandmother, who knew how to use every last scrap of food to feed her family at a time when nobody could afford to waste anything.


Every Saturday, while still quite a young child, Barbara went to Todmorden market with two carpet bags for her granny’s shopping. Money was tight and Barbara’s memories of those trips are dominated by the different ways she tried to get the most out of every last penny. She had strict instructions not to start shopping until the superintendent rang a bell to indicate that it was nearly closing time. Since there was no refrigeration, the traders had to sell everything as fast as possible and that was when Barbara closed in for the bargains. Bananas were seven for sixpence during the week, but on Saturday afternoon she could snap up a bunch for tuppence. Pie meat was sold by the handful and to this day she remembers that the butcher with the biggest hands was called Tommy Burton. She also had to ask the butcher for a sheep’s ‘jimmy’, the local name for a sheep’s head.

Finally, Barbara would drag the carpet bags full of food back up the hill to her home where her granny would be waiting with a pot of milky tea and a freshly baked pie. ‘It would be a meat and tatty pie or something like that, a pasty with onion in. It could have cheese in if I was lucky. It could be a cheese and onion pie. I would sit down with my back to the fire, draw the table up to the fire so that I would be warm in the winter time, take my shoes off and wipe my feet and she used to give me a nice meal and I would have my milky tea.’

If Barbara had managed to get a sheep’s jimmy, then her grandmother would use every part of it to provide meals for the family. The tongue was cooked in a side oven over the coal fire all night and for half of the next day until it was tender. ‘We would skin it whilst it was still warm. You can’t skin a tongue when it has gone cold; it sticks like glue. Then of course we would round it and put it on a saucer with a plate on the top and a flat iron on top of that and that would shape it and it would press it overnight. Then if anybody came to tea we could slice it off and put it between thin bread and butter.’

If someone in the family was sick they would be offered the sheep’s brains, poached in milk and butter and served on toast as a delicacy. If not, the brains were simply boiled in salt and water. The rest of the head was also boiled until the meat was tender and ‘falling off the bone’. Once the meat had been served, Barbara’s granny would cook up the skull with vegetables from the garden, and pulses to make a thick, nourishing soup.  Finally she would render any left over fat. This could be used for other recipes, or even clarified to act as a seal for pots of preserved fruit.

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Part of the work of Incredible Edible involves running classes to help people learn skills that are in danger of lost, skills that we all need to recover as spiralling fuel costs and increasingly unpredictable weather patterns mean we can no longer rely on cheap food imports.

They haven’t quite got on to sheep’s heads yet, but so far more than 1,000 people in Todmorden have attended classes on subjects such as preserving, fruit tree grafting and sausage making.

The Incredible Edible movement is spreading up and down the country and even across the world, with more than 50 projects in the UK and over 300 in France alone. You can be part of that story too.

Next: Trees for health – and the future…

Previous: Mary’s story: the power of food

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