Bargain hunt: dairy

Categories: Expert guidance

Tom Hunt, author of The Natural Cook, uses high quality ingredients to create a balanced meal for under £10, focusing on a different food group each time. This month: dairy

If there’s one thing Borough Market is known for, it’s cheese and dairy—mountains of the stuff. Bill Olglethorpe’s raclette stall in the Green Market never fails to have a 20-person strong queue at any time of the day—unsurprising when you smell those wafts of pungent aroma and see the gooey tsunami of cheese being scraped onto his customers’ plates.

Bill studied agriculture in Sweden and worked at Neal’s Yard Dairy before starting to make his own cheese in Bermondsey at Kappacasein. Chatting with him about my article, we came up with the idea of making yoghurt from scratch. Make it yourself and it will cost no more than the price of a carton of milk, and you’ll have a wonderful breakfast in the morning for very little work.

The truth is: good quality dairy isn’t cheap. And it shouldn’t be! However, dairy is something that it’s easy to skimp on—an everyday expense that can quickly add up, and one where cheap products are widely available.

I spent the day at Borough Market talking to the stallholders about their dairy products, looking for tips about what makes good dairy, why we should choose to eat it over conventionally farmed dairy and how we can cook with it on a budget.

Adverse conditions
So what is the true cost of low quality dairy production? A lot of conventional milk comes from cattle that every year are kept in sheds for six months or more, fed on grain instead of their natural diet of pasture and silage. Cramped conditions require the cattle to be given routine courses of antibiotics to keep them healthy and producing milk in adverse conditions. The antibiotics contaminate the milk and deplete the effectiveness they have on human disease. And feeding our animals grain is an inefficient use of a food that has its own list of environmental issues attached to it.

We mustn’t forget that animals are an important part of sustainable agriculture—when rotated with crops they prevent soil erosion and fertilise the ground with their manure. Cattle that are 100 per cent pasture-fed and have access to fields for all or most of the year are able to maintain their natural behaviour, produce a better working environment and help create a more profitable business. Their milk contains high quantities of omega 3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid, which are beneficial for our health and can help prevent disease. Above all, pasture-fed animals have a better way of life and produce tastier milk than those kept on industrialised farms.

So how do we afford the extra expense of buying better quality milk and dairy products that have been 100 per cent pasture-fed? The obvious answer is to eat less, while buying better quality. But beyond that, there are other ways to eat high quality dairy on a budget.

Waste reduction
I see waste reduction as essential if we’re going to have the budget to buy higher welfare ingredients. Dairy spoils easily, so it needs to be stored properly and used in good time. Milk is best stored at colder temperatures: keep it at the bottom of your fridge in a drawer where it should be coldest. Cheese should be well wrapped in parchment or wax paper, and yoghurt kept with a sealed lid. Even if a dairy product does get a bit old it can often still be cooked to make a delicious rescue recipe. Use sour milk in scones or soda bread, and grate your leftover cheeses to make a homity pie or four-cheese lasagne, and cut mould off if it occurs.

I’ve created three recipes, all of which include dairy used sparingly on a budget—together, they cost less than £10. The tortilla is large and should leave some leftovers for brunch the next day. The homemade yoghurt goes well with the roasted asparagus and turnips—I hope it will become a habit for you to make yoghurt from scratch, just as it has for me.